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Distress over kidnapped girls fuels protest against Nigerian government

May 5, 2014 at 6:10 PM EST
The abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria has provoked strong feelings of distrust and anxiety about the disorganization and vulnerability of the government. Jeffrey Brown talks to Carl LeVan of American University and Mojubaolu Okome of Brooklyn College about the historical and cultural rifts dividing the country and the challenges to Nigeria’s democracy.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we take a close look now at the situation, with Carl LeVan, an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, and Mojubaolu Okome, a professor of African and women’s studies at Brooklyn College.

And let me start with you, Professor Okome.

What can you tell us about the strong feeling about this inside Nigeria? And who is it aimed at, the president, the military, the system as a whole?

MOJUBAOLU OKOME, Brooklyn College: Many parents are distressed because, if this happens to somebody’s child, it affects everybody who is a parent because of the potential that things can spiral out of control.

Besides, it’s important for the girls to be united with their families. And this situation has dragged on now into three weeks. And there’s absolutely no cohesive information. The distrust that people are feeling and a lot of the criticisms are directed against the system as a whole.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Carl LeVan, let me ask you about that system, just to frame it for people, context here, sectarian violence going on at the same time as the country is still in a transition to democracy.

CARL LEVAN, American University School of International Service: The transition has been longer and perhaps more painful than I think many Nigerians expected.

The country transitioned in May 1999, after almost 17 long years of dictatorship. And there have been several elections since then, most recently in 2011. And the most recent election went pretty well, but the country’s also had to overcome some really difficult challenges along the way.

Just a few years ago, there was a very serious rebellion in the oil-producing region, the Niger Delta, and now, for the last several years, the country has faced this rebellion in the Northeast by this group Boko Haram.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much do the — what we hear about schisms between north and south, how much — or any of what you just described — how much does that play into the willingness or ability of the government to go and find these girls, to take more action?

CARL LEVAN: Well, politicians certainly like to portray themselves and like to campaign on a national platform. And I think that’s certainly what the Nigerian citizens expect.

But the truth is that the historical divide and the cultural divide is one that the country is still grappling with. Nigeria is in fact exactly 100 years old this year. And over the last year or two, there were a lot of commentary in the newspapers, for example, about the so-called mistake of 1914.

Having said that, I think many Nigerians are very hopeful about the future and they would like to see their government invest a little bit more in that hope.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Okome, what about the strange juxtaposition we have seen just in the last day where you have the president saying he is going to do everything possible, and that is after not saying much publicly for a while, and then the first lady reportedly questioning the whole kidnapping? What is going on?

MOJUBAOLU OKOME: I think the Goodluck Jonathan administration would be able to explain better what’s going on.

But just judging from what I was able to read in the media, if what I am reading is true, then it’s indicative of the fact that the government itself needs to learn that it has to have a cohesive message. It has to have a unified approach. It has to give confidence to the Nigerian people that these missing children are uppermost in its mind, and that it’s going to do everything in its power to bring them back to their families.

Besides, if it’s saying that it wants to do this, and then people are being arrested because they are raising attention, they are calling attention to the situation, then it’s sending a very bad message. And the government needs to do everything that it can to correct this immediately and restore confidence in Nigerian people that their security matters to it, and that it’s going to truly do everything in its power to bring the girls back to their families.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Carl LeVan, this has clearly taken on international dimensions now. So, is it affecting how people, how the outside world sees Nigeria, and what if anything can the U.S. and other outside nations do at this point?