Critics round on Nigeria's Jonathan over missing girls response

LAGOS (AFP) - Lack of compassion and an absence of leadership: perceptions of Goodluck Jonathan's handling of the Boko Haram hostage crisis have gone from bad to worse - and could blight his political future.

Support for the 56-year-old Nigerian leader and his ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had been haemorrhaging even before 276 girls were seized from Chibok, in northeast Borno state, on April 14.

But his decision on Friday - more than a month after the girls were taken - to pull out of his first visit to Chibok to meet relatives of the 223 girls still missing has only compounded his difficulties.

On a personal level, critics said it showed a lack of compassion for the students and their parents, who have attracted world attention due to a social media campaign, Bring Back Our Girls.

But it has also raised fears about his grip on power and could torpedo his re-election ambitions.

"We have maintained that the Federal Government has not shown enough compassion and this (the cancellation) is another indication of the lack of compassion that we have been talking about," the group's co-ordinator, Hadiza Bala Usman, told AFP.

"The president needs to show up and commiserate with these families."

"He should have gone to empathise with the people of Borno," added Dapo Thomas, a political commentator from Lagos state university.

"He is telling the Borno people and the affected and grieving parents... that they are on their own. He has abandoned these parents and forgotten the girls in captivity."

Jonathan's decision, reportedly for security reasons, was interpreted as a message about the overall insurgency in the violence-hit northeast, where thousands have died since 2009.

Nigerian soldiers tasked with flushing out and crushing Boko Haram fighters have complained of lack of resources in terms of weaponry as well as a shortage of food, fuel and even pay.

This week, disgruntled troops fired shots in the air during a visit by a unit commander after six of their comrades were killed in a Boko Haram ambush as they returned from patrols in Chibok.

Amnesty International said on May 9 that military commanders in Borno state had advanced warning of the kidnapping in Chibok but could not muster enough troops to send to the town.

"If, as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he is afraid to visit Chibok because of security fears, he is simply telling the hapless people in the northeast that he cannot protect them and they should resign to their fate," said Debo Adeniran, of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, a pressure group.

"He is also telling the soldiers fighting Boko Haram elements in the region that they are on their own. This kind of attitude will dampen the morale of the troops and will make the fight against terrorism a wasted effort."

The United States, which has sent drones and surveillance aircraft to help in the rescue effort, has called Jonathan's response "tragically and unacceptably slow" and urged him to demonstrate leadership to bring the crisis to an end.