(Reuters) When local people warned that hundreds of Islamist militants were heading towards his remote town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria, Danuma Mphur hurried to summon help.
As chairman of the Parent Teachers Association at the town’s school, Mphur feared for the safety of children who were staying there to take exams. The 15 Nigerian soldiers in Chibok were no match for the forces of Boko Haram, a militant group waging a campaign to create an Islamic state in the region. Reinforcements were needed, fast. Mphur says he called the police and the local government chairman.
In turn the local government chairman also called the police and contacted the military commander in Chibok between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on that evening, according to Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state, which includes Chibok.
“Can we go further than that?” said Shettima, suggesting there was little more local people could have done than ask for help.
Backup never arrived. The military said in a statement that it received no warning about the attack. It added that when reinforcements were sent, they were ambushed on the “120 km rugged and tortuous road” from Maiduguri, the state capital, and delayed. Chibok’s local government chairman could not be contacted for comment.
Either way, about three hours after Mphur rang for help, Boko Haram militants swept into Chibok and abducted 276 girls from the school. While 57 escaped, according to the state government, most are still missing, and Boko Haram has threatened to sell them “in the market.”
Though Nigeria’s military said on Monday that it now knows where the girls are, it has ruled out using force to try to rescue them.
The mass kidnap on the night of April 14 sparked headlines worldwide – but it was far from the first misstep in Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram. Interviews with witnesses to the kidnapping, Nigerian military and security officials, Western diplomats and counter-terrorism experts, highlight a series of failings by politicians and the military in the struggle against the group, not just in the hours leading up to the raid on the school, but over several years.
Divisions, low morale and corruption within the military have allowed the Islamist militants to take over large swathes of Nigeria’s northeast. Since an initial uprising in 2009, Boko Haram’s campaign to create a breakaway Islamic state has accelerated. It has now killed more than 5,000 people, including an estimated 1,800 this year alone.
A bitter struggle between the federal government in Abuja and at least two state governors in the northeast has made it harder to coordinate a response to the group, say analysts and security sources.
Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, who came to power in 2010 and is expected to run for a second term next year, is a Christian from the south of the country. Many people in the mostly Muslim north, which is less developed and poorer than the south, feel neglected by his government.
In Chibok, where the charred remains of dormitory bunk beds sit amid the rubble of the school, Mphur believes the mass kidnapping could have been prevented. He told Reuters: “What happened … could have been avoided if the government had taken the necessary steps.”
In the Hausa language of northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden,” and in 2012 the militant group announced it would specifically target schools.
Since then, Boko Haram militants have torched numerous schools and abducted or killed hundreds of children, according to a senior Nigerian military source.
Three Western intelligence sources in Nigeria estimate Boko Haram was holding between 200 and 300 girls as slaves even before the raid on Chibok. Dozens have escaped – but Nigeria’s security forces have failed to interview many survivors even though their information could help combat Boko Haram or assist in finding girls still held captive, kidnap victims and security sources said.
One escapee was a girl abducted by Boko Haram in a mountainous region near Cameroon last year. “No one ever came to ask me questions after I escaped. I could help them find others,” she told Reuters.
Political differences between regions and poor organization of the security forces are two of the problems.
Borno has some of the lowest economic indicators in the country, and investors shun the state because of poor security. Despite such problems, the president has visited the state only once during his four years in power.
Jonathan and Shettima, the governor of Borno, have a frosty relationship. Shettima is a leading figure in the main opposition All Progressives Congress party and has been openly critical of Jonathan’s administration. According to sources close to the president, Shettima angered Jonathan in February by saying that Boko Haram was stronger and better equipped than the military.
Though Nigeria allocates around 1 trillion naira ($6.5 billion) to security every year, soldiers in the northeast are stretched, several security sources said.
Widespread corruption means a lack of investment in training and failure to maintain equipment. Money is often wasted. Nigeria bought Israeli surveillance drones in 2006 that might have been used to hunt for the girls, but poor maintenance has left them grounded, the aircrafts’ manufacturer said.
Boko Haram fighters, in contrast, are well-armed and determined. In dozens of attacks by militants in the past year, soldiers were swept aside by militants arriving in trucks, motorbikes and sometimes even stolen armored vehicles, firing rocket-propelled grenades looted in raids on military facilities.
In pure numbers, Boko Haram is outmatched. It has an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 members, three security sources said, whereas a Nigerian task force in Borno state numbers around 12,000, including soldiers and police.
But soldiers told Reuters that morale is low. Their commanders pocket some of their salaries, they often don’t have enough to eat, and they live in fear of Boko Haram attacks, some said.
“They (Boko Haram) are better equipped,” one soldier told Reuters by telephone, adding that he couldn’t stand up to a Boko Haram attack at his security post. “I’m taking a knife to a gunfight,” he said.