The kidnapping of more than 200 girls in remote northeastern Nigeria has put an international spotlight on the escalating violence—and influence—of the Boko Haram Islamist militant group. The group’s four-year insurgency has killed thousands and displaced close to a million Nigerians, making youth in neighboring Niger and Cameroon easy targets for recruitment. With world leaders descending on Nigeria’s capital for the World Economic Forum on Africa, we get the latest on security, stability and the future for Africa’s largest country.


  • John Campbell Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria (2004-2007); Author, "Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink" (Rowman & Littlefield)
  • Ofeibea Quist-Arcton Africa Correspondent, NPR


  • 13:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, exploring a family's multicultural history through fiction, a debut novelist re-imagines her family's migration from Trinidad to America. But first, insurgency and instability in Nigeria, a critical US partner in Africa. It was a horrific headline that threw an already grieving nation into shock. Armed terrorists seize more than 200 teenage girls at a school, vanishing into the forest and baffling the country's armed forces.

  • 13:07:27

    MR. KOJO NNAMDITwo weeks later, most of the girls are still missing and the government is blaming a brutal Islamist militant group for the abduction. For five years, Boko Haram has unleashed a brutal insurgency campaign in the country's north, fighting, they say, against the influence of western culture and education. But even as the government wages war against forces rooted in a medieval vision of the past, it's also playing an increasingly important role in the global economy, having recently been crowned Africa's largest economy.

  • 13:08:00

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about this is John Campbell. He is Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's former US Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007 and author of "Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink." John Campbell, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:18

    MR. JOHN CAMPBELLThank you so much for having me.

  • 13:08:20

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Dakar, Senegal is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Africa Correspondent for NPR. Ofeibea, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:31


  • 13:08:33

    NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. Should the US take a more active role in fighting terrorism in Africa? What needs to happen in Nigeria for it to become a thriving economy in Africa? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Send email to or simply send us a tweet @kojoshow. Ofeibea, can we start with the story of the girls who were kidnapped from a school in northern Nigeria by members of the Boku Haram insurgency?

  • 13:09:03

    NNAMDICan you bring us up to speed on the effort to find them?

  • 13:09:08

    QUIST-ARCTONKojo, we can't say for sure that they were kidnapped in the dead of night from the Chibok Girls Government School in remote northeastern Nigeria by Boku Haram. Boku Haram has claimed responsibility for the bombings, just hours earlier outside Abuja, the capital, in which 60 plus people were killed, but they haven't yet claimed responsibility for this. But the government and almost everybody in Nigeria and beyond is saying suspected extremists. Now, apparently, they were dressed in soldiers' uniform and they managed to trick the principal of the school, Asabe Kwambura, who said that she was told by these armed men that the girls were not safe.

  • 13:10:00

    QUIST-ARCTONSo they had to evacuate them. And it was only once the girls had been piled into the backs of trucks that she realized she had been tricked by these men, but by then it was too late, and apparently the soldier and the police officer who were guarding the school were shot dead. And that is the last that has been heard about most of the girls. Some girls realized there was something amiss, jumped off and escaped. And a couple of days later, the military spokesman, Colonel Chris Olukolade, early on said that most of the girls had been rescued and that only eight were left as captors.

  • 13:10:43

    QUIST-ARCTON24 hours later, the military had to retract that statement and it has infuriated Nigerians, not least of course the families of these girls, who are Muslim and Christian, aged between 16 and 18. They had only gone back to school to do a science exam, because the schools in Borno State, one of the three northeastern Nigerian states, that has been under emergency rule for almost a year next month, schools have been closed because of the security problem.

  • 13:11:17

    NNAMDIWe know that there were reports of vigilantes and groups of parents going into the nearby Sambisa Forest to recover their daughters. What do we know about the efforts and where do the numbers stand now in terms of girls missing?

  • 13:11:33

    QUIST-ARCTONRight in the beginning, we were told about 100 plus teens, between age 16 and 18. Then, through parents' families and the principal, that number shot up to 234. It's between 190 and 200 girls that are still missing. And yet, all able bodied men from Chibok, fathers, brothers, uncles, apparently, the families pooled together whatever funds they could for fuel, and they went into the forest. The forest being a known hideout of Boku Haram insurgents, looking for the girls.

  • 13:12:11

    QUIST-ARCTONApparently, villages said yes, we saw them being trucked in. That's the way, but be careful. You are unarmed civilians. Your daughters and children are probably there. Be careful about just showing up because you may be killed and they may be killed. So, at the moment, there's an impasse. Nobody really knows. We hear other stories that the girls could because this part of northeastern Nigeria's close to the border with neighboring Cameroon, that they could have been taken across the border, and there have been cross border activity, we're told, between insurgent groups on both sides of the border.

