Did Boko Haram really abduct 91 more people? No one knows. (+video)
In Nigeria, few sources and official silence mean little in the way of hard facts about alleged Boko Haram kidnappings and massacres.
Boko Haram reportedly snatched 60 women and 31 boys early this week, adding to a string of abductions and killings in the past year.
But while Nigerian security officials confirm an investigation into another mass abduction in the northeast of the country, they admit they have no idea how many people were actually kidnapped.
Indeed, with every report of a Boko Haram abduction the truth about the deadly insurgency and the facts about its actions become more elusive.
Questions so basic as to who, where, when and how many victims were taken, remain unanswered.
Ahead of national elections next year, some observers say the insurgency is likely to become even more entrenched as a small war existing just beneath the surface of society, in a country recently proclaimed to be Africa's leading economy.
Nigerian officials also dispute claims in the foreign press that the abductions happened last Saturday - while seeming hazy on when the alleged abductions took place themselves. Government officials have said the abductions happened over three days about two weeks ago.
“You know some of these attacks, because they are now rampant and because it affects remote or isolated villages, [the information] hardly [gets to] us on time,” said an officer at Borno’s department of security services.
The lack of information and apparent official confusion has been a leitmotif of the entire insurgent rise, which appeared to intensify after a state of emergency imposed in three northeast states by President Goodluck Jonathan's administration last May.
After martial law was imposed, cell phone and internet service often failed and there was little independent verification of the status of the fight between the Army and the shadowy rebel group as it hit targets, then disappeared across the border into Cameroon.
In April, the kidnapping of about 270 schoolgirls in the village of Chibok caused an improbable and overnight international outcry, much of it through the Nigerian group #bringbackourgirls. In early June, at least 20 women and girls were taken. In the past week alone, scores of people have been killed in raids on villages, military checkpoints and on football fans watching the World Cup.
Yet information remains scarce, unverifiable and contradictory as it filters into the cities from remote farming villages via “unnamed sources.”
The Nigerian Army chief said in May the government knows where the estimated 270 girls are located. But President Jonathan's official spokesman implied days later this was an exaggeration. Since then, there's been little information on the status of the girls. The government has also refused to say whether it will negotiate with Boko Haram. Meanwhile, no girls from Chibok have been recovered.
Residents and officials in the northeast fear reprisals from Boko Haram if they speak out, as the group appears to be not only killing and kidnapping people, but occupying villages, particularly in regions bordering Chad and Cameroon, according to Yan St. Pierre, the CEO of Berlin-based security consulting firm MOSECON.
As Nigeria’s 2015 national elections approach, increased political tensions also feed the insurgency, said Mr. St. Pierre. Local politicians in Nigeria’s cities and towns traditionally hire thugs to intimidate voters, he said. These politicians may have no interest in Boko Haram ideology but more often they are the men with the guns, gaining them “informal support.”
“They’re the ones wielding the money,” said St. Pierre. “They’re the one wielding the weapons. So basically it’s: ‘I’m your friend because I need to be associated with power.’”
While media regularly attribute Boko Haram as the attackers in the often daily bombings or killings, the fact is that Boko Haram rarely claims claims responsibility. Abubakar Shekau, the man who says he leads the group, regularly releases videos bragging about attacks and spouting his harsh version of Islamic law, which includes condemnation of all things Western, especially Western-style education.
After the girls were kidnapped from their schoolhouse in April, politicians from nations like the US, the UK, Israel and Iran pledged their support for the Nigerian military’s efforts to find the girls. And while activists in Abuja continue to rally daily demanding the girls’ rescue, no information has been released indicating when or if a rescue operation or a prisoner swap may happen.
Last week the Nigerian government for the first time reported that 219 girls remain missing. Previously, officials have said they do not know exactly how many girls were taken.
Abdulkareem Haruna contributed to this report from Maiduguri.