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Will Nigeria’s government acknowledge Boko Haram’s prisoner exchange proposal?

May 12, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT
Judy Woodruff talks to J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council about the strategy and leverage behind Boko Haram’s release of a video reportedly showing some of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls, the Nigerian government’s political agenda and the likelihood of finding the girls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining me to discuss the video and the latest efforts to free the girls is J. Peter Pham. He’s director of the Africa Program at the Atlantic Council.

Peter Pham, welcome back to the program.

J. PETER PHAM, Atlantic Council: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you follow all this very closely. What do you make of that video?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, the video is an attempt, I think, by Boko Haram’s leaders, who, extremist as they are, have in the last few years shown their ability to engage strategically.

And it’s a strategic piece insofar as they recognize the international attention has focused tremendous pressure on the government, and they’re using the video and the attention that the video will generate to force the government to do something the government has been unwilling to do, which is negotiate with them for the release of prisoners and in fact deal with them as an equal party, so to speak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you assume the video is legitimate, is real?

J. PETER PHAM: From all indications of what I have seen of the video, it seems to be a legitimate video.

Certainly, Boko Haram’s history the last few years is they may put out propaganda, but they have not in their formal statements or — this is not a group, unlike other jihadist groups, that have all sorts of media people putting out stuff, some of which may be false. Their stuff tends to be accurate, despicable, but accurate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you say, Peter Pham, right now is the state of the search for these schoolgirls?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, it’s starting.

The international community has offered its help, and finally after not just weeks, but years of refusing help with this growing insurgency, the Nigerian government has been shamed into accepting offers of help from the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and even China.

But these teams are just arriving on the scene. They’re coming, becoming familiar with the situation, and having to develop a lot of the intelligence assets and the knowledge of the terrain that the Nigerians themselves haven’t been building up in the last few years. So we’re starting off at ground zero. And that is going to take time.

And, unfortunately, a lot of time went by between the kidnappings on April 15 and when the Nigerian government last week finally accepted help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of time was lost.

J. PETER PHAM: A great deal was lost.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is an example of the ways that these, that the U.S. and these countries are going to be cooperating with Nigeria?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, I think what Nigeria needs, most of all, is building of an intelligence capability.

Nigeria has tried to confront Boko Haram over the last few years as a merely security challenge to be squatted down, crushed. And they have learned — they should have learned that the military solution is a blunt instrument and it won’t take care of everything.

In 2009, Nigeria tried to crush Boko Haram, killed several hundred people, including the founder of the sect, but — and pronounced victory. They came back even more extreme and more virulent. And now they have tried for several years unsuccessfully. There are hundreds of thousands — hundreds, if not thousands, of casualties as a result of this ongoing war.

And clearly there needs to be better intelligence and a broadly-based, holistic approach to this insurgency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is it your sense now that the Nigerian government is committed to finding — getting these schoolgirls rescued?

J. PETER PHAM: I think the government would like the problem to be over with. To be quite blunt, the government still makes rather irresponsible statements.

Last week, we had the president’s wife making reprehensible statements about people who were simply protesting the lack of action to rescue these girls. So the government has to get over the fact that this is somehow a plot by their enemies to discredit them.

What’s discrediting the Nigerian government, at a time when it should be celebrating the GDP recalibration, its role as Africa’s most dynamic economy, that moment of celebration has been turned upside-down by its own mishandling of the current crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what makes it, I think, so hard for outsiders to understand, because Nigeria is such a successful economy, certainly compared to others on the African continent. And yet you’re saying they haven’t had the apparatus to conduct any kind of rescue operation.

J. PETER PHAM: And that’s the result of a certain disconnect between the military and the economic.

The economic successes of Nigeria are undoubtable. The political advances since the restoration of civilian rule are also to be acknowledged. But, at the same time, the military has been starved of resources, both because the government remembered the time when the military was too powerful, in the ’80s and ’90s, and also because there’s a bit of corruption, corruption that creeps throughout Nigeria, including in the military, where resources that are allocated don’t quite make their way down to the rank-and-file soldiers, which is why, unfortunately, we have the very credible reports of the soldiers who might have been able to intervene didn’t go out of their barracks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, well, while we’re talking about the soldiers, there have been reports that Boko Haram has infiltrated the military in Nigeria. What’s your understanding of that?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, these are reports that have actually been validated by President Goodluck Jonathan himself. He himself has said that high levels of the security apparatus in the government have been penetrated.

Now, part of that, he was making a political point, but I think the point is well-taken, that — there’s a combination. And we have to ask ourselves whether it’s merely corruption, people have been bought off, it’s political agendas trying to discredit the property, or some combination thereof, but quite clear.

And that’s going to also hurt the search effort, because the U.S. and other countries that will engage there have to be judicious about what information they share, for fear that that information might actually fall into the wrong hands.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Boko Haram is now talking about the swap, prisoners in exchange for the girls. You have said at the outset they’re thinking strategically now. Is it thought that this could work, that there are prisoners who could be released in exchange for these girls?

J. PETER PHAM: The government is holding a number of Boko Haram leaders and members, as well as people who were taken up in security sweeps of the country.

But the big point is not so much the liberation of these prisoners. The point that Boko Haram is trying to get is the government to acknowledge them and deal with them. That’s a concession this government has not made, and if it makes it, it’s a win either way for Boko Haram. If they get their prisoners free, they get their people back. If the government even talks to them, the government is weakened, and that’s where — the quandary the government finds it itself in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think the chances are that these girls can be rescued, found and rescued?

J. PETER PHAM: Well, I — certainly, it’s my hope and my prayer that as many of the girls as possible can be found and brought — and reunited with their families.

But I have to be realistic. The area where the girls are being held is heavily forested, and if you get behind the forest, there’s the Gwoza Mountains, this mountain range between Nigeria and Cameroon which has endless series of caves. It is a very hostile terrain. Finding someone in that is literally looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. And doing that several weeks late, I’m not very optimistic, unfortunately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Pham with the Atlantic Council, we thank you.

J. PETER PHAM: Thank you.