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Can Nigeria’s new president advance the search for the missing schoolgirls?

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    One year later, we look deeper into the story behind the still-missing girls, the rise of Boko Haram.

    For that, we turn to Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for Central and West Africa at the National Democratic Institute.

    Thank you for joining us again.

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH, National Democratic Institute:

    Thanks for having me.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It's hard for those of us who watched this a year ago to imagine that, a year later, the girls are still — so many of these girls are still missing. Are there any theories, any working theories about what's become of them?

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    Well, it's a very sobering day for Nigeria, and I would say even for humanity, because this has become a worldwide story with Bring Back Our Girls.

    And there was some hope that, 365 days after the girls had been discovered, they would have been found and reunited with their families. But it's sad to say that, as of today, it's difficult to say where many of the girls are, whether they're still alive, and whether they will be found in the not-too-distant future.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Has the search in the girls taken a back seat in some ways to this fight against Boko Haram? Is that the bigger problem here?

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    No, I would say that the girls have come to represent the face of all of the brutality or all of the atrocities of Boko Haram and that, in the past two months, we have seen Boko Haram lose ground to the Nigerian military and also to the multinational forces from Chad and Niger Republic and from Cameroon as well.

    And so, in that process, I think finding these girls remains a priority, because they are like — I mean, they represent the worst of what Boko Haram has done to human life in that part of Nigeria. And I think, unless the girls are found or unless that story is brought to closure, there will be open questions as to how effective the Nigerian government is being in bringing down Boko Haram.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Explain to people who are as not as familiar with the geography of Nigeria exactly where this problem is. Right along the border, right?

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    Well, it's in the northeastern part of Nigeria in one of the 36 states of the federation, in a state called Borno state.

    About three months ago, Boko Haram had expanded its reach into neighboring states of first Borno and then Yobe and Adamawa states. But, as of a month — as of two weeks ago, Boko Haram has been pushed back into one or two counties in Borno state.

    So, in terms of the geographic area of coverage, Boko Haram has really suffered some casualties and some losses in recent weeks. But, at the same time, the heart of the Boko Haram operations in the Sambisa — Sambisa forest, as well as in some of the neighboring towns such as Gwoza, remain really prominent.

    And until Boko Haram is driven out of those localities, it will be difficult to say that the phenomenon has been dealt with completely.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And, as Amnesty International reports, there have been other mass abductions. This hasn't stopped.

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    There have been other mass abductions. There have also been other mass killings. In fact, there have been stories of Boko Haram when it was being driven out of villages, just going out and slaughtering ordinary civilians, men and women and children, sometimes people who had been under their — who had been captured by Boko Haram in the past.

    And so this phenomenon has caused a lot of havoc and a lot of mayhem in Northeastern Nigeria, as well as in neighboring countries of Cameroon and Niger.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Nigeria has recently elected a new president, who takes over at the end of May. You're just back from Nigeria.

    How has the change in the political situation perhaps affected, if at all, or helped the search?

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    There is some hope and some optimism amongst Nigerians that Buhari will be better able to tackle the Boko Haram crisis than his predecessor.

    He's a retired military general, so he's had some familiarity with the need to beef up the morale of the Nigerian military and to better equip and train the forces. He's also a northern Muslim, and so would have more leeway in dealing with Boko Haram, as opposed to his predecessor, who was a Christian from the south.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Is there anything that is expected of the U.S.? Is there anything the U.S. is still doing, should be doing as this moves forward?

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    Well, I think there's an expectation.

    Given that the U.S. has always said publicly, manifested its desire to have the people of Nigeria and the government of Nigeria deal with these extremist forces, there's an expectation that the new president-elect will be able to quickly mend relations, bilateral relations between Nigeria and the U.S., especially with regards to defense-related and security-related matters.

    We may remember — you may remember that the Jonathan government took offense when the U.S. government couldn't supply the Nigerian government with Apache helicopters.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Yes.

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    And that became a little bit of — that kind of weakened the diplomatic relations.

    There's an expectation that Muhammadu Buhari will do much better, he will mend those relations quickly, so that the U.S. — with the expertise that the U.S. has, can help train and better equip the Nigerian military to face up to Boko Haram.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    We hope that the goal is achieved, at least, the ultimate goal.

    Chris Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute, thank you very much.

  • CHRIS FOMUNYOH:

    Thanks for having me.

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