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Nigeria Schoolgirl Rescue Could Be Tough, Despite US Help


A protester brandishes a wooden stick during a rally in front of the Nigerian embassy in northwest Washington, May 6, 2014, protesting the kidnapping of nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls from a school in the remote northeast of Nigeria three weeks ago.

A protester brandishes a wooden stick during a rally in front of the Nigerian embassy in northwest Washington, May 6, 2014, protesting the kidnapping of nearly 300 teenage schoolgirls from a school in the remote northeast of Nigeria three weeks ago.

It's what the families of the more than 250 missing schoolgirls have been pleading for since Boko Haram took the girls on April 14.

"If rescue operation is somehow difficult for the government, if they can't do it, why don't they invite specialists from the outside to come into the nation? They can help," said a man whose sister is still missing.

Nigeria accepted U.S. assistance Tuesday to help find and rescue the girls. The U.S. State Department says it is sending a team of experts to Abuja that includes U.S. military personnel and law enforcement officials trained in investigations and hostage negotiations.

This is the not the first time the U.S. has offered to help Nigeria in the fight against Boko Haram militants who claimed responsibility for the kidnapping - but analysts say the Nigerian government may be becoming more open to outside help.

When asked why it took three weeks after the kidnapping to get U.S. assistance underway, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration has been engaged from the beginning, and implied that it met some initial resistance from the Jonathan government.

"The government had its own set of strategies, if you will, in the beginning," he said. "And you can offer and talk, but you can't 'do' if a government has its own sense of how it's proceeding. I think now the complications that have arisen have convinced everybody that there needs to be a greater effort. And it will begin immediately."

Wake-up call

The abduction of the schoolgirls has been a wake-up call for the country and the world but not for the people of Borno state.

Hundreds of people are killed each month in northeastern Nigeria as a result of the now five-year insurgency by militant Islamist sect Boko Haram.

Local authorities say the military is "outmatched and outgunned." Two deadly bombings at a bus depot outside the capital, Abuja, in the past month have underlined the growing threat.

Nigerian presidential spokesman Reuben Abati indicated Tuesday that U.S. assistance could extend beyond the search and rescue operation for the girls.

"Kerry assured President Jonathan that the United States is wholly committed to giving Nigeria all required support and assistance to save the abducted girls and bring the reign of terror unleashed on parts of the country by Boko Haram to an end," he said.

But don't expect a repeat of the 2013 French-led military intervention to Mali. Analysts say it's unlikely the U.S. would embark on that kind of intervention in Africa, and it is equally unlikely that Nigeria, the regional giant that it is, would accept that kind of intrusion.

The U.S. military focuses on providing logistical support and training to African countries. AFRICOM tells VOA that Nigeria has participated in the training since 2005.

But foreign military assistance is not a magic bullet.

Washington-based Africa analyst for the CNA Corporation, Lesley Anne Warner, conducts studies for the U.S. armed forces on U.S. military engagement in Africa.

"U.S. assistance cannot really control Nigerian government behavior, so if the Nigerian government doesn't change their approach, then our assistance is really going to have a limited impact," she said. "If you have the confluence of our assistance coming in trying to help them to develop a less military focused counter-insurgency strategy, then there's a chance that it might work."

She says Nigerian authorities must move away from the heavy-handed military response that has fed the insurgency and alienated the population.

Many in northern Nigeria agree.

When it comes to rescuing the schoolgirls, experts say it's going to be tough even with U.S. assistance.

Militants have reportedly divided the girls up in various camps, and any assault on the camps could put their lives in danger.
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