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22 January 2015

John Simpson on Nigeria: why is Bring Back Our Girls not the rallying cry it once was?

Boko Haram now controls more towns in Nigeria and an election is drawing near.

By John Simpson

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t seem to have heard the slogan “Bring Back Our Girls” much recently. Last April, if you recall, it was everywhere. Michelle Obama, wearing an appropriately solemn face, held up a placard bearing those words. The CNN news anchor Christiane Amanpour thrust a similar placard into the hands of a startled David Cameron live on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show and he obediently said he agreed. A variety of C-listers queued up to join a campaign that looked wholesome and was surely liable to succeed.

But absolutely nothing happened. Now, as the presidential election in Nigeria draws near, the kidnapped schoolgirls from the north-eastern town of Chibok scarcely get a mention, not even in Nigeria. Maybe it’s understandable, because it doesn’t look as though they will ever be released. Abubakar Shekau, the wild-eyed leader of Boko Haram, the ferocious group that captured them, dished them out to his fighters as sex slaves and many are now said to be pregnant. The great majority of the girls, being Christians, have been forcibly converted to Islam. A few have managed to escape but unknown hundreds of girls from other towns in Nigeria’s north-east have since been kidnapped as well.

The Nigerian army, which notionally has an annual budget of roughly £4bn, has been virtually powerless against Boko Haram. (A lot of the £4bn, of course, never reaches the army at all; it only gets as far as the private bank accounts of a variety of crooked officials.)

Last November, against the run of play, Boko Haram suffered a major defeat: they were chased out of the important northern town of Mubi, which they had renamed Madinatul Islam, the “City of Islam”. But it wasn’t the Nigerian army who liberated Mubi, it was a couple of hundred ferocious vigilantes armed with bows and arrows, machetes and spears (see Contents, page five). Having encountered some of these characters some months ago, I can well understand why Boko Haram stampeded to get away. The vigilantes make Abubakar Shekau look thoughtful and gentle. The Nigerian army ought to hire them full-time.

That was the first defeat inflicted on Boko Haram since August. But the setback didn’t last long; since then, its fighters have captured the towns of Gombi, Hong and Chibok itself. Neither the army nor the government has the faintest idea what to do.

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A few weeks ago, a senior government figure announced that a deal had been done to release the girls and a ceasefire was about to begin. Then nothing, absolutely nothing, happened. The episode seems to have been entirely illusory.

President Goodluck Jonathan has never been interested in launching a major campaign to get the Chibok girls back. It was a long time before he even got round to meeting any of their relatives, and when the young Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai flew to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, in the hope of talking it over with him, it looked for a time as though he was going to refuse to see her.

Why the lack of interest? Jonathan himself is a Christian, he’s a decent kind of man and he’s got a couple of daughters. You might think this would be a cause he would embrace enthusiastically. But he is also a realist. He knows the army in its present shape isn’t up to the job of winning north-eastern Nigeria back. He’s unwilling to start a specifically Christian, anti-Muslim campaign, given that Nigeria is divided pretty much equally between the two religions. And his chief appeal is to the south, which has its own problems and isn’t much interested in the north anyway.

So he has succumbed to a perfectly natural, if not praiseworthy, temptation: hoping that everyone will forget the unfortunate girls, since he can’t do anything to get them back. So far, this approach has been depressingly successful. It’s not that Nigerians don’t care about the disastrous spread of Islamist terrorism across the north-east of their country; it’s that, like Jonathan, they can’t see what can be done about it. And so the issue of the girls hasn’t surfaced in the campaign. There was one awful, tactless moment when Jonathan and his vice-president, Namadi Sambo, appropriated the girls’ slogan and issued an election poster that read “Bring Back Goodluck and Sambo” but these were quickly taken down.

Jonathan’s main election rival is a former general of 72, Muhammadu Buhari, who is standing for the presidency for the fourth time. Buhari held the job once before, back in 1983, when on the last day of the year he staged a military coup against the elected Second Republic. Twenty months later he was ousted in turn by General Babangida. He gained a reputation as a tough fighter against corruption; and given that corruption is now the one big issue in political life, Buhari could do well.

Last year, if you remember, the governor of Nigeria’s central bank was shoved out after revealing that £12bn had vanished from the public finances. Jonathan angrily denies accusations that he is a crook, but there is no question Nigeria has become even more corrupt during his time in office, if such a thing were possible.

In this vast, seething, tumultuous country of 174 million, people have plenty of other things to worry about than the fate of a few hundred girls. So do Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari. That, in its way, is understandable.

But what about all those worthy people such as Michelle Obama, who were so worked up about the fate of the girls only a few months ago? Should they meekly let them pass out of the world’s consciousness quite so easily?

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor