President Jonathan Faces Widespread Criticism Over Handling of Schoolgirl Abductions, Militant Attacks

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The day after 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped, and a car bomb killed more than 70 people in the country's capital last month, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan was seen dancing at a political rally in the northern city of Kano.

He didn't specifically mention the girls' abduction in public until some two weeks later.

By then, the schoolgirls' disappearance spawned a viral hashtag—#BringBackOurGirls—and made Mr. Jonathan a target of scorn both inside and outside his country.

The feeble response from Nigeria's commander in chief soon turned into a full-blown security crisis for Africa's top economy.

"He's totally out of his depth," said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Look at how feckless he is."

Mr. Jonathan, president since 2010, has been saying for years that his government is on the verge of defeating the Boko Haram Islamist militancy.

Now, after the schoolgirl abduction and more attacks as Mr. Jonathan prepared to host business leaders and heads of state in his capital during last week's World Economic Forum in Abuja, insurgents once again appear to have the upper hand.

Some Nigerian officials fault the central government for not adequately supporting the fight against insurgents, saying soldiers don't have the weapons and resources to fight Boko Haram, a point the military contests.

"The insurgents are armed with lots of rocket-propelled grenades. They have antiaircraft guns," said Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state. "Boko Haram are much better armed than our military."

Mr. Shettima spoke from the town of Gamboru, where he was meeting with families of more than 300 people killed in an attack last week. Mr. Shettima said the town had been torched—houses burned to the ground, hundreds of vehicles destroyed and a major bridge blown apart.

"The way these insurgents are coming through and burning down villages and towns, it shows what the situation is," Mr. Shettima said. "We need to wake up from our slumber and stop playing ostrich."

The situation is shaping up as the defining moment for the president as he tries to guide Nigeria through one of its most turbulent passages of its 54 years as an independent nation.

To supporters, Mr. Jonathan is a welcome break from the strongmen who long lorded over this nation. To critics, he is a passive and disengaged president, one who voices empathy for victims of militant attacks but has done little to stop them.

In April, the polling agency Afrobarometer asked Nigerians if they were satisfied with their democracy. Only 32% said yes—just above the percentages in Egypt, Zimbabwe and Mali, which was recently split by a civil war.

Mr. Jonathan's policies and low-key leadership style appear to have been good for business. The economy is growing at 8% and recently overtook South Africa in size. Investors say they see Nigeria as a nation where government control over business is fading—state-owned power plants, for example, have been sold to investors seeking to end crippling blackouts.

A zoologist turned politician, Mr. Jonathan was elected deputy governor of Nigeria's oil-rich Bayelsa state in 1999, a time when militants and oil thieves demanded a piece of Nigeria's two-million-barrel-a-day oil industry. His administrations paid those militants to put down arms. It gave gunmen multimillion-dollar contracts to guard the pipelines from which they used to steal. Oil theft has flourished, but so has relative peace.

Now, as president—he ascended to the position when Umaru Musa Yar'Adua died in office in 2010—Mr. Jonathan is up against an insurgency that isn't for sale. Boko Haram has killed government mediators.

As Boko Haram has ramped up its insurgency in the country's impoverished north, Mr. Jonathan has been preoccupied leading his party into elections early next year against strong opposition. Those close to Mr. Jonathan insist the critics of the president are missing the full picture.

"What you saw in Kano was the political dimension of the president," said Dimieari Von Kemedi, a former consultant on security affairs to Mr. Jonathan, referring to his appearance at the rally. "He is 100% focused on rescuing these girls. He is sad, he is angry and he is working—but there was political business to be dealt with."

At the World Economic Forum, the 56-year old president challenged criticism of the government response to the kidnappings. "I feel pained," said Mr. Jonathan, dressed in his signature black fedora and tunic over dress pants. "I will not sleep with my two eyes closed until these girls are brought safely back with their parents."

In his remarks on Friday, he wondered how so many girls could have been kidnapped, saying, "It is difficult to pack over 200 people" into vehicles.

He also said he regretted that his troops didn't film their operations to prove to a skeptical public that Nigeria's army remains on the case: "The only thing we did not do, because we felt it was not necessary then, was to video the aircrafts moving, the military moving and the helicopters," he said.

Last week, his wife Patience Jonathan told reporters that the kidnapping of the teenage girls might be a hoax or exaggerated to undermine her husband.

His aides say Mr. Jonathan was informed about the abduction of the schoolgirls early April 15, hours after they were taken, said Oronto Douglas, a senior aide to Mr. Jonathan.

Mr. Jonathan immediately called a meeting of his top security officials, but didn't make speeches about the kidnapping because he didn't want to endanger the girls' safety further, Mr. Douglas said. He said every speech the president makes has a purpose and sometimes that purpose might be to make the kidnappers think he knows less than he does.

On Friday, Mr. Jonathan asked "everybody on earth" to help find the girls. The U.S., U.K., France, Israel and China are among the nations that have offered to assist Nigeria's search-and-rescue efforts.

Mr. Jonathan claims the arms Boko Haram forces bear are supplied by outsiders, and that "some of them" train in countries including Mali, Central African Republic and Somalia. "It's not just one government," he said on Friday, adding that he has been talking with other regional leaders about the crisis.

But in the past, Nigeria hasn't always effectively handled foreign security assistance.

After a car bomb ripped through the United Nations headquarters in Abuja in August 2011, Mr. Jonathan requested help from "security agencies across the globe," said Mr. Douglas, the aide, at the time. Later, British and American defense officials said their offers of help were spurned or lost in bureaucratic disinterest.

"Nigeria is a very proud nation," presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe has said. "We feel that to subjugate our military under another world power would be to really compromise our integrity."

The president's spokesperson's Twitter account routinely posts condolences when notable Nigerian politicians and their kin pass on—but seldom mentions the Nigerians Boko Haram has killed.

The day after the girls were kidnapped, Mr. Jonathan traveled from a campaign rally in the north to a birthday party in the south for a local chief, or Olubadan: "President Jonathan congratulating the Olubadan on his centenary birthday," read a post on the Twitter account of Mr. Jonathan's spokesman, next to a picture of a beaming president clapping his hands as the aging chief approached a large white-frosted cake.

It was too much for some Nigerians.

"These people's children were missing and nobody was talking about it—or doing anything," said Chine Ezekwesili, who was among the first Nigerians to tweet #BringBackOurGirls. "The government was basically sleeping."

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