Three weeks after the kidnapping of close to 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by the armed group Boko Haram, an organic and growing protest movement has put the Abuja government under a microscope and ignited a national debate about whether the Nigerian state can provide adequate protection for its citizens.
Reports on Monday suggested that Nigeria’s First Lady, Patience Jonathan, personally intervened against leaders of the protest movement, claiming the demonstrators should be arrested and blame themselves if anything happened to them.
Separately on Monday, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau acknowledged that the group had taken the girls and said they would be sold. “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah,” Shekau said, according to Agence France-Presse, which reported that they obtained a video from the group.
The reports were twin PR disasters for President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, which has already been roundly criticized in the aftermath of the abductions for perceived incompetence and foot-dragging in the search to find and return the kidnapped girls.
At least 276 young women were kidnapped April 15 from their school in the town of Chibok in Borno state in Nigeria’s northeast, the heart of the Boko Haram movement. Boko Haram is still holding 223 of the girls, according to Nigerian authorities.
The group, whose name in the local Hausa language roughly means “Western education is forbidden,” has used the kidnapping of schoolgirls as a tactic several times in the past, and has embarked upon a full scale anti-government bombing campaign as it seeks to carve out its own Islamic fundamentalist fiefdom in Nigeria’s north.
A day after the April kidnappings, Nigerian authorities claimed that the number of abducted was just over 100 young women, and that most had already been rescued. But that number later rose, and the military was forced to recant its statement and acknowledge that it had not rescued any of the girls. It took more than two weeks for President Jonathan to meet with all of the stakeholders, including security, school and state officials.
Since the abductions, protests demanding the return of the girls and more government action have sprung up around Nigeria, a rarity in a country not often marked by street demonstrations.
“Protests are indeed a change in the dynamic. It’s not a country known for protests and marches,” said Adotei Akwei, an expert at Amnesty International USA.
Those protests have seen a parallel wellspring of online activism, with the #bringbackourgirls hashtag on Twitter becoming a global rallying cry for the missing girls.
“What’s very positive, amid the desperation and the horror, is the way in which ordinary Nigerians from across the country have referred to ‘our girls’ and claimed them as sisters,” said Jeremy Weate, a writer and Nigeria expert.
That the girls’ captured in Chibok were both Christian and Muslim further complicates the picture of a society often viewed externally in quite black and white terms.
“What unites Nigerians now is a call for a much smarter and responsive form of governance,” Weate said.
One aspect of that needed accountability to many Nigeria watchers is a government that more frankly acknowledges and tackles not only the battle against Boko Haram, but the capability and corruption of its own military institutions.
The recent crisis has been “a very huge embarrassment for the government, in the sense that is has given the impression that it was making progress in the counter-insurgency campaign [against the militants],” said Nnamdi Obasi, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
While Obasi said the government certainly understands the threat from the militant group, its on the ground efforts “raise questions about the credibility and effectiveness of the military.”
“I think in a sense it’s a watershed moment,” Obasi said. “Probably for the first time people are realizing the enormity of the threat.”
As many as 1,500 people have been killed in 2014 as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency – compared to approximately 3,600 people between 2010 and 2013 – with the United Nations estimating that as many as 70 percent of the victims have been women and children.
About the Nigerian military’s response to Boko Haram, Akwei said not only have “there been no prosecutions” against the militant group’s members in the last four years, but that the “blunt approach” favored by the Nigerian authorities has occasioned a number of human rights violations against civilians with “no investigation and no accountability.”
“I think the federal government is only now – in the past few weeks – waking up to the true seriousness of Boko Haram. What was previously dismissed as an anti-Jonathan campaign in a far flung corner of the country the president likely has little direct knowledge of is now being seen for what it is: a war within Nigeria that is easily capable of extending across the country,” added Weate.
But for all of Boko Haram’s widely condemned campaign against schools and women, observers also note that the whole affair has also shone an uncomfortable spotlight into how the rest of Nigerian society treats women.
“Nigerian women are already second-class citizens in their own country, according to the Nigerian Constitution,” said Weate.”
According to U.K.-based domestic violence charity The Haven Wolverhampton, more than two-thirds of Nigerian women experience physical, sexual and psychological violence at the hands of their husbands.
Only 7 percent of the members of parliament are women, according to a Chatham House report from 2013 (PDF). And in 2008, only 22 percent of girls in northern Nigeria were in school, local group Girl Child Concerns reported.
Ideally, Akwei said, the crisis and the resulting protests may force Nigerian society to more forthrightly confront the status of women in society, and launch “an internal conservation of rights and how women should be treated.”
While observers have pointed to the embarrassment that the Jonathan government is likely to face as it hosts a World Economic Forum event in Abuja, the capital, between May 7-9, the ramifications for the government are likely to go beyond short-term humiliation, with presidential elections looming in 2015.
If “he [Jonathan] doesn’t step up, it’s difficult to see how even with a huge war chest, he will be successful in next year’s elections,” said Weate. “If he is successful, he’ll need to adopt a completely different stance on Boko Haram,”
“I think we’re already there,” said Obasi, about the point at which the last three weeks could have adverse electoral consequences for Jonathan.
“There’s a feeling that he’s failed in dealing with the problems in the north,” he said, bolstered by the fact that two governors of northern states have publicly stated that Jonathan’s government is not competent.
“[And] there’s already a very strong body of opinion that says the president is not up to the task,” said Obasi.