Global outrage over the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria last month has spilled over to Atlanta City Hall, prompting Mayor Kasim Reed to speak out on the topic and to reconsider visiting the country in October.
The saga began when members of Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group whose name translates to “Western education is sinful,” swooped in by night and carted off girls from a school in the village of Chibok on April 17. Some escaped but 223 remain missing, their whereabouts still unknown.
Despite the fact that Boko Haram and other groups have killed thousands of people since 2009, this particular act struck a nerve internationally. The Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls went viral, stoking widespread condemnation.
“Education is not sinful; it’s liberating,” Mr. Reed said in a statement posted on the City of Atlanta’s website May 7, the same day the World Economic Forum on Africa kicked off in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
The mayor, who met with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at the larger World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January, was invited to the Africa event but wasn’t able to attend.
“I know they will be focused on solutions to this catastrophe and addressing the complex social, economic, cultural and political forces that led to it,” Mr. Reed said of leaders at the forum.
Critics have said that the kidnapping exposes weakness and corruption within the Nigerian security apparatus, particularly its military. This year alone, bombings claiming more than 1,500 lives in Nigeria have been attributed to Boko Haram, mostly in the northeast.
Mr. Reed has not yet decided to cancel his trip, but his office said he is reevaluating it as security concerns escalate in Nigeria.
“Historically, the conflict was limited to the northeast region, but it has now moved to Abuja and other parts of the country,” Melissa Mullinax, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an email to Global Atlanta.
Ms. Mullinax referred to two bombings that killed 100 in April and May on the outskirts of Abuja, heightening tensions ahead of the WEF.
She also noted that the U.S. State Department on May 6 updated its travel warning for Nigeria to cover the whole country, responding to an uptick in kidnappings and bombings.
Although Boko Haram has never leveled attacks against the commercial hub of Lagos, a mega-city across the country from the group’s main area of influence, the State Department also warned U.S. citizens in early May that a Sheraton hotel there may have been targeted by “groups associated with terrorism.” The warning reportedly stopped short of mentioning Boko Haram by name, and the Nigerian government has questioned the intelligence.
Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said vigilance is important when considering trips to Nigeria, but so is geography.
“Really, Lagos is a long, long way from the northeast where the bulk of Boko Haram’s activities and attacks take place. It’s a world away from the chaos in the northeast,” Mr. Downie told Global Atlanta. “So far, we have not seen anything to suggest that they have capacity to launch attacks at the other end of the country.”
He also noted that there is little evidence that the group has targeted foreigners. Instead, its campaign to create a pure Islamic state has mostly taken the form of attacks on government installations, schools, churches and villages.
Mr. Downie said the danger in Africa’s largest economy isn’t new, but the reaction has been different this time.
“If this kidnapping story has done anything it’s shone a light on (Boko Haram’s) activities. You now have a lot of international support flowing into Nigeria. This is a bit of a wake-up call,” he said.
Still, those looking to invest in Africa shouldn’t let all the new attention cloud their view of the continent’s very real business potential.
“It’s the continent of the world that people know least about, and therefore that ignorance can tend to color the way that we view the risks,” Mr. Downie said. “Certainly sometimes we overemphasize the risks and underemphasize the opportunities.”
The mayor has said that Atlanta can be a leader in a much-needed push for further U.S. engagement in Africa. Mr. Reed is the honorary co-chair of Africa Atlanta 2014, a yearlong series of educational, cultural and business events highlighting the U.S. relationship with the continent.
“I’ve got news for everybody – the rest of the world cares about Africa, and when you’re moving around the world there is more conversation about Africa than there is about the United States,” Mr. Reed said in a Global Atlanta interview in mid-March.
Mr. Reed also said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s renown around the continent gives Atlanta immediate cachet.
“If you don’t engage in the continent, you’re really giving up a layup,” he said, specifically citing the extensive community of wealthy Nigerians who work and live in Atlanta. Lagos is a sister city of Atlanta, and a Delta Air Lines nonstop flight links the two cities.
“I think we’re going to be there early, and I think that we’re going to be the center of action for the continent,” he said in the March interview.
The mayor is also planning to visit South Africa in October on the same trip. The mayor hasn’t made a final decision on whether he would go ahead to South Africa if he cancels the Nigeria trip, but Ms. Mullinax said it’s “likely the South Africa trip would happen.”