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Nigeria Schoolgirls Still Missing, President Seems Detached


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'd like to bring you up to date on another important story we've been following. It's been nearly three months since more than 250 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Chibok, northern Nigeria. There was some relief in the country this week at the news that another 63 women and girls who'd been abducted by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram managed to escape their captors. Meanwhile, President Goodluck Jonathan, who has been heavily criticized inside the country and out for what is seen as an inept and ineffective response to the crisis, recently responded to critics in an op-ed in the Washington Post saying, quote, "I am deeply concerned that my silence as we work to accomplish the task at hand, is being misused by partisan critics to suggest inaction or even weakness. We wanted to know more about events around this story and also how this has been received. So we've called BBC correspondent Tomi Oladipo, who joins us from Lagos, and has been helping us stay on top of the story. Tomi, welcome come back. Thanks for joining us once again.

TOMI OLADIPO: Hello Michel. It's great to be back on the program.

MARTIN: So what do we know about these 63 women who are believed to have escaped? Do we know any details of how they got away?

OLADIPO: This story is still sketchy. We don't know exactly who was all 63 of the women who were able to escape. And also, we don't know what happened to them after their - after the escape. There are some reports that say that the women were recaptured. So we don't exactly have any solid details on this. It's important to stress that this part of the country's remote, and it is very difficult to get information regularly - even worse now that security situation is at its worst.

MARTIN: Now, you recently spoke to a member of the Boko Haram who claimed to be a teacher or some sort of a scholar within the group. Can you just talk a little bit more about the conversation that you had with him?

OLADIPO: Yes, I met this man who said he was one of the members of this group Boko Haram, and he talked about the ideology and one of his main concerns - he says the concerns of the group - is that a lot of Nigeria's Muslims are not living as true Muslims. He says that the Democratic system of government is not the way to go. He says that Islamic law, ultimately, is what Nigeria needs. And he says that even non-Muslims will be able to benefit under this kind of rule. So that's what he says this group is pushing for. I asked him about the attacks that this group carries out. He said that this group only goes for its enemies. It only goes for people who speak out against it or people who fight against it, and he says that to justify, you know, killing innocent women and children in these attacks - he says these are just people who happen to be around areas where their enemies are. So when they actually carry out these attacks, he says, they're not targeting the innocent people - that they are actually targeting their own enemies.

MARTIN: What - did he - were you able to ask him about this mass kidnapping and what was his justification for this? And also, it's important to note that they have killed when they've attacked boy schools. They've killed these boys in a rather - in a a very gruesome sort of manner. Were you able to discuss any of this with him? Did he have any answers about this?

OLADIPO: I asked him about the kidnap of the girls, and he said this was in response to the Nigerian military's campaign to suppress the group. The Nigerian military has been going after this group and arresting its members. And there are believed to be thousands of them in custody. And he says this is why the group kidnapped these girls, saying that, you know, until their members are released, then the girls will continue to be kept. Of course, the government has expressed its concerns saying, these men that it's arrested are dangerous, and that's why it's put them in custody. And regarding the rest of the attacks that this group has carried out, he said to me that this group wants to enforce this strict Islamic law, especially starting in northern Nigeria before it spreads to the rest of the country. And he seemed adamant that they would do that even if it meant being violent.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, that many people would like to hear from the president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post where he explained how important, he says, it is to him that the girls are found. What has been the reaction to this?

OLADIPO: A lot of Nigerians have not been happy with President Goodluck Jonathan and his response to - or lack of response, rather - to the kidnapping of these girls. A lot of Nigerians are not happy with the way he's handled the whole situation, feeling that he seems a bit detached from the whole situation, considering after the girls were kidnapped - and this was in the news. The next day, he was pictured, you know, dancing at a rally and, you know, several other events - public events - subsequently after that. In fact, the vice president's brother died, and the cabinet meeting was canceled in his honor. And all of that time, there was nothing about the missing girls. So a lot of Nigerians are still angry about the way the president has behaved in this - in this manner, and they don't see his - his articles like this in the Washington Post as solving anything really. So it's not really been taken in a good light.

MARTIN: It's interesting that it's also been reported - and I believe the president has confirmed that they have hired an American public relations firm to advise them, and the term of the contract - it was reported to have been a contract in excess of $1 million. Is that - is that - I mean, I don't - many governments do, I mean, but I wonder whether that particular detail has added some fuel to this, as well.

OLADIPO: It's believed that even this op-ed that president Jonathan wrote in the Washington Post would be a result of the PR firm - you know, the advice from the PR firm. So even now when you go to some of the government press conferences, you do see some of these PR people hanging around. It's - the firm is clearly just trying to do its job, but in this scenario, you're pretty much trying to plug a burst pipe several hours after it's been broken. So there's a lot of damage already done, at least, in damaging the image of the government - the image of the president in front of Nigerians. And so it's going to be very tricky for this company. Obviously, they'll just be doing their job and getting paid for it, but in terms of repairing the image in the eyes of the Nigerian public, I'm not certain this will work.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Tomi Oladipo. He's a correspondent for BBC. He's bringing us up to date on issues surrounding the disappearance of those - of more than 200 girls from northern Nigeria earlier this spring by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. You know, on the substance of the efforts to - to save - to rescue these girls, it's been reported that at a National Council of State meeting this week, former Nigerian leaders were given assurances that the girl are close to being rescued. And we've heard this a number of times in the past. Can you just tell us anything more about what efforts are being made? - whether there are any negotiations? I mean, the government has said that they will not negotiate, and you mentioned earlier that there is - that Boko Haram has indicated that it would be interested in a trade for imprisoned members. Do you have any details about any efforts that are in fact being made?

OLADIPO: There have been several efforts. Even the government did set up a committee that would look into working out a deal with this group. So as much as they sometimes say that they are not going to negotiate, there are some efforts going on behind the scenes. It's also known that some of the former presidents are also working together to put something - to work something out with this group. Obviously, the global concern that this incident has sparked is also putting increased pressure on the government and all - and all the parties that are connected to this. So yes, there is - it appears as if there is some kind of negotiation. We don't know what the details are, to be honest, but yes, I would say that there's a lot going on behind the scenes.

MARTIN: Tomi Oladipo is a correspondent for the BBC. He was kind enough to join us from their studio in Lagos, Nigeria. Tomi, thanks so much for speaking with us once again.

OLADIPO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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