AFRICANGLOBE – What did the Nigerian government know about the mass abduction of schoolgirls by Boko Haram savages, and when did it know it?
Those are the tough questions being asked after an explosive report made public Friday accused Nigerian military commanders of knowing the terror group was on its way to raid a boarding school in the town of Chibok at least four hours before 276 girls were abducted.
The findings by human rights group Amnesty International echo accounts of a number of the parents and villagers, who have described an ineffective military response in the days and weeks after the girls were abducted.
President Goodluck Jonathan‘s government vowed to investigate the allegations even as it defended its military response and questioned the motive behind the accounts.
“This is really outrageous, unbelievable,” Minister of Information Labaran Maku said.
The moment the Nigerian government heard of the abduction, “we went in to action,” Maku said. “…We shouldn’t turn this into a trial of the Nigerian government.”
Even as he vowed an investigation into the claims, Maku said it was “inconceivable” that soldiers on duty would not respond to a potential attack on a school.
Hours after Nigeria’s defense ministry dismissed the report’s findings as “unfortunate and untrue,” the country’s minister of state for defense vowed to get to the bottom of the allegation.
“We must investigate and ensure we get to the root of it,” Musiliu Olatunde Obanikoro told reporters. “And any necessary actions will be taken to ensure such a thing doesn’t reoccur.”
Scrutiny of the government’s response has escalated amid international outrage over the mass abduction, with many asking why Nigeria did not mount a larger response or ask for international help.
The Amnesty International report alleges that after Nigerian commanders were informed of the pending attack, they were unable to raise enough troops to respond.
The commanders left a contingent of between 15 and 17 soldiers and a handful of police officers in Chibok to fend off the militants, the group reported.
“When it was clear these girls had been abducted, no reinforcements were sent to the town,” according to Makmid Kamara, a researcher with Amnesty International.
The report was based on the reports of more than a dozen people, including two senior Nigerian military officials, who gave varying, but consistent accounts, Kamara said.
But Nigeria’s defense ministry disputed the findings, saying the first word received was of an ongoing attack at Chibok.
The troops “did not receive four hours forewarning about the attacks,” according to a statement released by Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade, a ministry spokesman. “Rather, they received information of an ongoing attack on Chibok from troops on patrol” who saw the attack and took on the militants.
Borno state Sen. Ahmed Zannah said Friday that the military sent reinforcements, but not until the militants were already in Chibok.
‘The Soldiers Were Not There’
As many as 200 Boko Haram terrorists carried out the Chibok school raid, Amnesty reported, herding the girls out of bed under the cover of darkness after a firefight with the handful of security forces in the town.
The Nigerian government has claimed it responded, with troops, helicopters and airplanes in the immediate aftermath of the mass abduction.
But the father of two of the girls taken told reporters that there has been little sign of military help.
He said first learned of the attack in a telephone call from a friend in Chibok, who told him the town was under attack by Boko Haram.
“Pray for us,” the friend told the father, whose identity is being withheld out of a fear of possible reprisal by Boko Haram and the government.
The next day, the father learned his daughters and three nieces had been snatched.
He and his family sought out the help of the military in the area. But, he says, “the soldiers were not there.”
Days later, a meeting was called by the elders of Chibok. “They said the army will be there and a civilian detail will be there — to accompany us into the bush” to search for the girls, he said.
But no military or government officials showed up, he said.
“Nothing. Nothing. Up to 21 days, nothing has been done,” he said.
Nigerian officials have frequently been criticized for failing to prevent Boko Haram’s deadly attacks, particularly in the terror group’s stronghold of northeastern Nigeria.
Obanikoro, the minister of state for defense, called the criticism “grossly unfair.”
At least 2,000 people have died in violence in northern Nigeria this year alone, Amnesty said. The most recent Boko Haram attack killed at least 310 people in a town that had been used as a staging ground for troops searching for the missing girls.
U.S. and British officials have arrived in Abuja to supplement a U.S. team already on the ground there, according to officials.
They will help Nigeria’s government look for the missing girls, plan rescue missions and advise on ways to subdue Boko Haram.
“This isn’t time for a blame game. We are happy help is coming,” Obanikoro said.
U.S. officials, at least, say they are unlikely to commit troops to combat operations.
And it’s unclear if Nigeria would allow U.S. or U.K. troops on the ground. “We know the experiences the two nations are bringing to the table, and we intend to ensure that that wealth of experience is” used to bring about an end to the situation, Obanikoro said.
‘Many Soldiers Are Afraid’
According to Amnesty, civilian officials in a nearby town and leaders of an armed vigilante group organized by the military informed nearby military posts that armed militants had passed through on their way to Chibok hours before the April 14 assault on the boarding school.