  • 13:12:52

    QUIST-ARCTONThere's a big, big question mark. And lots of pressure on President Goodluck Jonathan and on Nigeria's military, A, to find the girls, because the families who went into the bush said they didn't meet any military, and yet for the past, how many, two, three months, there has been almost daily air bombardment of this forest by the military. But they have stopped now, and many people are saying that this is exactly what the insurgents wanted. They wanted the bombing to stop. They knew that if they were to abduct these girls, it would stop. Because if it continues, the girls may be killed or injured.

  • 13:13:30

    QUIST-ARCTONSo, are they being used as human shields?

  • 13:13:34

    NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, that's the voice of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Africa Correspondent for NPR. She joins us by phone from Dakar, Senegal to talk about insurgency and instability in Nigeria. In our Washington studio is John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, former US Ambassador to Nigeria, and author of "Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink." John Campbell, who are the Boku Haram and what do they claim they want for Nigeria?

  • 13:14:03

    CAMPBELLWell, Boku Haram is a label that the media and the government apply to what appears to be an extremely diffuse and decentralized movement. The most prominent spokesman or leader of Boku Haram, perhaps we should think of him as a warlord, is Abubakar Shekau. And he is the one who claimed responsibility for the bombing in Abuja. What do they want? There is no political manifesto. There's no list of 10 or 12 goals. We, essentially, have to infer what they want from their rhetoric. Their rhetoric is essentially Islamist in style.

  • 13:14:53

    CAMPBELLThey say they wish to create God's kingdom on earth through justice for the poor, achieved by the rigorous enforcement of Sharia or Islamic law. Notice, however, that this really is not a political program. This is more a kind of aspiration. I think the diffuseness of Boku Haram is an extremely important point. In other words, elements of it can be contradictory. Some elements of it appear to be more murderously inclined towards Christians than others. However, if we take the total number of casualties in northern Nigeria, Boku Haram has killed more Muslims than it has killed Christians.

  • 13:15:57

    NNAMDIOfeibea, you visited the place where Boku Haram was born more than a decade ago. What did you learn about the people who make up this group that John Campbell describes as diffuse.

  • 13:16:10

    QUIST-ARCTONWho knows? Abubakar Shekau, who claims on video about every quarter, every three, four, five, six months to claim responsibility for some murderous attack or other is about the only public face of, as John Campbell has said, a very diffused group. And, as he's also said, initially, this movement was attacking government and military installations. Then this name, Boku Haram, meaning western education give or take, Boku being book in Hausa, is Haram, I.e. forbidden for Muslims. We are told, for example, those that now, girls and young women who have been taken to the bush in the Sambisa Forest are used as sex slaves.

  • 13:17:01

    QUIST-ARCTONAnd, of course, how does that square with Islam? So it's hard to know. I met one young man back in October, it was, who had apparently been (word?) into joining, in inverted commas, Boku Haram. He said, you know, we -- how they talk about Allah. We hardly talk about God except when we're running out of food. And then what do we do? We go and pillage villages harvests and steal their food. So, it's really very hard to know if there is any sort of ideology.

  • 13:17:39

    QUIST-ARCTONIf there is an ideology, what is it? As John Campbell has said, you have more Muslims than Christians being killed in this insurgency. And we've gone from state and military and security installations to churches, schools, schools where boys have had their throats slit like sacrificial lambs, as many people describe it. Girls being told go home. Go and get married and stop your studies. So, is it about poverty and trying to make a better, more Muslim Islamic northern Nigeria?

  • 13:18:22

    QUIST-ARCTONOr is it, as Nigerians say, rascals and miscreants who are just taking advantage? It's very hard to put one finger on it. But, whatever the case, Nigerians are saying, enough is enough. The government is not doing enough. President Goodluck Jonathan has been pledging and promising for more than a year. They pledged and promised a military offensive that was going to crush this insurgency. And if anything, the insurgency has gathered steam, especially in the first four months of this year. 1500 people killed already, attacks willy-nilly and not just in the remote northeastern part of Nigeria.

  • 13:19:02

    QUIST-ARCTONBut as we saw two weeks ago, almost in the heart of the country and miles away from the seat of government. So Nigerians want answers and they want action now.

  • 13:19:14

    NNAMDIJohn Campbell, is Boku Haram affiliated with any international terrorist groups that we might be familiar with, like Al Shabaab or Al-Qaida?

