Muslim women attend a demonstration calling on the government to increase efforts to rescue the 276 missing kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok, in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, May 5, 2014.

Big Cracks in Nigeria's Facade

The Boko Haram kidnapping reveals the trouble brewing inside one of Africa's most important countries.

Muslim women attend a demonstration calling on the government to increase efforts to rescue the 276 missing kidnapped school girls of a government secondary school Chibok, in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday, May 5, 2014.

Nigeria needs a leader to keep the peace and bridge the gaps in its diverse society.

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While the kidnapping of more than 250 schoolgirls is horrific in itself, the international response is heartening, if yet to be successful. The outrage is real beyond Nigeria, and perhaps the response will mark the beginning of a sustained global response against such madness. Even the media, with their notoriously short attention spans and lives of sound bites, have continued to focus on the story, finally giving some outlets like CNN something to report on beyond the missing Malaysian airliner or what entertainment stars are doing today.

For Nigeria and its image, it is hard to imagine a scenario that would give it worse visibility. The timing could not have been more disastrous for the nation and especially its political leadership. The World Economic Forum on Africa was in Nigeria for the first time, and was meant to acknowledge Nigeria as the new economic leader of Africa. In fact, so much investment was spent on securing the Hilton in Abuja, Nigeria, and the immediate area in order to protect the new masters of the universe represented by the wealthy who attend the forum that little attention was apparently paid to other parts of the country, and it seems that warnings about an attack on the girls school essentially went unheeded. 

The day after the attack, President Goodluck Jonathan was conducting business as usual with a campaign stop in Kano, one of the major cities of the North, the general region where the attack took place. The next day he was back in Abuja to meet with potential investors in Nigeria, again seemingly failing to realize the political fallout that was about to rain down upon him. That so many around him failed to understand the gravity of the situation and placed priority elsewhere brings into question the political acumen of the Nigerian leadership.

Even if the schoolgirls are found and returned to their villages and school, the damage to Nigeria’s growing reputation has already been done. Media reported almost nothing on the World Economic Forum, but rightly focused on the kidnapping of the girls, and began a scrutiny of the makeup of Nigeria politics, its competing cultures and problems, exactly what the World Economic Forum was designed not to focus on. The forum was supposed to be a major achievement of the Jonathan administration as he prepares for re-election. Instead, the kidnapping has made apparent a number of cracks and chasms in the Nigerian façade.

[VOTE: Did Nigeria React Too Slowly to the Boko Haram Kidnapping?]

First, the role and plight of women in Nigeria society has been brought into the light. The Nigerian government’s response to kidnapping of girls was almost non-existent at first. It was as if the kidnapping of women and all the ramifications of such a nightmare were more a nuisance than the outrage that it was. The silver lining is that the women of Nigeria and others around the world have been galvanized to say “enough.” There are many leaders of this welcome revolt, and nearly all of them are women. Unfortunately, we have heard little from men in Nigeria, perhaps because media have focused on women, or perhaps due to major differences between the sexes in their attitudes towards women.

Second, it is obvious that the Nigerian government is incapable of dealing with Boko Haram, and may well be out of touch with millions of people throughout Nigeria. That so little information has been shared with the government by the people in the North strongly suggests that the government is not trusted to either protect or deliver justice to the region, and the wiser course is to fear Boko Haram. Jonathan has essentially admitted this by saying he had no idea where the girls were. It is not only the federal government, however, that is to blame, as it is clear that the governors of the states of Nigeria are also unable to control and work with the governed. 

One might understand the difficulty that the federal government may have in learning where the girls might be, but it is harder to understand how the governors and the states, particularly in the North, do not know or cannot find out where the girls were taken. One assumes they have been dispersed by now, which will make finding them even harder. Even though some governors may have channels of communication with Boko Haram, no information seems to be forthcoming. The distrust between the federal government and the governors of the North only underlines the gravity of the situation, and the potential for many more similar acts.

Third, Nigeria’s military forces, essential for peacekeeping in Africa, are in poor shape. They have been at a loss in following up on the kidnapping and eventually have asked for assistance from Great Britain and the United States, albeit grudgingly. Training of police and military is clearly in order. The Nigerian military has been distrusted since the days of military governance. The breach between the military and the government must also be healed, returning the Nigerian military to among the best trained in Africa.

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Fourth, the trust between the North and the South in Nigeria is almost non-existent. There is a major and increasingly explosive gap between a largely agrarian and Islamic North and a more urban and Christian South. While members of both religions live in all parts of the country, the tensions are increasing, not decreasing, and Nigeria is sitting on a powder keg that needs to be dampened as quickly as possible. A Nigeria at war with itself again will have ramifications throughout the continent, most immediately in North and West Africa. The kidnappings have made it much harder to persuade Western investors to invest in the North of Nigeria. One cannot reasonably expect investment to flow North in such conditions.

Nigeria, as do many countries, needs wisdom and strong leadership, now more than ever. Perhaps Jonathan can provide that, but it is clear that significant bridges need to be built in many sectors of Nigeria society from the North to the South, between the rich and the vast numbers of poor, between the governed and the government at all levels, and between the military and the government. It will not happen overnight, but change needs to begin now. Nigeria may still represent the best hope for Africa’s future, but right now that future may be imperiled.