A ban by police in Abuja of rallies in support of more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls has been cancelled. Meanwhile, there is growing public criticism of the government for failing to bring the girls back home.
Efforts to seek the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped almost two months ago appear to be turning into something of a fiasco for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
The announcement on Monday evening (02.06.2014) that rallies calling for the girls to be released were to be banned met with strong criticism both in Nigeria and abroad. There has been growing media attention on the abductions in many countries outside Africa, not least in the US where First Lady Michelle Obama called for the girls to be returned to their parents. Pope Francis used twitter to call for prayers for their immediate release. The reason originally given for the ban in Abuja was security considerations - but many Nigerians think it has more to do with politics.
Prominent figures such as former minister Obiageli Ezekwesili (center) have joined the protest rallies
There have been claims that the majority of demonstrators came from the main opposition party which is hoping to unseat President Jonathan in elections next year. Supporters of the government say the protesters should stop their criticism of the military for failing to find and release the girls.
In late May the army issued a statement saying the whereabouts of the girls was known but no information would be given so as not to jeopardize their safety.
Rallies disrupted by 'paid hooligans'
Last week, a demonstration in Abuja calling for the girls' release was marred by violence when young men armed with bottles, stones and plastic chairs attacked female protesters. There were unconfirmed reports that the men were carrying placards in support of President Jonathan.
Speaking to DW correspondent Abale Musa in Abuja, Sambida Hosea, chairman of the Chibok Development Association and one of the organizers of the protest, said he thought the ban had been issued because the government was angry that its own inactivity was being exposed. He said the government had "paid people to come and disrupt us, to even attack us."
Former Education Minister Obiageli Ezekwisili regularly takes part in the protest marches. She accused Abuja police chief Mbu Joseph Mbu of suppressing civil rights with the ban. She also said the rallies had been disrupted by paid hooligans to create a false impression of chaos and violence.
The girls were kidnapped from their boarding school in Chibok in northern Nigeria in mid-April by Islamist extremists of the Boko Haram sect whose name means "Western education is a sin".
Nigeria's military have come under heavy criticism for failing to rescue the girls
A video released several weeks later showed a large number of veiled girls. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau indicated that they could be released in exchange for jailed Boko Haram fighters. However President Jonathan has ruled out any such deal.
Campaigners go to court
On Tuesday members of the increasingly vocal protest action group "Bring Back Our Girls" headed to court to challenge the police ban. Sambida Hosea told DW the campaign organizers wanted the court to confirm their right to protest and to freedom of speech. Later that evening, at a press conference, the spokesman of the Nigerian police force in Abuja, Frank Mba, said "The Nigerian police force has not issued any ban on peaceful protests in Abuja or in any other part of the country. However, because of the current security challenges in the country, the force has issued an advisory notice to all Nigerians to be cautious and exercise restraint in organizing peaceful protests."
This will do little to reassure parents and activists who are becoming increasingly frustrated with every day that passes with no reliable information about the kidnapped girls.
Heinrich Bergstresser is a German expert on Nigeria. In an interview with DW he rejected claims that the opposition was using the protests to destabilize the government.
The Boko Haram video said the girls had converted to Islam
"This is simplistic, it is the government that is destabilizing itself," he said.
He went on to say that the longer the crisis continued, "the more pressure will grow on the government and the military apparatus. This heightens the risk that action could be taken without proper consideration, action that could lead to a bloodbath."
There are unverified reports that two of the kidnapped girls may have died of snake bites, that some may have been forced to marry their abductors and that some may have been taken across borders into Chad and Cameroon.
Author Susan Houlton (AFP, epd, reuters)
Editor Mark Caldwell