WASHINGTON—The Nigerian police and military have yet to interview the schoolgirls who escaped Boko Haram militants, two months after the terrorist group kidnapped almost 300 teens near the northeastern village of Chibok.
Emmanuel Ogebe, a U.S.-based human rights attorney, made the startling disclosure at a Wednesday subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On Tuesday, Ogebe returned from Nigeria, where he and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., met with government leaders and one of the girls who managed to slip away from her abductors. Even though only a handful escaped—and Nigerian newspapers printed all the names of those abducted—the teen said no one had bothered to interview her.
“It’s alarming that it would take an American NGO and a congressman to find out what happened,” Ogebe said. “Many facts are not in the public domain.”
Smith said beyond finding out how the girl can help the investigation, Nigerian authorities should be finding a way to help her. “She sat there numb for the better part of 25 minutes telling her story,” Smith told me. “She’s got serious emotional problems coming from this.”
Smith, chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, met with terrorism victims, members of the Nigerian government, and members of the intelligence community during his four-day trip last week. He convened Wednesday’s hearing to hear testimony from four expert witnesses about possible solutions to Nigeria’s worsening crisis with Boko Haram, a radical Islamic group that wants to impose Sharia law in the country. “Nigeria isn’t a peacekeeping mission,” Smith said. “It’s a counter-insurgency mission.”
Robin Renee Sanders, the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2007 to 2010, painted a grim picture: She predicted Nigeria is at the beginning of a long war, and the recent uptick in violence will only worsen as the country’s 2015 presidential election nears. Although the Obama administration has largely denied that religious ideology is driving the conflict, Sanders—who also just returned from a trip to the region—acknowledged it as a “clash of civilizations."
Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council Africa Center, listed several ways to combat Boko Haram: invest in better information, encourage the Nigerian government to deal with problems forthrightly, address legitimate grievances, and train Nigerian security forces. Unless the issues are addressed, he said, “the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls will be repeated over and over again.”
That’s already happening: On Monday, a week after killing 200 in three village attacks, militants kidnapped 20 more young girls. Ogebe, noting the deteriorating situation, said this week he received the first report of a female suicide bomber.
Witnesses and lawmakers on both sides said the U.S. government should treat Boko Haram as it does al-Qaeda.
The hearing produced an overflow crowd—as did a full Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month on the U.S. response to Boko Haram. Ann Buwalda, executive director of Jubilee Campaign, told me the biggest takeaway from the proceeding is that “the panelists seem to have more information than the Nigerian government.”