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Can outside nations help rescue missing Nigerian girls?

May 7, 2014 at 6:27 PM EST
A small team of U.S. specialists will head to Nigeria to help efforts in locating more than 270 girls who were kidnapped from a boarding school -- a provocative attack that has drawn international outrage. To examine expectations for U.S. assistance, Jeffrey Brown talks to Jon Temin of the United States Institute of Peace and Heather Murdock of The Christian Science Monitor.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: First lady Michelle Obama late today tweeted a picture of herself holding up a sign with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.

Jeffrey Brown picks up the story here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for a closer look at the situation in Nigeria and here in Washington, I’m joined by Jon Temin, director of Africa Programs for the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Heather Murdock, who is in Abuja covering the story for “The Christian Science Monitor.”

Well, Heather Murdock, starting with you, Secretary Kerry announced help from the U.S. and he said, you’re going to see a very, very rapid response. Is it clear what that means? What is the expectation there?

HEATHER MURDOCK, The Christian Science Monitor: Well, there’s different expectations.

Publicly, a lot of people are welcoming the U.S. and thinking that if anybody can come and save those girls, it is the U.S. There is some concern among security experts wondering if it could possibly escalate the situation and put the girls in harm’s way.

But on the streets and the protests, most people are very happy that the U.S. has finally agreed to come and help them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jon Temin, this is a very small force. It’s not — certainly for the moment, not military-focused, but, what, intelligence-focused, I guess.

JON TEMIN, United States Institute of Peace: Intelligence-focused and also skills-focused, law enforcement, those sorts of things that the Nigerians can benefit from.

But I think it’s important to manage the expectations, because it is a small force and there are limits, I think, to what the Nigerians are going to accept as well. In the past, they have been wary of accepting too much outside assistance in situations like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just because of the sensitivity politically or what?

JON TEMIN: Because of the sensitivity, because of the seeming infringement on their sovereignty that that might entail and because of the embarrassment of having to look so far away for help.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how much — the question of how much the U.S. can actually do in this case is — hinges on questions like that.

JON TEMIN: It hinges on that, and it hinges on realistically what can we expect the U.S. outsiders to be able to do in remote part of this very large country?

A lot of the intelligence that I think is needed comes from local communities. That’s not necessarily where the U.S. or others can be of assistance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Heather Murdock, now there’s been another — this attack on a border town that left hundreds of people dead.

What is the thinking there about the inability or reluctance of the and government and military to do more to go after the militants?

HEATHER MURDOCK: Well, attacks like this on this village have been going on all year.

For the first three months, it was almost every day. And people are frustrated, and people are scared, because what often happens is the military themselves are scared. I don’t know — we don’t have it for sure, but we have heard that that particular village had no soldiers guarding it, because either they were scared and ran away or the military is stretched so thin that those soldiers were redeployed somewhere else, presumably to find the girls.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, there’s been violence regularly, as you say, even daily. But the case with the kidnapping of the girls clearly ratcheted things up there as well, right?

HEATHER MURDOCK: Yes.

It was the most emotional attack I think of the entire Boko Haram insurgency. It’s galvanized the public here in a way that I have never seen. There’s been protests all over the country and everyone is getting behind demanding that these girls be found.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you sense that that pressure is having an impact on the government?

HEATHER MURDOCK: I think it very much is.

I can’t imagine why President Jonathan would have accepted help from the U.S. if there wasn’t so much pressure at home to accept it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Jon Temin, what has been the relationship in the past up to this point between U.S. government and the government and the military in Nigeria?

JON TEMIN: Generally a friendly one, but I think the U.S., like many others, has been encouraging the Nigerian government to be more serious, perhaps more forceful in the response to Boko Haram.

There are lot of security concerns associated with Boko Haram, including potential linkages to other extremist groups further north in the Sahel, even elsewhere in Africa. But the U.S. recognizes the big importance of Nigeria on a global scale. This is the largest country in Africa by population, now the largest country by economy as well, also a major oil producer. So, there is a strong linkage between Abuja and Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so if I ask you what the U.S. interests are in this particular case, it’s things like that?

JON TEMIN: Yes. In the particular case of these girls, I think it’s a humanitarian interest more than anything else. But in the bigger-picture concerns with Boko Haram, there are real security interests at stake.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Heather Murdock, how much is the outside pressure? You were just talking about what’s happening, the pressure inside the country. But pressure from outside attention from the world, how much is that affecting the situation there?

HEATHER MURDOCK: I think it’s affecting the situation a lot.

I believe that the pressure from inside Nigeria is part of the reason why there’s been so much attention paid by the international community, because, prior to this, Boko Haram attacks didn’t always draw a lot of attention within Nigeria. And people are talking really loud. Activists are going out of their way to make sure that this stays in the news as long as it can.

And I think that is part of the reason why it’s in the news internationally, and the Nigerian government is feeling the pressure from outside as well as in.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what more are they being asked to do in terms of militarily, send more people into these areas? What do you — do you see that kind of action happening yet?

HEATHER MURDOCK: They say they are doing everything they can. Part of the problem here though is that they won’t give us details about what they’re doing.

They say that they can’t give details for security concerns, which is legitimate. But a lot of people want to know more. There is also word from the area that a lot of these areas, the military can’t even get in to, which leads people to believe that maybe some of these areas aren’t even controlled by the government; they’re controlled by the militants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you join, Jon Temin, have a sense from people here that the government and military could in fact do more, but they just simply are not?

JON TEMIN: Perhaps.

But I think one of the really important points here is that it can’t just be a military response to the Boko Haram insurgency, because so much of this is driven by poverty, is driven by lack of jobs, lack of opportunity in Northern Nigeria.

I think the message from here and from a lot of the world is there has to be an economic program to accompany some of the military responses and that just the military response is potentially counterproductive. We have seen a rather heavy-handed military response, and that could be driving people even closer to Boko Haram in some places.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Heather Murdock, finally, let me just ask you, what is the thinking there now about the whereabouts, the safety of these girls?

HEATHER MURDOCK: Well, the president says the girls are safe.

People are skeptical, to say the least. And people have reported that the girls have been separated. Some of them might be over the border in Cameroon or Chad. And threat generally believed to be in the area of the Sambisa forest, which is considered one of the most dangerous parts of the country, if not the most dangerous part of the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have anything to add on that, Jon Temin?

JON TEMIN: Just that I think we also now need to be looking across some of the borders, because there are three countries nearby, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. And it may well be that some of the girls may have crossed some of those borders. That’s where intelligence sharing and cooperation between Nigeria and those countries is particularly important.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jon Temin here in Washington, Heather Murdock in Nigeria, thank you both very much.

JON TEMIN: Thank you.

HEATHER MURDOCK: Thank you.