This Day (Lagos)

4 July 2014

Nigeria: Okonjo-Iweala Admits Poor Communication On Missing Schoolgirls

The Nigerian government did not adequately communicate with the public on the over 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram last April, the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala admitted to CNN's Christiane Amanpour yesterday.

"We did not communicate that well and when there is gap, there is possibility that it can cause a problem. But 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 ought," she said.

"The president has two daughters," she added. "These children are our children. But we did not communicate that well."

However, 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 criticised or are criticised unfairly. I think we should forget about all that. The issue is what are we doing to make things better."

Okonjo-Iweala, who was in London to announce a new Safe Schools Initiative, designed to make schools in the country and in particular the North-east safer, added: "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 (former British Prime Minister UN Special Envoy for Global Education) as 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."

The minister explained to Amanpour that the president "is trying to work with the UK, France, the US, 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," she said The government is leaving open all possibilities to get the girls back, she said, including negotiation with Boko Haram.

When confronted by Amanpour that the Nigerian military had wrapped up its investigation into the missing girls, with little progress to show on returning them to their homes, Oknojo-Iweala said: "I don't think anyone has wrapped up anything.

"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."

On the long-term solution to abductions, Okonjo-Iweala said economic, among other measures, were being fashioned out by the federal government.

"We face two problems: Growing inequality and also the lack of inclusion in these areas. And we've recognised 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," she explained.

On the wide-scale corruption in the country Okonjo-Iweala informed Amanpour: "You cannot characterise Nigeria alone. It's not when you mention the name Nigeria, the next word that comes up is corruption."

Giving instances on the effort by the federal government to combat corruption, the minister said the government had ordered an independent investigation into billions of dollars in oil revenue that was revealed to have gone missing earlier this year.

When showed a video clip of a Japanese official who was crying uncontrollably for mismanaging public resources, Okonjo-Iweala said: "I want more than wail and gnashing. We want to see an end to impunity. People need to be punished when they are found to be corrupt, so it goes beyond wailing and gnashing."

Also, responding to the question from Amanpour on why Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, who is considered a reformer, lost the governorship election, which her CNN host adjudged to be free and fair, Okonjo-Iweala attributed the loss to the decision of the electorate.

"We can have people who are good but can lose. But the election was deemed free and fair, nobody has said that there was anything wrong with that election and the governor acted in an exemplary manner which is rare in Nigeria by reaching out to his opponent to congratulate him," she said.

She however added that Fayemi's loss might have occurred because of resistance to change, stating, "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.

"In Ekiti State, some of the reforms in education with teachers taking exams and so on and so forth were resisted and you know, in the US, when they (required) teachers' exams too, the teachers there were resistant. (And the United States) is a very highly educated country."

Her feeling, she said, was that "communications to the grassroots" should be improved so that people recognise that reform "is really good for you and will change your future." Meanwhile, the former British Prime Minister has launched a fresh campaign for the rescue of some 200 schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria on April 14, by the terrorist Islamic group, Boko Haram.

Brown told the British House of Commons late on Wednesday that the UK government should lead the way in rescuing the schoolgirls who have been held captive for almost three months.

In seeking to convince the British parliament of the need to get more involved in the rescue efforts, Brown also highlighted the plight of millions of girls whose schools have been closed for fear of attacks in Nigeria.

Indeed, schools in Borno State, where the Chibok girls were abducted, have all been shut down by the state government for fear of a repeat experience of what happened at the Government Secondary School, Chibok.

"We must protect girls from terrorist groups determined to peddle their perverted and extreme religious dogma that girls should not be at school," Brown insisted. The former academic at Glasgow College of Technology added: "We must do everything in our power to prevent schools, which should be safe havens from becoming theatres of war."

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