Nigeria Wait for Girls’ Return Hits Jonathan Prospects

As Nigerians demand action to return the almost 300 schoolgirls abducted by Islamist militants, President Goodluck Jonathan is seeing his political fortunes plummet less than nine months before general elections.

Jonathan, 56, has faced criticism at home and abroad for failing to react quickly to Boko Haram’s April 14 abduction. There have been almost daily protests in Nigerian cities demanding that his government act to rescue the students. Before the kidnapping, the army under his nominal command was accused by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and international rights groups of committing widespread abuses against civilians.

“It has shown the government as incompetent and unable to deliver on its responsibilities,” Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, said by phone from the capital.

Jonathan is now relying on support from countries such as the U.S., which is carrying out surveillance flights to try to locate the girls, and the U.K., France, China and Israel to bring an end to the crisis in Africa’s biggest oil producer.

“He has looked slow to react, the international assistance looks as though it has been forced on him, and he has come in for unprecedented criticism abroad,” Francois Conradie, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based research group NKC Independent Economists, said in an e-mailed reply to questions. “If there is a successful rescue operation followed by a decrease in terror in the north he may gain politically, otherwise I think he will have lost support.”

U.S. Caution

A month after the kidnapping, it’s almost impossible to mount a rescue operation, said a U.S. official who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

In the U.S., lawmakers and administration officials today criticized Nigeria’s response to the crisis. Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he’s written to Jonathan asking him “to demonstrate the leadership his nation is demanding.”

“Despite offers of assistance from the United States and other international partners, the Nigerian government’s response to this crisis has been tragically and unacceptably slow,” Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said at a hearing of his panel.

‘Unfortunate Record’

State Department and Defense Department officials at the hearing said the Nigerian government’s failure to deal with abuses by its own military is a hurdle.

Alice Friend, the Defense Department’s principal director for African affairs, told the committee that even as the U.S. is providing intelligence and satellite photos to help in the search, officials are being “exceedingly cautious about sharing information with the Nigerians because of their unfortunate record.”

Some investors in Africa’s biggest economy say their plans may be slowed by violence there, which London-based Amnesty International says has killed at least 2,000 people this year.

“It does slow down the plans that we have, it does put out the projections that we have by a year or two,” Thabo Dloti, chief executive officer of South Africa’s fourth-largest insurer, Liberty Holdings Ltd., said in a May 7 interview at the World Economic Forum in Abuja.

Jonathan waited almost three weeks before speaking publicly about the kidnapping of the students in the northeastern town of Chibok in Borno state. Initially, the army said the girls had been freed, only to have to retract the statement after the school principal said it wasn’t true.

International Support

He’s expressed confidence that with international backing, the children will be returned to their families.

“With the whole world supporting us, we’ll surely find the abducted girls soon,” Jonathan said on May 11, according to an e-mailed statement from the presidency.

At least 200 suspected Boko Haram militants were killed early yesterday when villagers repelled an attack in Ngala region in Borno, Abiso Mohammed, a former local government chairman in the area, said by phone yesterday.

“The government should have done better, it should have acted fast,” Olajide Olaitan, 28, said yesterday at her drinks shop in Lagos, the commercial capital. “It seems like nobody is doing anything about it, and you read the papers every day and the president is doing other things as if there are no issues at hand.”

The day after the girls were taken and Boko Haram killed at least 75 people in Abuja’s worst-ever bombing, Jonathan attended a political rally in the northern city of Kano.

Birthday Cake

The same day, his spokesman, Reuben Abati, posted on his Twitter account a photo of a grinning Jonathan standing next to a birthday cake decorated with a crown in the city of Ibadan.

Abati didn’t respond to calls to his mobile phone for comment. Olisa Metuh, spokesman for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, did not respond to e-mailed questions.

Jonathan, a southern Christian who’s been in power since his predecessor, northerner Umaru Yar’Adua, died in office in 2010, hasn’t said whether he will run for re-election on Feb. 14. His party faces its biggest challenge since taking power at the end of military rule in 1999 from the main opposition All Progressives Congress.

The president’s handling of the kidnapping crisis may play a pivotal role in his chances of victory.

“It makes a mockery of his management competencies and ability to handle the north,” Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, the managing director of DaMina Advisors LLP, said in a phone interview from New York. “It fundamentally challenges his re-election prospects.”

Economic Boom

The naira has fallen 1.5 percent this year to 162.62 per dollar at 7:40 a.m. in Lagos, while the Nigerian Stock Exchange All Share Index has declined 5.3 percent.

The International Monetary Fund said in March it was projecting GDP growth of 7.3 percent this year, after it grew by 6.4 percent in 2013.

While the economy is booming, Nigeria has the third-largest number of people living in poverty after China and India, with 7 percent of the world’s total, according to the World Bank.

“The federal government has been a complete failure,” Olaitan said at her drinks shop. “I think it’s going to be total stupidity if Nigerians still go ahead and vote for Goodluck Jonathan.”

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