The Nigerian government did not adequately communicate with the press about the nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala admitted to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday.
“This is a very delicate situation with an unpredictable group. And I think that maybe this is one of the areas where we have not been able to communicate as well as we can.”
“The president has two daughters,” she said. “These children are our children. But we did not communicate that well.”
Critics say that far from just releasing bad information, the government released demonstrably false information.
Just days after the kidnapping in April, the Nigerian military announced that all but a handful of the girls had been released; that claim was soon disproved, and the girls are still missing.
“I don’t know how that happened,” Okonjo-Iweala said. “The issue now is not whether we are criticized or not criticized unfairly. I think we should forget about all that.”
That public relations is to blame may be precious little consolation to the parents of the girls, who are still missing, but Okonjo-Iweala’s new initiative to better secure Nigeria’s schools may help.
She has come to London to announce a new “Safe Schools” initiative.
“The issue is what are we doing as a government to make things better? And this Safe Schools Initiative that has been launched with the help of Gordon Brown is one of the instruments.”
“We are trying to say to these girls: We are not just going to fold our hands. We will be working hard to get you back. But when you come back, you should find a different place.”
President Goodluck Jonathan is “trying to work with the UK, with France, the U.S., and other countries – China – to be able to get more intelligence, better intelligence, support, and support the army. Troops have been increased from 15,000 to 20,000 to try and provide better security.”
“This does not mean that you will not see incidents, because the nature of this type of insurgency is one single person can cause a problem somewhere.”
The government is leaving open all possibilities to get the girls back, she said, including negotiation with Boko Haram.
Just two weeks ago, the Nigerian military wrapped up its investigation into the missing girls, with little progress to show on returning them to their homes.
“I don’t think anyone has wrapped up anything,” she said. “You know, there are different stages of this investigation. There’s also a presidential committee that is also looking into this. There’s nothing to wrap up, Christiane.”
“We cannot wrap up anything until we get the girls back.”
The economic solution
The long-term solution to abductions like, Okonjo-Iweala said, may be economic – her bailiwick as finance minister.
“We face two problems: growing inequality, and also the lack of inclusion in these areas. And we’ve recognized that.”
“What we need to do is say, ‘What is the source of growth that can create jobs?’ Because the issue in our country is lack of jobs for our young people.”
Corruption is a huge issue in Nigeria but Okonjo-Iweala said her country is not alone.
“You cannot characterize Nigeria alone. It’s not when you mention the name Nigeria, the next word that comes up is corruption.”
“No,” Amanpour said, “but I’m talking to the Nigerian finance minister.”
“And I’m responding to you,” Okonjo-Iweala responded. “We must be more specific about the things we are doing to confront it.”
For example, she said, the government has ordered an independent investigation into billions of dollars in oil revenue that was revealed to have gone missing earlier this year.
“Of course, Christiane, there’s resistance. I mean, I’ve felt it. There is resistance. You know, there are winners and losers, and the losers can dig in, if they feel.”
“In Ekiti state, some of the reforms in education that he [the State's governor] was trying to bring, with teachers taking exams and so on and so forth – you know, in the U.S., when they [require] teachers’ exams, too, the teachers there were resistant. [And the United States] is a very highly educated state.”
Her feeling, she said, is that “communication to the grassroots” should be improved so that people recognize that reform “is really good for you and will change your future.”
“Maybe it didn’t – it didn’t go.”