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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Nigeria: Dapchi kidnappings latest sign of government ineptitude

President Muhammadu Buhari has declared a 'national emergency' following yet more schoolgirl abductions. But this will do little to pacify those Nigerians whose lives have been torn apart by Boko Haram

Women walk along a street in the town of Dapchi, Yobe state, on February 24, 2018. Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters
Women walk along a street in the town of Dapchi, Yobe state, on February 24, 2018. Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

In January 2017, bombs dropped by Nigerian army jets killed 115 civilians — among them foreign aid workers — in a camp for displaced people they mistook for a Boko Haram stronghold. The tragic error quickly became a grim emblem of Abuja’s brutal nine-year war against the militant Islamic group.

On Monday, military jets took to the skies again in the northeast, seven days after Boko Haram attacked a school in the town of Dapchi, Yobe state, abducting at least 110 girls. In response the government has floundered, its ineptitude laid bare on Wednesday last week when Yobe state governor Ibrahim Gaidam declared that schoolgirls had been rescued before quickly backtracking. After protesters threw rocks at Mr Gaidam’s convoy, a handful of demonstrators were arrested.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has declared a “national emergency” following the girls' abduction. But this will do little to pacify those in the northeast of the country whose lives have been torn apart by a conflict that has killed 20,000 people and displaced millions.

Meanwhile, recent cholera outbreaks in swollen refugee camps point to a worsening humanitarian crisis. And with next year's general election fast approaching, the Dapchi kidnappings may ultimately signal the downfall of a deeply ineffectual president.

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The uncanny similarities between the Dapchi abductions and the infamous 2014 kidnappings of the Chibok schoolgirls has only intensified anger in the past week. The fact that soldiers guarding the school in Dapchi were deployed elsewhere a month ago, clearing the way for the militants to launch their attack, suggests that important lessons were not learnt after Chibok.

The global attention given to the Chibok and Dapchi cases distracts from the fact that abduction is a growing industry in Nigeria. The millions of dollars paid in ransoms to Boko Haram have helped finance their lengthy insurgency. And as the country’s economic fortunes have faltered, petty criminals have also increasingly turned to the practice.

“Almost every Nigerian can identify someone they know who has either been abducted or had a loved one abducted,” a Nigerian analyst told The National in January after four north Americans were kidnapped in northern Kaduna state.

For many Nigerians, the increase in abductions is a damning indictment of Mr Buhari’s leadership since he assumed control of Africa’s richest and most populous country in 2015 on a pledge of wholesale reform.

After taking six months to name a cabinet, the former military general was then incapacitated by illness, making regular trips to London for urgent medical treatment. Military gains made against Boko Haram early in Mr Buhari's term were then more or less undone in his absence with the group stepping up attacks on schools, universities and refugee camps.

Away from the insurgency, violent confrontations between farmers and nomadic herdsman driven from their traditional herding grounds by famine and drought have left hundreds dead in central and eastern Nigeria. And decades on from the end of the civil war, secessionist sentiment is growing in the southeast of the country.

The Nigerian economy, plagued by endemic corruption, is still adrift after emerging from a six-quarter recession, its problems aggravated by Mr Buhari’s own heavy handedness.

Given the distraction of next year’s elections, reform now appears unlikely. Six months ago, few expected Mr Buhari to run for another term. Now, his fortified health suggests he will. But former generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida have been lobbying for Mr Buhari to step down, potentially heralding a new dawn in Nigerian politics.

If Mr Buhari obliges there will be little to mourn, even for the struggling president’s most ardent supporters.