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Weeks Into Search Efforts, Can Other Countries Help Nigeria?

May 5, 2014
Originally published on May 5, 2014 4:35 pm
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Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry called the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls an unconscionable crime. And he promised the U.S. would do everything possible to help return the young women to their homes and hold the perpetrators to justice.

So, just what might that everything possible mean? For insights on that I'm joined by Richard Downie. He's deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington.

Richard, thanks for coming in.

RICHARD DOWNIE: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And how do you interpret that? What resources could the U.S. bring to bear here?

DOWNIE: I think they're fairly limited, to be honest with you. Obviously the ultimate responsibility for resolving this crisis lies with the Nigerians who, despite having generally good relations with the United States, have always been somewhat reticent in asking for assistance. So I think when the Secretary of State talks about offering any kind of help, I think there are several things that could be useful in resolving this crisis.

One, of course, is surveillance. The U.S. has military assets, technology, drones, it can use to track the movement potentially of the kidnappers and the girls that they've taken. The U.S. can help also in border security. The northeast of Nigeria is a remote area. It's close to several international borders and it's feared that the girls are some of them may have been taken across these borders. The U.S. can help in border patrol and security.

I think another important area though is in coming up with a communications strategy for the Nigerian government, which has, frankly, it all falls so far in its public messaging in terms of what it's doing to try to solve this crisis.

BLOCK: Well, let me ask you about a couple of those things because it has been weeks now. So when you're talking about things like border security, if the girls have already been taken across the borders and, by according to some reports, are being sold as slaves, isn't it a bit late for that?

DOWNIE: You're right. It's shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. But I think certainly surveillance will be critical or can certainly play a part in helping to track and trace these groups, or pockets of these groups, wherever you may believe. And you're right. They may be dispersed over a very wide area right now. Border patrols, yes, they can be useful but perhaps of limited usefulness in this instance.

This is why I think actually getting the Nigerian government to think carefully about a coherent strategy and communicate that effectively to the public, would actually be one of the most useful things the United States can advise on right now.

BLOCK: But at that point, you're talking about essentially a public relations campaign? Is that what it's reduced to?

DOWNIE: Well, I think it is a little bit because many Nigerians are, frankly, exasperated at the slow response of their government to this crisis. And there's a wide-standing feeling that the government, frankly, just doesn't care enough about the fate of these girls. The crisis, the Boko Haram crisis that's been affecting north of Nigeria, has been having a catastrophic impact on people there. But has not really had much of a resonance in the broader country. It's a massive country after all of 170-plus million people.

And right now, it seems that the government is consumed with thinking ahead to next year's elections. President Goodluck Jonathan widely expected to stand in those elections. And politics really and politicking has taken over in Nigeria to the detriment of resolving the day-to-day crises.

BLOCK: There is an international gathering scheduled this week for Abuja, the Nigerian capital, the World Economic Forum. Six thousand Nigerian police and troops are said to be deployed to provide security there. Does the message of the Nigerian people become: We will have thousands of police in place to provide a secure environment for international leaders, but we're not able to protect a couple of hundred schoolgirls who had been threatened before very specifically?

DOWNIE: I think that's the unfortunate message that's coming across to Nigerians right now, that the government is more focused on the visit of some foreign dignitaries to an important economic summit in the capital, Abuja, and perhaps less focused on resolving the serious security crisis in the northeast. I don't want to be too hard on the Nigerian authorities. Any country faced with a complex security crisis and a mass kidnapping like this, would find it very difficult to resolve.

But there is a sense, I think, that more could have been done in the northeast. And that the military has made its task more difficult by lashing out in the wake of previous attacks in alienating the local communities there in the northeast, to perhaps provide the key in providing intelligence that could help to resolve this crisis.

BLOCK: That's Richard Downie. He's deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Richard, thanks very much.

DOWNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.