Nigerian Army Advances Against Boko Haram As Election Looms
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The extremist group Boko Haram became notorious beyond its borders for taking territory, along with captives, across a large swath of Nigeria. Now Nigeria's military says that with the help of regional troops, its forces have retaken key towns captured by Boko Haram. Those successes come a little more than a week before a vote in which President Goodluck Jonathan is seeking re-election. Nigeria delayed its presidential election for six weeks partly because of the insecurity. And many are asking how the army was able to do in those six weeks what it has failed to do these past six years. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton begins her report from the capital, Abuja.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Nigerian soldiers cheer after inspecting yet another strategic town regained by the army, which once was in the hands of Boko Haram. Years of violence by the group, which proclaimed a caliphate in areas under its control, have ravaged northeastern Nigeria. Towns and villages have been raised, and more than a million people have been driven from their homes. Nigeria's army chief, Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minimah, told journalists here in Abuja this week that Boko Haram was now holding only three local governments in the Northeast, and not for long, he hoped.
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LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH MINIMAH: We're optimistic that with time we'll liberate those local governments so that citizens can go back to their areas. And it is then I think they can..
MINIMAH: ...Their rights as voters. How soon, I don't know.
QUIST-ARCTON: The Nigerian military has been criticized for failing to end the insurgency. Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands of people since 2009 and taken many others prisoner. It's almost a year since the group abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls from their dorms at their boarding school in Chibok in the Northeast.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
PROTESTERS: (Singing) All we are saying - bring back our girls.
QUIST-ARCTON: The mass kidnapping shocked the world and spawned a viral social media Bring Back Our Girls campaign that first lady Michelle Obama supported. Eleven months later, nearly 200 girls are still missing, despite repeated assurances from the president and the army that they will soon be rescued. Army Chief Lt. Gen. Minimah acknowledges that despite liberating much of the Boko Haram-controlled zone, they have no idea where the missing schoolgirls are.
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MINIMAH: No news for now because in all the liberated areas we have, we have also made inquiries. But the truth is - when the terrorists are running away, they run also with their families. But we're optimistic...
QUIST-ARCTON: Grim news for the missing girls' families. They've been told over the past year that their children had been freed or that there was an imminent peace deal with Boko Haram and that the girls were safe. What are we to believe, asked the father of one of the abducted schoolgirls saying they've had their hopes raised and dashed. Speaking on the phone, he asked not to be identified.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through interpreter) They keep telling us our girls would soon be rescued and handed over to us. Where are our girls? Are they still alive or not? The government should just bring back our girls.
QUIST-ARCTON: Now they fear it may be too late. The government's focus is on next week's elections, hoping for a big win and return to power for the incumbent, President Jonathan. Jonathan's main opposition presidential contender, former military leader Muhammadu Buhari, says he's tough on security. But has the army's apparent momentum against the insurgents stolen Buhari's thunder? Analyst J. Peter Pham is head of the African Center of the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
J. PETER PHAM: Gen. Buhari certainly has campaigned on what he has argued has been the failure of the Jonathan administration to counter Boko Haram, although some of the sting in that may be taken out if they actually achieve the successes that they promise in the current campaign.
QUIST-ARCTON: Millions of Nigerian voters should have the final say in the March 28 presidential vote. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Abuja. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.