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(Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)
(Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

‘I abducted your girls’: Mass kidnapping forces world’s attention on Nigeria’s Boko Haram Add to ...

The ruthless leader of Boko Haram, gesturing wildly and giggling maniacally, faces the video camera and boasts that his militant Nigerian group has kidnapped more than 220 schoolgirls.

“I abducted your girls,” says Abubakar Shekau, a Kalashnikov assault rifle slung around his chest, mocking the Nigerian government as he stands in front of an armoured personnel carrier. “I will sell them in the market, by Allah.”

The 57-minute video, in which the Islamist militants claim responsibility for the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls, was the latest taunt against the ineffectiveness of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and his government, the corrupt and weak rulers of Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy.

Despite public protests and widespread international alarm, Mr. Jonathan has managed to do little to rescue the schoolgirls. As many as 276 of them are still held by Boko Haram in an unknown location since their abduction three weeks ago in a remote region of northeastern Nigeria.

The video, obtained by the French news agency AFP, offers a glimpse of the extreme ideology and dangerous weaponry of the Islamist radicals. The leader, Mr. Shekau, is flanked by six armed and masked men. Wearing military-style camouflage clothes, they stand in front of an armoured vehicle and two pick-up trucks mounted with sub-machine guns.

The militant group’s name, Boko Haram, means literally “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language. And in the video, Mr. Shekau repeats the same prohibition to the schoolgirls, describing them as “slaves” and ordering them to be “married” while still children. “I said Western education should end,” he said. “I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine. … God instructed me to sell them, they are his properties, and I will carry out his instructions.”

If anyone had been paying attention, Mr. Shekau had explicitly warned of his intentions in an earlier video in March, in which he warned Nigerian girls to drop out of school and get married. “In Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves,” he said. “In due course, we will start taking women away.”

Then, on April 14, his followers did exactly that. They stormed an all-girls secondary school in the village of Chibok in northeastern Borno state, where the girls were taking exams, and loaded the girls onto trucks and disappeared. Only a few dozen girls, out of perhaps more than 300 in the group, were able to escape. The rest are in danger of being sold into sex slavery for as little as a few dollars each. Most are 15 to 18 years old.

The abduction, which has struck a nerve across the nation of more than 170 million people, has underlined the weakness of President Jonathan, a Christian from southern Nigeria. Hundreds of Nigerians have joined demonstrations against the kidnapping.

“We promise that, wherever these girls are, we’ll surely get them out,” Mr. Jonathan said in a TV broadcast Sunday.

But he gave no clear idea of how the girls would be found and freed. Aside from setting up a “presidential committee,” he announced no specific actions.

The case has triggered global outrage. Politicians in the United States and Britain have demanded aggressive action to find the girls. “We are appalled by the slow response of the Nigerian government to the horrific mass kidnapping,” said a statement on Monday by U.S.-based human rights group Human Rights First.

Mr. Jonathan is under further pressure because his country is scheduled on Wednesday to play host to the World Economic Forum on Africa, a major gathering of foreign investors and business leaders. The forum was intended to be a showcase for Nigeria’s expanding economy, but instead it is likely to be overshadowed by the continued plight of the missing schoolgirls and the frustration over the government’s inability to respond. More than 6,000 soldiers are being deployed to guard the event in the capital, Abuja.

Meanwhile, a woman who helped organized protests against the mass kidnapping has reportedly been detained by police after meeting with the president’s wife. Naomi Mutah, a representative of the Chibok community, was taken to a police station and accused of “impersonation” after a meeting with Patience Jonathan.

The first lady reportedly felt slighted because the women at the meeting were not the mothers of the kidnapped girls but were neighbours who had been designated to meet her in Abuja because the mothers could not reach the city in time for the meeting.

Nigeria is one of the world’s largest oil exporters but remains hampered by corruption, poor infrastructure and violence as it struggles with the fourth year of Boko Haram’s insurgency, which has killed thousands of people and displaced millions.

Boko Haram has been designated a terrorist group by the governments of Britain, the United States and Canada. The Canadian government announced last December that it had listed the movement as a terrorist group under the Criminal Code.

“Boko Haram is a Salafist jihadist group operating in northern Nigeria whose ultimate objective is to overthrow the Nigerian government and implement sharia law,” Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said at the time. “The group desires a political system in Nigeria modelled after how the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan.”

Both Boko Haram and government forces have been accused of committing horrific abuses. The brutal retaliatory killings by the Nigerian security forces – which are believed to have inflicted as many deaths on unarmed civilians as the Boko Haram attacks – have fuelled the conflict further.

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by charismatic cleric Muhammad Yusuf, who was killed by Nigerian security forces during a crackdown near the group’s main headquarters in Maiduguri in Borno state. One of Muhammad Yusuf’s deputies, Mr. Shekau, took over and realigned Boko Haram as a jihadist group.

Mr. Shekau is a shadowy and violent figure who has been described as “part intellectual, part gangster.” The U.S. government has offered a $7-million reward for information about his location. His age is unknown, and he hasn’t been seen in public since 2009. Video clips of his sporadic statements are released by Boko Haram’s “public enlightenment department.”

Researchers say Mr. Shekau gained power in Boko Haram with violent methods. He reportedly ordered the killing of moderate rivals who favoured dialogue with the Nigerian government. When he was injured in fighting with the Nigerian military in 2012, he fled to northern Mali, where he helped Boko Haram forge stronger links with Islamist radicals who were affiliated with al-Qaeda. These days he often slips across the border to seek refuge in Cameroon or Chad or to trade for weapons.

He remains one of the most aggressive of Boko Haram’s commanders. After a deadly attack by Boko Haram that killed more than 180 people in January of 2012, the group released a video clip in which Mr. Shekau said: “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill – the way I enjoy killing chickens and sheep.”

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