LAGOS (Reuters) - When Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari took office three years ago, eradicating the “mindless, godless” militants of Boko Haram and rescuing the hundreds of women and children they held captive was one of the main pledges in his inaugural address.
Another mass abduction of schoolgirls in the dusty and remote northeast has exposed how little progress has been made.
It also shows that security is a major weakness for the former military ruler with less than a year to go before elections which he is widely expected to contest.
The kidnap of the 110 girls, mostly aged 11-19, in the town of Dapchi almost two weeks ago bears uncomfortable similarities to Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from Chibok, less than 300 km (180 miles) away.
That case drew global attention to the jihadist group, which has sought to create an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria’s northeast. 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 symbolize all that was wrong with Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, and the danger Buhari faces is that this mass abduction could do the same to him,” said Antony Goldman, of Nigeria-focused PM Consulting.
Buhari has declared the Dapchi abduction a “national disaster”. He sent troops to help with the search, and the head of the air force has temporarily relocated to the region and directed more than 100 reconnaissance sorties.
A series of administrative missteps has exposed what critics say is a lack of co-ordination between Nigeria’s various security agencies and state governments, however, and there are no signs authorities are making progress in finding the girls.
Dapchi residents celebrated in the streets after the state governor said the military had rescued almost all of the girls three days after they were taken. A day later, his spokesman was forced to rescind the statement and apologize.
The army and police have also traded blame over the security arrangements in place when the attack happened, prompting questions about their ability to fight an insurgency which Buhari had 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 the tradition that whenever the government boasts of defeating the insurgents, greater havoc is wrecked on the country,” he wrote on Twitter.
Buhari, 75, has not yet said whether he will seek a second term in the Feb. 16, 2019, vote. Senior members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) have said they would support his re-election.
But three APC sources told Reuters some in the party were concerned that 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 mobilize 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 the state of Katsina directly north of the capital, 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 northeast, where Dapchi is located, 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 tirelessly to see the situation is under control,” said Kachallah Gumbam, a data processing officer who lives 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 northeast, as putting an end to the conflict was one of Buhari’s main campaign pledges in 2015,” he wrote in a research note.
The northeastern insurgency is just one of a series of security challenges which have plagued 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.
But the Dapchi kidnappings came 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 has failed to crack down on the herdsmen because they are from his Fulani ethnic group, an accusation which the presidency has strongly denied. He has deployed troops to the region.
Should Buhari decide to 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 prove to 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 the mistakes made by the previous administration over the 2014 mass abduction, she told Reuters, by putting better security measures in place and communicating more quickly in the aftermath.
“When you look at the response it’s been very disappointing, short of what you would expect from a government that had a script,” Shonibare said.
“(They had) four years to prevent an occurrence like Chibok. Yet four years later, we still have Dapchi.”
Additional reporting by Ahmed Kingimi and Afolabi Sotunde in Dapchi, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja, Ola Lanre in Maiduguiri and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Sonya Hepinstall