Schoolgirl abductions reveal disarray at heart of Nigerian security system
Confusion during and following raid points to infiltration of military by rebels
Members of civil society groups protest in Abuja against the delay in securing the release of the abducted schoolgirls who were kidnapped more than two weeks ago. Photograph: Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde
Just before midnight on April 14th in Chibok, northeast Nigeria, pastor Enoch Mark’s phone rang. Half asleep, it took him a while to make sense of the voice talking rapidly down the line. Eventually four words penetrated: “Boko Haram are coming.”
The caller, a friend in a neighbouring village, said a convoy of trucks and 4x4s bristling with armed insurgents was heading his way. At first, Mark did not panic. It was for such contingencies that 15 soldiers were stationed in Chibok, a remote settlement in one of three Nigerian provinces that have been living under a state of emergency since May last year. But his fear and frustration grew as repeated calls to the military post failed to connect.
He was on the sixth attempt when an explosion shattered the window panes. “My wife and I woke up the children and started running into the bush,” he recalled. “As we were running, we saw that they had already started burning houses. It was a horrible sight.”
The two parents and five children huddled together as they watched the flames spread to a soundtrack of gunshots. Across town, another of the family’s children was less fortunate. By the time the fires subsided, Mark’s eldest daughter was among more than 300 teenage girls carted away from Chibok government secondary school by the extremists.
Through interviews with witnesses, schoolchildren and security officials, it was possible to piece together the security lapses that allowed the militants to launch a five-hour assault while encountering barely any resistance.
The military says it knows where the girls are being kept, but insiders say several rescue attempts have been thwarted by tipoffs from their own numbers. The kidnapping and ensuing confusion appear to point to widespread infiltration of the military by Boko Haram supporters. Some security sources say another mass abduction is inevitable.
When the truckloads of heavily armed militants rolled into Chibok, they split into three groups of at least 25 each, witnesses said. One column headed to the local government secretariat and began firing rocket-propelled grenades at the dozen or so soldiers stationed there. Another set off into the town centre, and a third approached the school.
Earlier that day, 530 pupils had registered to sit their final exams there, according to a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity. Some were pupils from neighbouring schools, attending the only one open for miles around after repeated attacks by Boko Haram forced mass closures. The group, whose name means “western education is forbidden”, opposes non-Koranic education, particularly for girls.
When the gunshots began, Lydia Togu (15), an art student, was shaken awake by her elder sister Soraya, who whispered for her to get dressed quickly. The two hurried out to the courtyard where other confused and crying girls were filtering out.
“We saw five men come into the compound wearing soldiers’ uniforms. We were even happy because we thought they were military men who had come to keep us safe,” Lydia said, speaking softly as she recounted what followed next.
When the girls had all gathered together, the men began shooting into the air and shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), she said. They raided the school supply stores and then forced the girls at gunpoint to march for an hour into the forest where trucks were waiting. “I thought my end had come,” Lydia said.
At the same time, Lydia’s father, Yakub Kabu, was in another part of the forest, where he had taken refuge with a group of people including soldiers assigned to the town. Kabu asked the soldiers who was protecting the schoolchildren.
“They told us they had a gun battle with the Boko Haram attackers but they ran out of ammunition. They were overpowered by them, there were around 100 of them who were using superior firepower and rocket-propelled grenades,” Kabu said. The men had thrown their rifles into the bush and joined the fleeing crowds. There was no one to chase the militants as they herded the girls into the forest.
The following morning, Adam (not his real name), a Nigerian corporal who has served since the state of emergency was imposed in Borno state, Boko Haram’s heartland, awoke to the news of the mass abductions. He was unsurprised, and his cynicism has grown the longer the search for the girls has gone on.
“How can 200 girls move around undetected for nearly three weeks? There is no doubt in my mind that I am lying down in the same camp, eating in the same mess hall, and fighting next to some people who may be wearing the same Nigerian army uniform but who have been brainwashed and see this as a religious war,” he said.
Lydia Togu, who escaped with her sister after jumping down from a truck, echoed those thoughts: “When the Boko Haram were rounding us up, I saw one man from the village I recognised. Now I’m scared of everyone. I don’t know who to trust,” she said.
The events have revealed astonishing disarray at the heart of Nigeria’s vast security branches. An official response from the president, Goodluck Jonathan, took almost two weeks. This week the leader of the women’s arm of the governing party suggested the abduction hadn’t really happened and the claims were a conspiracy. “Who saw it happen?” Kema Chikwe asked journalists, before demanding from parents a list of names and photographs of the missing children.
“We don’t understand why the soldiers were not able to radio for help,” said one Chibok elder, speaking on condition of anonymity. The militants stopped in at least two more villages, where they looted and razed houses, according to girls who escaped from the trucks. The escapees say it was several days before they were questioned by intelligence officials.
Some parents say their daughters kept in touch with them by phone for almost a week after they disappeared, but attempts to report their locations to the military went unheeded.
Abba Moro, the interior minister, said the military was aware of the girls’ movements.
“This is not information the military can disclose, as they need to keep their own plans close to their chest. In a situation like this, the first consideration is the safety of the girls. We cannot just rush in and bombard their camps because definitely the safety of the girls will be compromised,” he said.
A senior security source said the government was in talks with the captors. “At the moment, all options are on the table. It’s clear that military force alone cannot solve the problem, and there’s a need to have dialogue too.”
The official said the country’s satellite imagery database had not been updated since the 1980s – a key hindrance in the ability to track the extremists’ movements across wide, isolated tracts of desert and forest.
Yesterday the number of students thought to have been abducted climbed to at least 300, amid continuing confusion over how many girls were present during the attack. A school official said many parents had not been told they had to formally register their children as missing.
The botched handling of the case – which has come in a three-week period where two Boko Haram bombings have killed almost 100 in the capital, Abuja – has been an embarrassment for the government. It prompted midweek protests in major cities, with hundreds braving a heavy police presence in a nation that returned to democracy less than a decade ago.
– (Guardian service)