MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's turn now to Nigeria, where we have been closely following the story of the more than 250 schoolgirls who were abducted by the extremist group, Boko Haram, back in April. A top ranking military official there says the government now knows where the girls are being held, but that it is too risky to try to free them by force.
About 80 U.S. service members are now deployed in neighboring Chad to support efforts to find the girls. Critics of the Nigerian government - both there and abroad - have been increasingly vocal, saying that President Goodluck Jonathan was too slow to respond to the crisis, and has waited too long to accept international help. At this program we have been eager to hear from a representative of the Nigerian government about all of this. And we are pleased that Dr. Doyin Okupe is here to give us the government's perspective. He is a medical doctor, but we are hearing from him in his capacity as Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs to President Goodluck Jonathan. He's here on a visit to the U.S. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
DOYIN OKUPE: Thank you very much. It's my pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: We understand that former girls have escaped. Can you confirm that? And can you tell us anything that you've learned from the girls who have been able to get away?
OKUPE: Well, you know, I think there's a lot of disinformation on this whole saga of Chibok girls. I was here when the news broke that four new girls, you know, have escaped. If you understand the topography, and the area, and the kind of terrorists that we are dealing with, you know, that's real astonishing because these are young girls - 15, 16, 17 - you know, how can they, you know, escape just like that, you know, from a major forest that even strong men fear to enter.
MARTIN: So you're saying it's not true?
MARTIN: No, it's not true?
OKUPE: No. I've actually investigated it. And the truth of the matter is that this is what happened --on the night of the abduction, you know, while the terrorists were rampaging the place - of course, you know, there were 200 girls, you know, in the place. They wouldn't just sit down and, you know, not try to escape. So many ran away, and ran into the bush. So, in the next morning, you know, they decided to come out one by one, you know, and that's how, you know, people said they escaped from the - from the abductors. They didn't - it wasn't - that is - that was not...
MARTIN: They were never taken, they had managed to hide.
OKUPE: Yes, many of them managed to hide.
MARTIN: I see.
OKUPE: So this four, really, were people who parents have initially declared that they were missing. But when the governor of the state, you know, tried to do a re-verification exercise in the last two weeks, they found four new parents whose children were declared missing, but who had, you know, their children in custody.
MARTIN: I see. So is it true to your knowledge that the military does, in fact, know where the girls are? Do you believe that to be true?
OKUPE: It's not in a matter of belief. I am in government. You know, I am also aware that you have known this for quite a while. The issue had been, you know, what do you do with this type of information? You understand? You people, you know, have always generally thought Nigerian security agencies, the military, are inept and incapable, which is absolutely untrue. These are the same people that fought wars all over the world, you know, and have got, you know, accolades everywhere. The United States of America declared three major terrorist, you know, wanted and placed over several million dollars on them.
OKUPE: Three of these have been killed.
MARTIN: OK, I understand your point. But what is the purpose of disclosing this if you are now saying that we know where they are, but there's nothing that we can do?
OKUPE: Well, well...
MARTIN: What is the purpose of discussing this?
OKUPE: We have been accused, in the past, of nothing - enough. So, you know, as much information as we have, and we think it will be useful to the public - for instance, if we say, if now that the Chief of Defense staff says, you know, we know where they are, there's some, you know, measure of (unintelligible) relief for the parents. You know, but like you said, it's not something that the military can just move in on - on these girls.
MARTIN: Earlier this month, the president has said quote, "Wherever these girls are, we'll get them out." Does he still stand by that statement?
OKUPE: That is not a matter of standing by that statement. That is a forever statement. That is a standing statement. It will not change. We will find them, we have found them, we will get them. God willing.
MARTIN: He also visited - a number - there was also a regional summit last weekend in Paris, where he also said - well, the regional leader said - that they would, obviously, have total commitment to also supporting this effort, but he also said at this meeting that it could not be done without the support of regional powers. So what does that...
OKUPE: That, that. that..
MARTIN: How do we interpret that?
OKUPE: That is so true. You know, and it's necessary for me to explain to your audience that one of the reasons why we had a tough time containing these manet's (ph) is because, you see, you know, we have borders that are like Arizona, you know, dry desert areas. So they're difficult to actually man. So it's important you have cooperation of your neighboring countries.
We need that corporation from Chad. We need cooperation from Niger. We need cooperation from Cameroon. These are basically francophone countries. And for some reason or the other, you know, from local politics they were not really too interested in cooperating with Nigeria.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. You're saying that cooperation was not forthcoming before? Are you saying that that is not - it was not forthcoming before, and now they have agreed? Is that what you're saying?
OKUPE: No, in fact, we had a breakthrough last week when, for the first time, the intelligence communities of all the four countries met together in Nigeria, and they have worked, you know, they have now agreed to work together. And, you know, this is the most important outcome of the Paris meeting. You see, because these - once these four nations, you know, their intelligence agreed to work together.
