US & Canada

Nigeria abducted schoolgirls: Was US slow to act?

Protests in Abuja Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nigerians have vented their fury over the crime

Three weeks after more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Nigeria, the US has announced it's sending a team to help in the search. Is it too little, too late?

Few stories this year have sparked such a prolonged worldwide campaign as the abduction under darkness of hundreds of girls from their boarding school in a northern Nigerian town.

Protests have taken place in New York, Los Angeles and London, while message boards and social media newsfeeds have long been seething, their disquiet directed at not just the perpetrators but the Nigerian government for a perceived lack of interest.

On Wednesday, First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag to add her voice to the campaign.

Her contribution came a day after the US announced it was providing a "co-ordination cell" at its embassy in Abuja, drawing on expertise from various government agencies. The team will provide help to Nigeria in areas of intelligence, investigation management, hostage negotiations and victim assistance.

When asked in a briefing why it had taken so long, Secretary of State John Kerry implied they had offered before.

"We have been in touch from day one, and our embassy has been engaged and we have been engaged," he said. "But the government had its own set of strategies, if you will, in the beginning. And you can offer and talk, but you can't do if a government has its own sense of how it's proceeding."

That hasn't stopped people asking the question why the West - the US, UK and France have sent teams - had not acted sooner, with the British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman rejecting such suggestions.

Image copyright White House

Some commentators have contrasted the immediate multi-nation mobilisation that followed the disappearance of flight MH370 with the lack of action, until now, in response to this mass abduction. But experts tend to agree the US couldn't have done more.

Africa can often be a blind spot in Western eyes but not in this case, says Stephen Hayes, president of the Corporate Council on Africa based in Washington DC.

"Shortly after the kidnappings happened, the offer was made but not taken - it was a broad offer of help, similar to what they are doing now."

The Nigerians, like the Americans, have a mixture of arrogance and pride, he says, but they changed their mind when they realised the strength of international outrage.

Even accepting it could not have deployed earlier, there are doubts about whether the US team can make a difference.

The state department has refused to say how many people would make up this unit, but it said it would include US military personnel and law enforcement officials. A spokesman added that the US Africa Command, which liaises with African countries on military matters, was also sending a team and the FBI was standing by ready to send if required.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has 150 Americans and local staff in Nigeria, and a USAID spokesman, speaking from Abuja, said it had been asked to offer counselling to any girls who are found.

But first there's a search to accomplish and it's a daunting mission. About 200 militants are thought to have taken part in the raid, which the group Boko Haram claims responsibility for. It's thought the girls have now been divided into much smaller groups and dispersed across the dense terrain of the Sambisa Forest, which covers 60,000 sq km (23,166 sq miles).

A small US team is not going to be a game changer but it's more than window-dressing, says Richard Downie, deputy director of the CSIS Africa Program. It will plug gaps in the skillset of the Nigerian security forces, which in the past has failed to prevent attacks due to poor coordination and information exchange.

Image copyright AP

Some US senators are pushing the president to offer more, like US aerial and satellite technology, but Mr Downie says it's difficult to know what kind of response people demand of the US.

"The world media has jumped on this story and there's a clamour on social media to do something to get these girls back and rightly so. But the complexity in doing that is immense and we don't want to be taking action that is counter-productive or potentially dangerous for these girls. Any solution I think will be one of negotiating rather than going in hard."

The US is very constrained in policy terms, says Mr Downie. It wants to be seen to be doing something meaningful and it wants to pressure the Nigerian government to do more to find these girls, but this is the most important country in Africa so it's important the US stays on side.

The American team can improve the odds of finding the girls but don't expect them to make all the difference in finding them or not, says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

"As good as you can be by international norms I don't think we can walk in and find a needle in a haystack."

The US is not going to know the terrain better than the Nigerians, and don't forget we've been trying to find Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony for several years without success, says Mr O'Hanlon. Locating Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden took a long time - so finding these girls is not the kind of operation the US can execute overnight.

In the face of widespread condemnation, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has assured the nation he will get the girls back and punish the culprits.

His country has a working relationship with the US on security matters, with the US helping to train the Nigerian military, but offers of help in the past to help with oil theft in the Niger Delta have been declined.

"There's a sense of pride, embarrassment and reluctance to air dirty laundry in public," says Mr Downie, so it would be harsh to accuse the US of not doing enough - the primary responsibility lies with the Nigerian government.

"This is not a country short on resources and capacity. The issue is one of political will and no amount of outside assistance can improve the situation if it doesn't have a viable partner to work with, one which has a genuine commitment to sort out these problems."