When Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari took office three years ago, eradicating the “mindless, godless” militants of Boko Haram and rescuing hundreds of women and children they held captive was a main pledge in his inaugural address.
Another mass abduction of schoolgirls in the remote north-east exposed how little progress has been made.
It also shows security is a major weakness for the former military ruler with less than a year to go before elections he is expected to contest.
The kidnap of the 110 girls, mostly aged 11-19, in Dapchi two weeks ago bears uncomfortable similarities to Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from Chibok, less than 300 km away.
That case drew global attention to the jihadist group, which wants an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria’s north-east. Then-President Goodluck Jonathan’s listless response helped Buhari to win the presidency a year later with vows to eliminate the militants.
“The Chibok girls’ kidnapping came to symbolise all that was wrong with Goodluck Jonathan’s administration and the danger Buhari faces is this mass abduction could do the same to him,” said Antony Goldman, of Nigeria-focused PM Consulting.
Buhari declared the Dapchi abduction a”national disaster”. He sent troops to help with the search and the head of the air force temporarily relocated to the region and directed more than 100 reconnaissance sorties.
A series of administrative missteps exposed what critics say is a lack of co-ordination between Nigeria’s various security agencies and state governments and there are no signs authorities are making progress in finding the girls.
Dapchi residents celebrated after the state governor said the military had rescued most of the girls three days after they were taken. A day later, his spokesman was forced to rescind and apologise.
The army and police traded blame over security arrangements in place when the attack happened prompting questions about their ability to fight an insurgency which Buhari repeatedly said was defeated.
“The federal government should stop lying concerning the fight against Boko Haram,” said Peter Fayose, a member of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and governor of the southern state of Ekiti.
“It has now become tradition whenever government boasts of defeating the insurgents, greater havoc is wrecked on the country,” he wrote on Twitter.
CONCERN IN RULING PARTY
Buhari (75) has not yet indicated if he will seek a second term in the February 2019 vote. Senior members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) said they would support his re-election.
Three APC sources told Reuters some in the party were concerned if the Dapchi girls are not found quickly, the kidnappings could be used to undermine Buhari, just as his supporters used the Chibok attack to mobilise against Jonathan.
A spokesman for Buhari declined to comment on whether he would seek re-election next year or heed opposition calls for him to visit Dapchi.
Buhari, a Muslim, is from Katsina north of Abuja and the north formed the core of his support in the 2015 election. Of 491,767 votes cast in nearby Yobe state in the north-east, where Dapchi is, 446,265 went to Buhari.
His support there appears to be holding up for now.
“Nothing has changed my mind about supporting Buhari because I have faith in him that he’s working to see the situation is under control,” said Kachallah Gumbam, a data processing officer in the town.
A rise in abductions and suicide attacks in one of Nigeria’s poorest regions risks changing that picture if it is not brought under control, according to Malte Liewerscheidt at risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence.
“The ongoing Boko Haram crisis has the potential to alienate the president’s core constituency in the north-east, as putting an end to the conflict was one of Buhari’s main campaign pledges in 2015,” he wrote in a research note.
The north-eastern insurgency is one of a series of security challenges which plague Buhari’s administration.
Militant attacks in the Niger Delta oil hub helped push Africa’s biggest economy into recession under Buhari, although they have largely died down for now.
The Dapchi kidnappings come hot on the heels of resurgent communal violence in central states known as the “Middle Belt” between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers. Those clashes have killed more than 100 people this year.
Buhari’s opponents say he failed to crack down on herdsmen because they are from his Fulani ethnic group, an accusation the presidency denies. He has deployed troops to the region.
Should Buhari run for re-election, any drop in support in his northern bastions combined with a weaker showing in the Middle Belt, where presidential races have traditionally been tighter, could be damaging.
“The escalating herder-settler conflict in about a dozen states across the so-called Middle Belt has the potential to affect the vote in crucial ‘swing states’,” said Liewerscheidt.
For Bukky Shonibare, an activist with the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign group set up to raise awareness about the Chibok kidnapping, history is repeating itself.
Buhari’s government should have learned from mistakes made by the previous administration over the 2014 mass abduction, she told Reuters, by putting better security measures in place and communicating faster in the aftermath.
“When you look at the response it’s been disappointing, short of what you would expect from a government with a script,” Shonibare said.
“They had four years to prevent an occurrence like Chibok. Yet four years later, we have Dapchi.”