Now the international joint task force, which were set together - were set up, will now begin, you know, fully effective and operational. Then, it's going to be a hard time for the terrorists to operate. Because, we have firepower that's enough to drive the terrorists away, or to even annihilate them. But what do they do - you know, once they come under heat of our military, they escape into neighboring countries, and by international convention, we cannot pursue them across our borders. But now, you know now, we don't even need to pursue them across our borders because our neighbors will also, you know, pursue them and, you know, push them back to us.
MARTIN: President Jonathan still, to my knowledge, has not visited Chibok, where the girls were abducted from. Why is that?
OKUPE: It's something that government is thinking about. You know, it's a war zone. And it's not that - you know, the government is not - and the president doesn't want to visit it - visit the place.
MARTIN: With respect, excuse me, President Obama just went to Afghanistan, which is still a warzone.
MARTIN: Why would he not visit a region in his own country...
OKUPE: You know...
MARTIN: ...Where people are experiencing so much pain.
OKUPE: You know, you know, like the president said, you know, for us - the - one of the most important thing -you know this is something that has come to us as a bullet from the blue. 270 girls kidnapped and being held by, you know, very, very dangerous terrorists. You know - the - and - you know...
MARTIN: So he's afraid to go?
OKUPE: No. (Yelling) What I'm trying to say is that the responsibility we have, you know, - we - why the whole world is very passionate about it - we're already concerned about it - but we have an extra (unintelligible) of heart and to find out how to get them out.
MARTIN: So then...
OKUPE: We must not lose one life. So that is where...
MARTIN: So the Nigerian government is not capable of protecting the president should he visit this region?
OKUPE: That is not it. The president is more - you know, is more focusing his attention more on the processes and, you know, what needs to be done to get the girls out. Visiting the girls - it's okay, you know, it will come when it will come. But, you know, it is more important for us, you see, there's a lot of focus of attention by the world on this issue of Chibok. But that is not - that, you know, - when the girls are finally released, that is not the end of the matter. It's not going to be the end of the matter. We have had to deal with the Boko Haram for, you know, a couple of years now. We will still have to contend with that.
MARTIN: But you're saying you've had to deal with them for a couple of years now, but now you're saying it's a bolt out of the blue. So how is this possible?
OKUPE: No, no, no, no. What I said - Boko, out of the blue, is kidnapping and abducting such a large number of girls at the same time.
MARTIN: But they have previously attacked schools - and they have previously attacked schools and they have killed children.
OKUPE: Not on this scale.
MARTIN: Not on this scale?
OKUPE: Not on this scale. 270 girls.
MARTIN: Do you see it as an escalation of tactics or of intent?
OKUPE: I see it - more or less - as a desperate move by a group that is, you know, that is actually waning, really. You know, it's a last, desperate effort.
MARTIN: Oh, you're saying they're waning?
OKUPE: They're waning, yeah. You know, they're a waning insurgency group, you know, to try to catch world attention and also, you see because, you know, they're proud to be kidnapped - the Nigerian military was shelling, on a daily business, this 16,000 kilometer - square kilometer piece of forest. And it is just a matter of time for them to be decimated.
MARTIN: But, but you - but there have been two more...
OKUPE: So, by taking the girls they've got human shield - that activity - those activities had to stop.
MARTIN: I see your point. You believe they're using them as human shields.
OKUPE: Yeah, they are.
MARTIN: But there has been more violence since the kidnapping. There were explosions in Jos. There were explosions in Kano. It seems as an escalation.
MARTIN: You don't see it so?
OKUPE: No, no, no.
OKUPE: No, there's not been an escalation. You know - if - you know, you know - In 2011, when, you know, Boko Haram was at its peak, they were active in 11 states of the federation - 11. Abuja - which is the capital of the country - we were having bombing of churches on a weekly basis. So, you know, all that has stopped. We have been able to push them away from about nine state. You know, restricting them now to Bornu state, exclusively.
So what did they do? Occasionally, they act outside Bornu presence and to still give the impression that they have the state exclusively. So what did they do? Occasionally, they act outside Bornu - so as to show presence - and to, you know, to still give the impression that they have capacity.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Dr. Doyin Okupe. He is a medical doctor. He is visiting the U.S., though, as his capacity as Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs to President Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria. As you might imagine, we are speaking with him about recent events there, especially the kidnapping of those - of more than 200 schoolgirls from Northern Nigeria, which occurred in April.
What do you say to those who believe that this is not just a matter of a failure of intelligence or a failure of skill, but it's really more of a broader issue of culture of impunity - like a culture of corruption that allows this kind of thing to go far? What do you say to that?