  • 13:19:23

    CAMPBELLThere is lots of difference of opinion on that subject by people who watch Boku Haram. My own view is that if there is any connection, it is not transformative. What I mean by that is that you might well find evidence that a person who claims to be Boku Haram is in communication with a person who claims to be Al Shabaab or Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. But I have seen no convincing evidence that international terrorists movements play a transformative role in Boku Haram.

  • 13:20:01

    NNAMDIYou know, on the one hand, we are talking about a brutal insurgency and counterinsurgency being waged in one part of this massive country. But it's the same country that is asserting more muscle in the global economy and in global politics, a country with a huge influence on African culture through their Nollywood, their African film hub. You've said in the past that Nigeria is a marginal U.S. priority. Should it be more of a priority, John Campbell, as Boku Haram gains strength?

  • 13:20:33

    CAMPBELLYes. Nigeria should be more of a priority but not just simply because of Boko Haram. Nigeria has a 177 million people. It's bigger than the Russian federation even with Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine. Nigeria has the potential for being the leader of the African continent. And for years there was great hope that democracy -- genuine democracy in Nigeria could show the way forward for the rest of the continent.

  • 13:21:05

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on insurgency, on instability in Nigeria, what it means for that country, Africa, the U.S. and the world. But we're still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Is Nigeria so polarized between Muslims and Christians that it could break into civil war? What do you think, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:19

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about instability and insurgency in Nigeria with John Campbell, Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria, author of "Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink." He joins us in studio. Joining us by phone is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, Africa correspondent for NPR. Ofeibea, what kind of impact are we seeing on nearby Cameroon and Niger from the Boko Haram insurgency? Is there evidence that Boko Haram is destabilizing Nigeria's neighbors?

  • 13:23:52

    QUIST-ARCTONKojo, before I come to that I just want to take up John Campbell's point about Nigeria being the continental leader in Africa. There's just no doubt that it is. And when we look into the past, you know, Nigeria has led peacekeeping operations in Africa and elsewhere. And there's just no doubt that this is the giant of Africa. But is it the potential now waiting for to sort of blossom? And in lots of different fields in Nigeria we find that Nigeria's a leader on the continent and way beyond.

  • 13:24:27

    QUIST-ARCTONBut they just seem to be sometimes hamstrung. Was it the fact of finding oil so early before independence back in 1960. Was it that that sometimes holds Nigeria back? But there's no doubt that Nigeria's a leader, for me. Now back to your point about whether we're seeing destabilization in the region because of this Boko Haram insurgency. Yes, there has been. There have been kidnappings of predominantly Europeans across the border in Northern Cameroon who have then been spirited across the frontier back into Northern Nigeria where they have been kept.

  • 13:25:07

    QUIST-ARCTONSo although John Campbell says, you know, these signs that there's little -- that sort of binds these different groups together also in Mali we heard that Boko Haram fighters from Nigeria, and they were called Boko Haram fighters. Who knows whether they were part of this insurgency or not but they had fought in the occupation of the north of Mali before the French military offensive in January last year drove the Islamists out of the north, or mostly out of the north.

  • 13:25:39

    QUIST-ARCTONNiger has also said that it's having problems. You know, I heard BBC colleagues reporting just last week that there are people who feel that if they can get $3,000 and that they're being offered money by people who say that the Boko Haram to fight. Are they going to fight? Heck, yes. They need the money. So there is some sort of relationship, but who these extremist groups are, whether they work together, whether they coordinate or not is the question.

  • 13:26:14

    QUIST-ARCTONBut West Africa is worried. It is definitely worried and is it just a homegrown insurgency or is it regional terrorism? All these are question marks, and one of the questions that I wanted to put to John Campbell.

  • 13:26:28

    CAMPBELLWell, it seems to me that certainly Boko Haram's activities are destabilizing its neighbors. You mentioned the kidnappings. There are also refugee flows. Just how big they are, it's very hard to know because the boundaries in Northern Nigeria, the boundaries between Niger and Cameroon are essentially lines on a map drawn by the British and the French. It's the same people on both sides of the frontier. And therefore they take refugees in.

  • 13:27:01

    CAMPBELLI would also suggest that an even greater problem is internally displaced persons. A governor of a northern state estimated to me a few weeks ago that there were at least 2 million internally displaced persons in his state. Now they too were being taken in by family members, members of the same ethnic group. His concern was the sheer necessity for feeding 2 million additional mouths meant that people had to use their seed corn. His concern was what happens when it's time for planting and what is food security going to be like a year from now?

