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With Few Answers On Missing Teens, Frustration Simmers In Nigeria


In Nigeria, a large number of schoolgirls, possibly a couple hundred, are still missing after they were abducted by suspected Islamist insurgents more than two weeks ago. It was thought that the teens had been trucked to a notorious militant hideout in northeastern Nigeria. Latest reports say they may have been spirited across Nigeria's borders to neighboring countries. The dearth of information from authorities is causing outrage and is putting pressure on the Nigerian government.

NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton joins us now. And Ofeibea, is there any reliable information on the fate of the girls at this point, or even how many are still missing?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The numbers keep going up. First of all, we were told 100 girls were abducted on that Monday, almost three weeks ago. Then the number went up to 234. Now we're being told 270-something. But where they are is the real issue that has angered, enraged Nigerians, and not just the families.

Audie, people are saying if they are in a militant hideout, a hideout of Boko Haram, Western education is sinful is their nickname, they haven't claimed responsibility for the abductions. But most people and the government say they are to blame. Have they been forced into marriage to militant fighters? There are so many questions.

CORNISH: And you've talked about this outrage. We know at one point, relatives of the girls were trying to conduct the search themselves. What have you seen in the way of protests in Nigeria?

QUIST-ARCTON: This week, protests in the capital, Abuja, and of course that's the seat of government where President Goodluck Jonathan and his Cabinet are based, saying what is the military doing about this? What is the government doing about this? How come 200 girls can just disappear? Listen to this mother who spoke, distraught to the BBC, just yesterday at one of the marches.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you know what it is for your daughter to be abducted by a nobody, taken out of the country, be violated? Little girls of 13 and maybe to 18 being violated, fed nonsense and being drugged.

QUIST-ARCTON: And that's what is being said. There are all these banners being held up: where are these girls, find these girls, what guarantees do we have from the government. So President Goodluck Jonathan is under huge, huge pressure.

CORNISH: Is there any sense yet of any reason why people assume these girls have been taken out of Nigeria?

QUIST-ARCTON: There is so much speculation and so much rumor. But the truth is, Audie, that the borders are so porous in this region of West Africa. We know that in the past, Europeans especially have been abducted, kidnapped in northern Cameroon and then spirited across the border into northern Nigeria. And we know that Boko Haram, this militant group, moves around. We're told that they move into Niger, another neighbor of Nigeria. But now we're told the girls may even be in Chad, which is even further. The problem is trying to get, you know, veritable confirmation of what is fact and what is fiction. That is what everybody wants to know.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, Ofeibea, what more can you tell us about this region? Just how out of control are things here, in terms of the government being able to deal with Boko Haram?

QUIST-ARCTON: A year ago, President Jonathan imposed emergency rule on Borno state and two other northeastern Nigerian states. These are the trouble areas, the area where Boko Haram has been operating. And in the past, Audie, they were targeting government installations, military installations, security installations, then it moved to churches. But now they're killing as many Christians as they are Muslims, although they say they want to impose strict Shariah, which is Islamic law on this part of Nigeria.

They say that Nigerians are not practicing proper Islam. But their real ideology is a real question because they seem able to recruit young men who have no future, no hope, no opportunities. Give them weapons and give them money and they'll fight for them. But then those who have fought for Boko Haram say there's no talk of Allah. There's no talk of God until we run out of food in the bush, and then we go and steal it from villagers. So Nigerians are at a loss. But they say now is the time for the government to act.

CORNISH: NPR's Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Ofeibea, thank you.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
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