Security, kidnappings weigh as 'Africa's Davos' opens

Soldiers block the road to stop the advancing civil society groups protesting the abduction of Chibok school girls during a rally pressing for the girls' release in Abuja on May 6, 2014, ahead of World Economic Forum. -- PHOTO: AFP
Soldiers block the road to stop the advancing civil society groups protesting the abduction of Chibok school girls during a rally pressing for the girls' release in Abuja on May 6, 2014, ahead of World Economic Forum. -- PHOTO: AFP

ABUJA (AFP) - The World Economic Forum on Africa kicks off in Abuja on Wednesday in the shadow of security fears and mounting global concern about the plight of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Islamist militants.

The showcase regional conference, dubbed "Africa's Davos", had been meant to turn the spotlight on the host nation, which recently became the continent's largest economy, promote it as a place to do business and reflect its growing global clout.

Instead, the build-up has been dominated by the 223 girls still missing after being abducted in the remote northeastern town of Chibok three weeks ago by Boko Haram fighters, who have since threatened to sell them as slave brides.

Boko Haram, which has been waging an increasingly deadly insurgency in Nigeria's north since 2009, is also blamed for the twin car bomb attacks that ripped through the same Abuja suburb on April 14 and on Thursday.

Security has been stepped up to ensure a hitch-free conference for the visiting foreign dignitaries, including Chinese premier Li Keqiang, and more than 1,000 captains of industry and opinion-formers from around the world.

Cars have been prevented from driving up to the terminal at Abuja's international airport and checkpoints set up on routes into and out of the city.

The conference venue itself has been surrounded by a ring of steel and from Wednesday to Friday, all government offices and schools will be closed in Abuja.

Wednesday is largely taken up with behind-closed-doors meetings before a full programme on Thursday and Friday on the theme of how to ensure that more Africans share the fruits of economic growth and job creation.

Growth overall in Africa is expected to top 5.0 percent this year but long-standing problems such as poverty and wealth inequality persist, blighting the potential of the continent's young population.

Nigeria for example has acknowledged that there needs to be a "trickle-down" effect of wealth, as the majority of Nigerians still live in poverty, despite the country's status as leading oil producer and exporter.

Mass unemployment in the impoverished north and the social deprivation and inequality that follows have been seen as a recruiting tool for Boko Haram and their bloody campaign to create a hardline Islamic state.

Security and its links to prosperity as well as issues on improving governance and institutions - also persistent themes in Africa - are among the topics to be discussed.