  • 13:27:38

    CAMPBELLI think those are things that the international community should worry about. And my own hope is that the international community could approach the humanitarian dimension of what's going on in Nigeria with more flexibility and more imagination than it has up to now.

  • 13:27:55

    NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned the international community because in a little more than a week, ten heads of states and delegates from around the world will be descending on Abuja, Nigeria for the world economic forum on Africa. It comes just as Nigeria early this month crowned itself the biggest economy in Africa. We've certainly seen a lot of growth in Nigerian industry, especially in telecom and film. But how squishy are those numbers?

  • 13:28:20

    CAMPBELLThe numbers are squishy indeed. It seems to me that we make a major mistake generally in Sub Saharan Africa by taking the nation's state as the unit of analysis. And instead we ought to be talking about, in Nigeria's case, individual states. For example, the Lagos Ibadan corridor is booming. That's the heart of finance of Nollywood, the construction everywhere, banks. But in the far northeast, the downward spiral is dramatic.

  • 13:28:57

    CAMPBELLIn the middle of the country the area in plateau state around the city of Jos, you have religious, ethnic and economic fighting which has led in some districts to something approaching ethnic cleansing. So that a huge country like Nigeria is both. Part of it is absolutely booming and the future is very bright indeed. While in other parts of the country it's descending into chaos.

  • 13:29:27

    NNAMDIOfeibea Quist-Arcton, talking about the heads of state who will be heading to Abuja for the world economic forum, is there concern there about security going into this huge event?

  • 13:29:40

    QUIST-ARCTONNigeria's point of view or from the visitors' point of view? I think from both sides. I think security is going to be super tight, especially the fact that we have seen that these insurgents can strike at will. The government keeps saying no, we have crushed them, we have pushed them into a narrow corridor in the northeast. But when they're killing commuters, market traders and others just outside Abuja, you know, within smelling distance of (unintelligible) the presidency, then there is real cause for concern that this is not some problem that is isolated in one northern part of Nigeria.

  • 13:30:17

    QUIST-ARCTONThese people can strike where they want to. Of course we don't know what the plan is, whether they are gunning for foreign leaders or not in the next strike, wherever that might be. But Nigeria has got to get it right because this disappearance of 200 girls has caught the world -- Nigeria's and the world's imagination. It's not that this has not been happening but this is an unprecedented mass abduction that has registered all over the world.

  • 13:30:52

    QUIST-ARCTONSo as people prepare to head to Nigeria, which is number one -- Africa's number one economy and hosting this economic forum, people want to know, can you keep us safe? Nigerians want to know, can you, President Goodluck Jonathan, keep us safe, you and the army?

  • 13:31:14

    CAMPBELLAnd of course an element in all of this is that Nigeria has national elections in 2015.

  • 13:31:19

    QUIST-ARCTONNext year.

  • 13:31:20

    NNAMDIWhich brings me to Torrey in Bethesda, Md. Torrey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:25

    TORREYWell, thank you, Kojo for covering this because I have been astonished at the lack of coverage that I've seen in the Washington Post and the New York Times as compared to the stories about say the Malaysian Airline or the Korean ferry. And it seems to me it warrants much more coverage, not only because of the humanitarian horror of 200 girls taken like this, but also it makes me wonder, is the government of Goodluck Jonathan not only apparently inapt but also on the verge of being unable to govern the country, which is a larger international concern? I wonder if your guests could address that.

  • 13:32:05

    NNAMDIYou know, there are a couple of things that need to be said about that. One of Nigeria's most respected newspapers this week ran an editorial titled This State Has Failed. It condemned the Jonathan government and said that all Nigerians now live in extreme fear. Of course, one remembers that during the 1990s, Nigeria was an international pariah led by military dictator Sani Abacha.

  • 13:32:31

    NNAMDIIf we look at Nigeria today it's a much more dynamic country, more democratic, but it's also a very violent society. And John Campbell, you say there may even be a kind of nostalgia looking in Nigeria for the days before democracy. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:32:46

    CAMPBELLThat's exactly right. You hear Nigerians now talking with nostalgia about the degree of security that existed under Abacha. And indeed I think it's important to remember that the current insecurity certainly of the present magnitude is fairly recent.

