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Canada’s role in search for missing Nigerian girls unclear

Nigerian police spokesman Frank Mba speaks in front of a poster reading ‘win this war’ at a news conference in Abuja May 19, 2014.

Joe Penney/Reuters

At a summit last weekend, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan expressed his gratitude to the countries helping search for more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls. He singled out four countries for special praise – France, Britain, the United States and Israel – but made no mention of Canada.

It was an odd omission. The Canadian government announced more than two weeks ago that it was sending surveillance equipment and personnel to Nigeria to help search for the schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram extremists. It later emerged that Canada was also sending special forces' soldiers as further support.

Since then, however, Ottawa has refused to give any information on its involvement in the search for the girls, and senior Nigerian spokesmen have told The Globe and Mail that they are unaware of the Canadian deployment.

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It is unclear whether Mr. Jonathan deliberately omitted Canada from the list of contributing countries – perhaps at Ottawa's request – or whether it was an error or a snub. But whatever the reason, Canada's role in Nigeria has been remarkably murky.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cast further doubt on Canada's role in Nigeria. "Only the United States is there offering the assistance to help find those young women," Mr. Kerry said in a speech on Thursday in Washington. "Other countries, not only aren't they invited, but they did not even offer."

In Ottawa, officials say they cannot disclose any details of the Canadian involvement in Nigeria for security reasons, which they will not publicly explain. They have privately briefed some journalists on the security reasons, on the promise they will not disclose it. The Globe did not attend the briefing.

Pressed for an explanation of Canada's surveillance activities in Nigeria, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a terse statement. "As committed, Canadians are on the ground in Nigeria working with our U.K. and U.S. allies," the statement said. "Canadian personnel on the ground are there in a liaison and advisory capacity."

Other countries, however, have not hesitated to explain their involvement in Nigeria in some detail. Both the United States and Britain have disclosed the surveillance aircraft they have deployed to hunt for the schoolgirls, including basic information about where the aircraft are based.

Mike Omeri, a spokesman for the Nigerian government, said he was unaware of the Canadian surveillance activities in the country. "I don't have any information about it, so I can't confirm it," he said in an interview.

Major-General Chris Olukolade, the spokesman for the Nigerian defence department, also said he didn't know anything about Canada's involvement. "I have no information about it at the moment," he said in an interview.

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An official with the Nigerian High Commission in Ottawa referred questions to his country's capital in Abuja, saying he was unable to comment on Canada's contribution because he knew little about it.

Most Nigerian media have been equally unaware of Canada's role. In coverage of the international help in the search for the kidnapped girls, Nigerian media routinely mention only four countries – the same ones listed by Mr. Jonathan at the summit in Paris. Mentions of the Canadian role have been relatively rare.

At the Paris conference, Mr. Jonathan said he was grateful to "all countries who are actively participating, side by side, with our country, in seeking the rescue of these school girls." He specifically praised France, the United States, Britain and Israel "among other partners who have offered technical assistance."

Some Nigerian media and military officials have been more skeptical of the foreign role. One report this week in Premium Times, a leading Nigerian news website, quoted Nigerian military sources as saying that the foreign specialists were providing "no significant help." It said the foreign experts were mostly a distraction to the military, embroiling them in "endless meetings" in Abuja.

The report quoted Nigerian officers in northeastern Nigeria, the stronghold of Boko Haram, as saying that they haven't seen "even the slightest intelligence" from the foreign specialists. Another official said the assistance was mostly a show for "public relations."

It was the Nigerian government, however, that originally requested Canada's involvement. Nigerian Vice-President Namadi Sambo, in a meeting with visiting Canadian Development Minister Christian Paradis early this month, requested Canadian assistance "in areas of surveillance equipment and other vital security hardware," according to Mr. Sambo's office.

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After the meeting, Mr. Paradis pledged that Canada would help. "Canada will work with Nigerian authorities to provide assistance in the effort to help find the missing girls," he said in a statement. "Canada will provide surveillance equipment and the technical expertise to operate it."

Mr. Baird and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have been vociferous in their denunciation of Boko Haram. In repeated statements in the House of Commons, they have called the kidnapping of the schoolgirls "repugnant" and "despicable."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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