International Outrage Grows Over Nigeria Kidnapping

Nigerian officials are offering a $300,000 reward for anyone who can help locate the more than 200 girls who were kidnapped from school. BBC journalist Tomi Oladipo shares the latest from Nigeria.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. We start today with a situation that's captured the attention of the international community. I'm talking about the kidnapping of more than 200 girls at a Nigerian boarding school a few weeks ago. A militant Muslim terrorist group Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.

Earlier this week, we talked about the growing pressure from activists and leaders in the Nigerian government to do more to find the girls. And this is bad timing for Nigeria since the World Economic Forum is now taking place in the country's capital. Here to tell us more about these updates and what could be at stake for Nigeria's economic future is BBC correspondent Tomi Oladipo. He's in Abuja. Tomi, thanks for joining us.

TOMI OLADIPO: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: What is the latest update on this situation? I understand the United States is offering aid. Are there any other countries that might step in?

OLADIPO: There's a lot of help coming in from around the world. The U.K., China, France and a few other nations are offering support. Mostly intelligence, in terms of helping, you know, survey the area and try to find the girls. There isn't much in terms of people actually sending troops down to the area. But a lot of support has come in in terms of logistics and helping to empower the Nigerian authorities to find these girls.

HEADLEE: Although I understand there's a push to label Boko Haram as having an association with Al-Qaida, which would of course involve some kind of military response eventually, right?

OLADIPO: Certainly, but so far I don't think that has been established formally to say that Boko Haram and Al-Qaida are directly linked. Of course they have very similar ideologies, but at the same time, we cannot prove that they - what the links are, if there are any between them.

HEADLEE: Abuja has been basically shutdown for the World Economic Forum. Is this a topic of discussion among people who've gathered there?

OLADIPO: Certainly. I mean, there are lots of Nigerians, in fact, here in Abuja, who are carrying out protests, similar protests you must have seen elsewhere, including there in Washington and elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.

There are those protests happening here every day. And so people are talking about this, people are asking why the Nigerian government, for starters, did not take this issue seriously until this pressure came from around the world.

HEADLEE: And what's the answer to that? Do we know why the Nigerian government seemingly did not put a lot of effort into finding these girls?

OLADIPO: Well, the Nigerian government - I mean, we have to look at this holistically, not just about the girls. This Boko Haram crisis has been going on for, you know, four to five years right now. And the Nigerian government has, you know, declared a state of emergency in some parts of the country which are affected by the violence. But there's not much to be seen about the effect of this.

And so the issue of the kidnapping of these girls that have brought this into the limelight and has put extra pressure on the government. And a lot of people are saying what if the world didn't speak out? What would've happened? Would the government have kept quiet? The government has defended itself and said, you know, these are - the issues of terror are certainly new to the country and it's only just trying to get to grips with it. But at the same time, it's claiming that it's winning the war, but, you know, the (inaudible) not evident.

HEADLEE: Boko Haram also operates in neighboring countries as well. What does the African community and the leaders in other African countries have to say about the situation?

OLADIPO: Well, of course there is widespread condemnation of the Boko Haram situation, you know, the Boko Haram insecurity and the killings and the kidnappings, by all these countries. Nigeria borders Niger, Chad and Cameroon - at least from that end of things. And those countries have been, you know, speaking out again and also condemning the violence, but they're not as widely affected by the problem as Nigeria is. Niger, for example, which is just north of Nigeria, has a U.S. base and it's possible that, you know, a lot of speculation that there could be drones used from there, U.S. drones that could come into Nigeria and help in the search.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the search for more than 200 girls who were kidnapped at a Nigeria boarding school. And we're speaking with BBC correspondent Tomi Oladipo. He is in Abuja right now. I said more than 200 girls, but as I understand, perhaps as many as 50 of them actually escaped and have made it back to safety. Is that accurate?

OLADIPO: That is correct. And we've been speaking to people who've spoken to these girls. And they've been telling their stories about how they escaped. They didn't all escape, you know, as a big group. They escaped in small groups. Some of them, while they were being taken away from their town, others escaped from the camp where they had been taken to that day. You know, telling the stories of the way they were treated and, you know, the stories they were told - that if their families came to rescue them, they would be killed. So those are, you know, some of the stories we're hearing.

But apart from those 50, there's still, you know, many more. And apart from this large group that was kidnapped about three weeks ago, these kidnappings have been going on for a long time now in much smaller groups. But I believe this large group is what brought this to the limelight.

HEADLEE: Tell me about the leader of Boko Haram because I understand he came into power in, say, 2009 when the founder of the group was killed. And correct me if I'm wrong, but that is really when Boko Haram's strategies took a much more violent and almost terrorist-like turn.

