President Muhammadu Buhari has explained why his administration was being careful in rescuing schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram from Chibok in Borno and Dapchi in Yobe.
He told American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that he prefers to have the girls back alive, hence the adoption of negotiations, rather than taking a military option.
He said this in a closed door meeting with Tillerson at State House, Abuja, on Monday.
This is as Tillerson has described the abduction of the 110 schoolgirls from Government Girls Science and Technical College, Daphi in Yobe State as “heartbreaking”.
President Buhari added that Nigeria was working in concert with international organizations and negotiators to ensure that the girls were released unharmed by their captors.
“We are trying to be careful. It is better to get our daughters back alive,” the President said.
He thanked the United States of America for assistance rendered in the fight against the Islamist insurgency, noting that Nigerian forces are good, “but need assistance in the areas of training and equipment.”
President Buhari promised that his administration would continue to do its best to secure the country, adding that he would be in Yobe State, from where Dapchi schoolgirls were abducted, later this week “as part of my condolence and sympathy visits to areas where we have had unfortunate events.”
The President pledged a free and fair election in 2019, recalling that the then American Secretary of State, John Kerry, had visited before the 2015 polls, “and he told the party in government then, and those of us in opposition, to behave ourselves, and we did.”
The visiting Secretary of State commended President Buhari on his strides in the anti-corruption war, to which the Nigerian leader responded that moneys recovered are being invested on development of infrastructure.
Tillerson said Nigeria was a very important country to the U.S, stressing that “You have our support in your challenges. We will also support opportunities to expand the economy, commercial investments, and peaceful polls in 2019.”
Tillerson briefed State House correspondents after his closed-door parley with Buhari, alongside Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama.
He said it was worrisome that just like the kidnapping of scores of school girls in Chibok three years ago, all the girls are yet to be freed, but regretted that the United States can do no more than provide required support and assistance since Nigeria remains a sovereign nation.
Tillerson expressed the willingness of America to cooperate with Nigeria to boost bilateral trade between both countries, disclosing that later this year will witness the inauguration of Nigeria America Trade Dialogue to foster trade relations.
“First, we respect the responsibilities of the government of Nigeria and the territorial integrity of Nigeria. But the way we support is in providing them capability, capacity with equipment and also training of the personnel of special operations and sharing intelligence to ensure that they have all the information available to carry out the recovery effort.
But I think it is also important to put this in a broad regional context as well. Boko Haram is a threat to other regions and this has been the subject of my meetings elsewhere and in Africa as well. In my discussion with President Derby in Chad earlier today, we spoke about the threat of Boko Haram and I think it is important and it’s really been powerful, the collaboration between the joint task force which Nigeria is a part and Chad is a part, to respond to this threat of terrorism which Boko Haram is one of the organizations, there are other threats that the leadership of this country has to deal with.
“So the United States is ready to engage and coordinate efforts as well. But we have been supporting, equipping, training and, when we can, provide information. I think that is the best way we have been helping the government of Nigeria secure the release of the girls which, we hope, will be done in a peaceful manner. We hope that something can be worked out and they can secure the release of these girls quickly.”
The Secretary of State also repeated his warning to African nations to be very cautious about accepting offer of loans from China in order to safeguard their national assets.
He suggested that needy African countries should exploit the opportunities offered by private foreign investors.
“I think it is important to clarify that we do not seek to stop Chinese investments from flowing to countries that need those investments. But what we are cautioning countries is to look carefully, that the implications of the level of debts, the terms of the debts, and whether the arrangements around the local financing are intact creating jobs, local capacity or the projects being carried out by foreign labour being brought to your country, is the structure of the financing such that you will always be in control of your infrastructure? Are there mechanisms to deal with the faults so that you do not lose ownership of your own assets? These are national assets whether there are ports, railways, or major highways.
“We have seen this occur in other countries that were not so careful and, as a result, they got themselves in a situation where they awfully lost control of their infrastructure, lost the ownership, the operation of it.
“And that is the precaution that we talking about. That there are international rules and norms and financial structure to deal with unforeseen circumstances, and I think we are just cautioning countries to look carefully. There are other alternative financing mechanism that are available and I think in particular of government creating the right conditions around those infrastructural investments. There are also great potentials for public-private sector co-investing in the infrastructure. And we are developing mechanism that will also create alternative opportunities and financing offers.
“We have seen many, many around the world that did not work out so well and we are just saying, as friends, be careful.”
He explained that the group had been degraded because it no longer takes territories after dislodging Nigerian security forces, as happened before the Buhari government came into office in 2015.
The Minister admitted though that the terrorists still inflict damage and take lives in attacks on soft targets, which are quite difficult to prevent sometimes as a lot more intelligence is required.
“With regards to the kidnapping of the girls in Dapchi, it is incorrect to say we took a week to acknowledge [the incident]. It was acknowledged immediately; everything was being done and we were strategizing.
“Other people might have made comments, but those comments do not represent any government coming out with the acknowledgment.
“Fighting terrorism is a new challenge globally. When we talked of having degraded Boko Haram, we were referring specifically to the situation that we were confronted with when the government took over.
“That was a situation where you have a classical military confrontation and Boko Haram were capturing territory, holding onto territory and hoisting flags. So as a conventional military threat, Boko Haram has been completely degraded.
“Now, there is a challenge with regards to sporadic suicides bombings and, of course largely, there is kidnapping of the girls.
“We don’t by any stretch of imagination minimize those but it is really a different kind of warfare as it is, and the government is sparing no effort in addressing that. But it is a different challenge that requires intelligence and also understanding the environment that these kinds of unlimited support for Boko Haram and indoctrination of young children.
“So, in a nutshell, the answer is we didn’t take a week to acknowledge the abduction of these girls and secondly, is a global challenge not just in Nigeria and is something we are addressing.
“But as far as classical military threat, we have certainly degraded the capacity of Boko Haram to beat a classical retreat.”
Onyeama also debunked claims that the fight against terrorism was getting worse despite the collaboration with the task force, friends of Nigeria and the US.
According to him, “As regards whether things are not getting worse in the fight against terrorism, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that that accurately represents the situation.
“There is no doubt that the threat is there, there is no doubt that the damage that they are capable of and are actually inflicting is great and this explains of course why there are so many countries involved and now establishing presence militarily in parts of the continent.
“But it is a work in progress if I can use the word “work” to describe that kind of activity. It requires a lot of intelligence and, like I said, is asymmetric warfare that a lot of countries in this part of the continent are not just prepared for. There is a lot of efforts and there has been a lot of success, really concrete successes that have been achieved. But clearly there is still a lot that needs to be done, which is why there are these investments. Why it appears that these terrorists appear to be emboldened and stronger, when you see the attack in Burkina Faso, well these are soft targets and so difficult sometimes to prevent completely; but with greater sharing of intelligence and I think there is greater cooperation now, with G5, Sahel, multinational joint task force have a presence here, we hope to turn the tide very soon,” the minister said.