  • 13:33:06

    CAMPBELLFrom 2004 to 2007 when I was ambassador, I literally could travel anywhere in the country and I did so. Towards the end of my time there it was difficult to visit the Niger Delta, the oil patch, because there was an insurgency there called the -- labeled the movement for the emancipation of the Niger Delta. But certainly in the north right up to July and August, 2007 I traveled freely. And -- and I think this is important -- as American Ambassador I was warmly welcomed. It's -- no doubt there was anti-western sentiment there below the surface but I was always very, very politely treated.

  • 13:33:52

    NNAMDIOfeibea, when you go to Nigeria, is this the sense you get when you talk to Nigerians about their daily lives and the country's leadership that the government has failed? That there is a sense that individual security is no longer guaranteed and fear tends to dominate?

  • 13:34:11

    QUIST-ARCTONIt really depends which side you're on, although Nigerians say they want peace, they want security, they want stability. But as John Campbell mentioned, next year is an election year in Nigeria. Campaigning has already begun. You have President Goodluck Jonathan's party, which has been hemorrhaging some of its very well known planters who have joined the opposition.

  • 13:34:35

    QUIST-ARCTONAnd, unfortunately, we often see that in a run-up to an election, national elections in Nigeria, there is violence. Politicians and others, you know, manipulate the people, manipulate those who young men with no money, no prospects, no future who put, you know, coins, chump change will pick up whatever arms they've been given and go and create mayhem.

  • 13:35:03

    QUIST-ARCTONSo with the problem of the insurgency plus politicians lining up each side to try to win elections next year, Nigerians are saying, hey we need to stop, take stock and think of the population and not of politicians and those who want to just line their pockets, who are greedier and richer -- obscenely rich many people in Nigeria. I say many people. A tiny elite whilst the mass, 170 to 200 million, we're told, Nigerians still living in poverty.

  • 13:35:43

    QUIST-ARCTONSo many Nigerians say we should be one of the richest nations on earth. How come we are not? And how come we don't see if not equal distribution of oil wealth -- and of course this is very fertile land as well -- we need to watch out. But many Nigerians will tell you we are not a failed nation and no, we are not going to break up.

  • 13:36:10

    QUIST-ARCTONWe had the Biafran War in the late '60s and the beginning of the '70s. Nigerians know 1 million people died mainly of starvation when the east of it was known then. Now the southeast tried to secede. Nigerians don't want to see civil war, but they want to see good governments and governments that respect and delivers to the voters and the people.

  • 13:36:38

    NNAMDIOnto Quami in Washington, D.C. Torrey, thank you for your call. Quami, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:44

    QUAMIHi, Kojo. Yes. My concern is about the way forward. You look at the situation that prevailed in Uganda where you had Joseph Kony and where the atrocities of course went viral online. And you had the administration step in -- United States administration, I mean, step in and they were able to help push back Joseph Kony probably almost into oblivion. Now with Nigeria, I was wondering if something akin to that could -- you know, something akin to that could not be made, that is if the administration is interested or if the Nigerian government is open to that. Or is this maybe a question of African problems should be handled by Africans themselves or should an aggressive appeal be made to...

  • 13:37:38

    NNAMDIAllow John Campbell to respond. Nigeria has a very large military of its own. I don't know the extent to which the U.S. needs to provide logistical support or the extent to which Nigeria simply needs to get more organized.

  • 13:37:51

    CAMPBELLThat has always been the Nigerian position that they have a large military force. And that any kind of assistance that they might need would be purely technical. I think for outsiders the watchword has to be first do no harm. In other words, any outside involvement in the insurrection in the north could, in fact, make things worse. I think this is a situation where the international community has to listen very carefully to what Nigerians on the ground are saying. And I don't mean just the government, but I mean Nigerian civil society, academics, journalists and so forth.

  • 13:38:43

    NNAMDIBottom line, I think, of our discussion about Boko Haram this afternoon has been how little we actually know. We don't have a demographic profile. We don't really know who is leading them And what their goals are are extremely muddy. Under those circumstances, I think all of us should be extremely cautious.

  • 13:39:10

    NNAMDII guess that'll have to be the last word. John Campbell is Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. He's author of the book "Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink." John Campbell, thank you for joining us. And Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is Africa correspondent for NPR. Ofeibea, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:39:30

    QUIST-ARCTONAlways a pleasure. Let me just add very quickly, Kojo, that Reuben Abati, the presidential spokesman, has said the president said it's a problem that requires international cooperation. In terms of strategy logistics the presidency and the government are working with the Americans and the British and particularly with neighboring countries. So there is wiggle room.

  • 13:39:49

    NNAMDIThank you so much. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, exploring a family's multicultural history through fiction. A debut novel re-imagines her family's migration from Trinidad to America. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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