How Much Can The U.S. Do For Kidnapped Nigerian Girls?

The U.S. is advising Nigeria in the search for the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. But Africa expert Paul Lubeck tells NPR's Scott Simon he doubts the Nigerian government can make good use of the aid.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. More than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls remain missing after being kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The Nigerian government has faced criticism for being slow to react to the crime. And this week, the U.S. said it would send a small team of advisers to Nigeria as will the U.K., China and France. President Goodluck Jonathan thanked the international community at the World Economic Forum on Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN: I believe that the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of end of terror in Nigeria.

SIMON: But many others are not so confident that military aid's going to be any kind of turning point. Paul Lubeck studies extremist groups in Africa. He's professor emeritus at the University of California at Santa Cruz and he's now at Johns Hopkins. Thanks very much for joining us in our studios.

PAUL LUBECK: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Is there anything the U.S. or any force on earth can do that you can see that will get these young women back to their families in the next few days or weeks?

LUBECK: It's nice that the Americans are going to send people there, but it's entirely symbolic in my view. Let's just look at what Boko Haram probably did - they're next to a large forest and the forest is next to a mountain range called the Mandara Mountains. They have undoubtedly taken these girls and put them into small groups. There are caves up there. They probably moved them into Cameroon, into parts of Niger, it would be extremely difficult for even the most competent special forces to make a difference in a territory this large.

There is very little in the way of local government institutions because of the impact of Boko Haram and also because of the lassitude in the Jonathan administration and the disorganization of the military and the enormous human rights abuses that have been inflicted on the population by the Nigerian military. Unless they deal with their reputation and the fear the population has from the security forces, there's not going to be a major change.

SIMON: I think a lot of people around the world are wondering this week how could a group of people who would perpetrate such a terrible crime have any kind of popular following in Nigeria.

LUBECK: You have to understand the history of the region - they've gone through approximately 20 years of an Islamic revival where Sharia law was an ideal to return to a pre-colonial golden age of justice. And this arises because of the failure of Western introduced institutions and the political elite to govern and to provide services and meet the demands of the population. The population is booming.

The demographic crisis means that per capital, income can only decline if you have more people with low rates of economic growth. And this is the governance problem that the northern political elite needs to address along with economic development and other issues.

SIMON: So if you have a government that is divided and corrupt and a military that's been accused of human rights abuses - who does the United States work with?

LUBECK: The United States has no choice but to work with the Nigerian state. The Nigerian state has improved since 1999. I wouldn't call it a successful democracy, but it's an electoral system where you have a free press and you have a very vibrant civil society that's taking the lead of this campaign to bring back their girls. That's a civil society movement made up of largely women that are demanding that the government exercise sovereignty within the Northeast region.

SIMON: I think what President Jonathan was indicating at the World Economic Forum is that the outrage in Nigerian has been so great that maybe any kind of tutelage support for not just this group but other terrorist activities will evaporate when people see the dastardly consequences of terrorism. How do you feel about that possibility?

LUBECK: You have to realize what Boko Haram stands for. Boko refers to Western education that was introduced violently in northern Nigeria after 1903. Boko means deceptively inauthentic. The class of people who speak English who rule are the Boko. Part of this is a rebellion against the incapacity of those people to govern and some combination of poverty and misery and abuse.

SIMON: I have to say it doesn't sound like a happy prospect, does it?

LUBECK: No, it doesn't. But the positive prospect is the movement of women to demand better conditions for women and that the government provides security for their girls.

SIMON: Paul Lubeck, who is with the Johns Hopkins University now, joined us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

LUBECK: Thank you for inviting me.

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