OKUPE: I am so sorry. You know, everything you have said, you know, now - in these lat ones - in these 10 seconds, is wrong. I'm surprised that, you know, people are talking this way. We all know the history of insurgency, worldwide. Insurgency is bad news anywhere. In the last 40-50 years, there's no nation on earth that has conquered insurgency, anywhere. Look at it - tell you - the facts are there.
Anywhere you look at - you know, once, you know, you have them it's a major, major problem. And it's not something that goes away in a, you know, in a jiffy. So, you know, Nigeria are just having its own - we are, we are not prepared for this and there's very, you know, there's nobody, you know, of any higher rank in the Nigerian military that actually went through training, you know, for insurgency. Nobody. We didn't - this is - you know, this war is an asymmetrical war. It is borderless and it has no frontiers. And no rules.
MARTIN: Do you believe that this war - is it escalating or do you believe that the government is getting a handle on it?
OKUPE: The war actually is de-escalating, it's not escalating, it's getting down. But of course, you know, the major act of taking 270 young, female girls, alright, has brought world attention. So, it may make it look as if it's bigger than it is. You know, Nigeria is - we have the resources, we have the capability, we have what it takes to really, you know, to overcome this madness - and we will, we will.
MARTIN: Before I let you go, couple of more questions. And thank you again for your time and for coming, for coming to our studios.
OKUPE: It's my pleasure. It's my pleasure.
MARTIN: I'm sure you're aware of the social media campaign you alluded to earlier - the fact that this issue has this terrible circumstance - has garnered worldwide attention. There's a hash tag, #BringBackOurGirls, that started in Nigeria and went global. What is your thought - what is your about this? Do you find it encouraging that citizens are so engaged? That people around the world are so engaged? Do you find it frustrating? How do you respond to it?
OKUPE: There is nothing so inspiring and so encouraging, you know, than what the world has actually become. The world has become a global community, a place where we, you know, we empathize. You know, I imagine that it is today - I mean, today it's Nigeria - tomorrow it could be Mexico. It could be India.
You know, what it means is that the, you know, the world community will no longer tolerate any infamy, any acts of - any act that is, you know, that's against humanity. So we are happy that outside Nigeria, you know, people can spend time and feel for our people, I mean, for our own children, you know, for which we ourselves are extremely depressed about. But you see, you know, the real thing is, you know, like there's a changing of the narratives. Our people back home are now saying, Boko Haram, release our girls.
So, you know, let us put the demand where it should be. You know, #BringBackOurGirls is global, it's trendy, but you know, in terms of practicality the real issue's the offender is Boko Haram. They are the ones that have custody of the girls. So, when I see - Nigerian people are now saying, in their millions, they are saying, Boko Haram, release our girls, now.
MARTIN: Is there anything that you would wish the international community to do? Is there anything that people in - for example, in the United States - who are very concerned can do that you would find helpful at this point?
OKUPE: Well, you know, like I said, you know, we've had international cooperations and partnership with the United States, with Britain, France, China, Canada, you know, name it - our neighbors back in Africa. We just need people's prayers. You know, in terms of capability, you know, we have what it takes and we will do it. In terms of culpability, we have what it takes.
MARTIN: Do you have any daughters?
OKUPE: I have three daughters. I have very large family. I have nine children.
MARTIN: You have 9 children?
OKUPE: Three of them are girls.
MARTIN: Three of them are girls?
OKUPE: Yes. If fact, one of them is just about 20 years old. So, you know, I...
MARTIN: I'm wondering, if you had a child in this situation would you feel that the government was doing all that it could to rescue them?
OKUPE: Personally, I would be frustrated. But, you know, at the same time, I have enough - you know, because I have enough within me, you know, maybe because from the - maybe that question is not fair, because from my standpoint, I know what government is doing. From Chibok parents' standpoint they are so far from government, they do not really know. But I know that this, you know, from day one I want to admit we may not have really used what, you know, information capabilities of government to really speak out openly and talk, you know, publicly about this issue. But that should never, ever be misconstrued, you know, that we actually, you know, did not do anything.
From the - I am in government, and I am aware. From day one, you know, once the news broke, the first action the president took was to, you know, was to deploy more troops, you know, to make up - which we now make up 20,000 troops in Bronu state right now. Last - about two weeks ago, an additional consignment of soldiers were also drafted. The Air Force, you know, was immediately activated. The communication that everything was done, but we did not make - we did not make an issue of it, you know, in terms of publicity. Which, you know, this is a new age - it's an information age, maybe the government was wrong in that. I accept. But it was - it should never, ever be misconstrued to be inactivity. It is not true.
MARTIN: Dr. Doyin Okupe is a Senior Special Assistant on Public Affairs to Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. While on a visit to Washington, D.C. - I take it it's an official visit - you are visiting in your official capacity.
OKUPE: It is. It is. It is.
MARTIN: Well, we thank you so much for joining us.
OKUPE: I'm so happy to be here. God bless you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.