OLADIPO: Boko Haram has been operating as a very - as a radical sect in the northeastern city of Maiduguri. And, you know, there was a lot of concern about the radical preachings of a man called Mohammed Yusuf. Now, there's a bit of complication - I wouldn't go into it because the story's a bit complicated - but Mohammed Yusuf was arrested by the military, by the army, and handed over to the police. And somehow while he was in police custody, he was killed. And from then was when the violence began to escalate. And that was 2009, and since then, it's just been going on and seems to have no end in sight.

HEADLEE: And what kind of danger does this pose to the stability of the government?

OLADIPO: Well, Boko Haram is determined to overthrow the government. That's what they say they want to do. But so far, they're only in the northeast of the country. But clearly, the violence cannot be ignored. And that's what the Nigerian government has been forced to admit, that the problems are bigger than they make them sound.

So what happens now is that the Nigerian government is having to admit that it needs support from elsewhere in the world. And that's where the U.S. and the U.K. and all these other world powers come in because this problem could escalate. If you look in the North - Northeast in particular - these places are very poor. There is massive unemployment there. And so it's very easy for these radical sects to call people and pay them to carry out attacks for them. So that is where Nigeria finds itself today.

HEADLEE: And what exactly is at stake for the Nigerian government economically? Obviously, this was supposed to be a point of pride, the fact that the World Economic Forum was being held in Abuja. Clearly, it's an oil-rich country. And yet they now have world leaders saying that there's an economic danger, that they would be loath to invest, perhaps, in Nigeria because of the danger from Boko Haram.

OLADIPO: Certainly, and Nigeria has just been named, as well, as Africa's top economy. So there is a lot to offer. There are a lot of opportunities for investment, for businesses. But which investors would want to come into a country where they don't feel safe, and that is the problem right now. And so - but the Nigerian government has, for a long time, been trying to divert people's attentions from the ongoing insurgency and telling them, you know, you can come to the rest of the country and invest and carry on.

But as the violence spreads - for example, here in the capital, Abuja, there have been two bombs, you know, since April that have hit this capital. So if people cannot feel safe in the capital city on its own, then, you know, a lot of people would wonder, why should they come in the first place?

HEADLEE: So what is the response of the Nigerian people? I've seen all the coverage of the protests. I've seen the women and men marching the street, carrying signs, demanding that the government bring back their girls. But in terms of specific demands in the Nigerian government, what happens after this crisis is over?

OLADIPO: Well, that's a difficult one because so many Nigerians have been disappointed by their government. Their government has failed to deliver on promises, and Nigerians have grown to live and exist without their government.

You know, in Nigeria, you live - you provide yourself your own electricity, your own water, your own security. And to be honest, from what I've seen I don't think many Nigerians will be looking to the government for anything beyond just preventing these kinds of major, tragic incidents from happening and coming to them.

HEADLEE: There's a large portion of, say, British people and foreigners who live especially in the southern part of Nigeria. Are they basically safe from all of this turmoil?

OLADIPO: Well, I mean, if you go to the major centers, like Lagos, which is in the south. Lagos is bustling. It's growing. There's so much going on. A lot of the large global financial companies and banks and all of those are moving into Lagos. So, yes, there is a lot if you say you want to avoid the violence.

But at the same time, a lot of people feel, for how long will the south of Nigeria remain safe? Because the South is going through the same things the North is going through. It's the same unemployment. It's the same underdevelopment. You know, so how long will this fester? Well, it possibly might not be the form of Islamist extremism. It could in the form of something else.

Not too long ago, we had the Niger Delta militants who were terrorizing the oil-rich Niger Delta. And they used to kidnap oil workers. That happened for many years. So it could be a cycle that just comes up in different forms.

HEADLEE: Well, let's bring it back to the girls right before we end here, Tomi. What do we know about what Boko Haram does with these girls? It's been posited that perhaps they're going to put them into the sex trade. They could be killed. How have other girls or even young boys been treated when they've been captured by this group?

OLADIPO: Well, unfortunately, there's not been many stories about that. By that I mean that there have not been many stories of these people kidnapped who have come back to be able to tell what happened to them. So we can't really - I mean, all we can just do is speculate about what happens to them.

It is possible, as Boko Haram said, that they will be sold off to be married to people across the border - across in Chad and Cameroon. You know, they could be taken there. Obviously, people marrying them might not know - might not even know that these people have been kidnapped and brought in this form. So it's not exactly clear, the fate of these girls, as we speak. But it's certainly not looking good.

HEADLEE: Tomi Oladipo is in Abuja. He's a BBC correspondent there. Thank you so much.

OLADIPO: You're welcome.

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