Why It Is Taking Nigeria's Security Forces So Long To Find The Missing Girls

Why It Is Taking Nigeria So Long To Find The Missing Girls

On April 14, a group of extremist militants drove off into Nigeria's remote Sambisa forest. With them were 270 young girls, students from a secondary school in the town of Chibok who had been there to complete their final exam when the gunmen forced them into their trucks.

Nearly a month later, a majority of the girls remain in captivity. Boko Haram's infamous leader Abubaker Shekau has claimed responsibility for the abductions and threatened to sell the girls in the market place. While both the Nigerian army and police are looking for the students, their exact location remains unclear, leading to one startling question: Why has it been so difficult for Nigeria's security forces to locate the missing girls?

Exemplifying the frustration with the armed forces is a report released by Amnesty International on Friday that details how senior military officers in the school's region had advanced knowledge of an impending Boko Haram attack but failed to act.

According to Amnesty, military commands in the towns of Damboa and Maiduguri received repeated warnings from local officials and security forces about the upcoming attack in Chibok, but did not send troops to reinforce the 17 army personnel and police officers stationed in the small town. A senior officer in the Nigerian military told the organization that the commander had been unable to organize reinforcements because of a lack of equipment and a fear among the soldiers to confront the militants. "There’s a lot of frustration, exhaustion and fatigue among officers and [troops] based in the hotspots … many soldiers are afraid to go to the battle fronts,” the officer said.

Nigerian soldiers interviewed by Reuters echoed those frustrations, complaining about bad food, rough sleeping conditions, conflicts over leave and a constant fear of Boko Haram attacks. "The Nigerian military is a shadow of what it's reputed to have once been," James Hall, a retired colonel and former British military attaché to Nigeria, told the news service. "They've fallen apart."

But how did a military that was once considered one of the strongest in Africa get to this point of apparent exhaustion?

As Michael Pizzi explains in Al Jazeera, a seemingly infinite number of military coups caused a deep distrust between the government and the army, prompting authorities to significantly cut the military's size in the past 15 years. While it still has a significant budget, Nigeria currently has the lowest ratio of military personnel to population in the world.

The troops that are in service were not prepared for the Boko Haram campaign, the International Crisis Group notes. Nigeria's security forces had traditionally primarily been trained to protect the country's head of state and institutions, rather than fighting insurgents in remote corners of the nation. While the government has started to put greater emphasis on urban warfare, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency training, as well as appropriate equipment for the troops, the security agencies remain ill-prepared for the current challenges.

Reuters notes that the militants seem well aware of this incongruity. When Boko Haram extremists attacked the town of Gamboru Ngala on May 7, for example, a military jet flew over the market but failed to derail the attack -- the insurgents knew the pilot would never bomb a densely populated area. As many as 300 people were slaughtered in the assault on the border town.

In addition to the lack of proper training, analysts say that while Nigeria's military budget is massive, much of the resources never make it to the troops, instead filling the pockets of government officials, senior officers and businessmen. Soldiers appear to lack sufficient training for the equipment they do have, and poor maintenance reduces the effectiveness of the nation's arsenal. “In the past three years, defense has been grabbing the greatest amount in terms of appropriation and there is very little to show for it,” University of Abuja lecturer Abubakar Umar Kari told the Christian Science Monitor.

Lastly, Nigeria hasn't only been criticized for its lack of military action against Boko Haram; some of the counterterrorism operations that security forces have conducted have also drawn equal condemnation. While Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan gave the military more powers in its fight against the insurgents by declaring a state of emergency in the northeastern Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, foreign governments and international organizations have accused troops of indiscriminate use of force and extrajudicial killings.

Amnesty International said security forces massacred 622 people in response to a Boko Haram attack in March 2014. After a group of Boko Haram insurgents attacked Giwa barracks in the city of Maiduguri, freeing prisoners who were being held as suspected Boko Haram members, troops allegedly killed hundreds of the unarmed detainees.

The accusations of indiscriminate killings have prompted some Western militaries to cut training and support. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in May 2013 the U.S. was "deeply concerned by credible allegations that Nigerian security forces are committing gross human rights violations, which, in turn, only escalate the violence and fuel extremism."

As Teju Cole points out, one year later, the U.S. State Department has reversed its position.

"The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime," Kerry said in a May speech in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. "We will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and hold the perpetrators to justice. That is our responsibility and the world's responsibility."

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