Kidnap Crisis Looms Over World Economic Forum Conference In Nigeria, As Investors Mull Nation's Options

Kidnap Protest
People holding signs take part in a protest demanding the release of abducted secondary school girls from the remote village of Chibok, in Lagos Reuters

As government and business leaders gather for a high-level economic conference in Nigeria this week, the success stories of the continent’s largest country threaten to be overshadowed by the terrorism of Islamist group Boko Haram, which has kidnapped hundreds of young girls in recent days. 

The army of jihadist fighters has vowed to sell into slavery or as child brides some 276 teenage girls kidnapped from villages surrounding the 23,000-square-mile Sambisa forest, a horrifying development that illustrates the country's security challenges as it tries to grow its economy.

“In many respects, Nigeria epitomises this almost bi-polar view of Africa,” reads a report on the country from Ernst & Young, prepared for the World Economic Forum (WEF) conference. “For many of us already doing business on the continent it is an exciting, dynamic, high octane growth market; for some others, often on the outside looking in, it seems chaotic, unstable and uncertain.”

Before presenting a new education initiative at the forum on Wednesday,  U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke about the incident, expressing hope for a speedy resolution.

“All our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the more than 270 girls who were abducted and kidnapped nearly four weeks ago and who are being held in captivity,” said U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, before presenting a new education initiative at the conference.

“Our fear about their safety our thoughts about their families our worries about their future are at the center of everybody’s attention,” Brown said.

The incidents have cast a cloud over sessions at the conference with the hashtag “#bringbackourgirls” included in many tweets from conference attendees, bookending economic statistics and business goals.

Meanwhile, the militant Islamist group has also claimed responsibility for a rash of bombings that killed more than 100 people, and a Monday attack on a small border town that killed hundreds after the group members set fire to homes and fired shots into a busy market.

The group is also known to be responsible for interfering with Nigeria’s lucrative oil trade through theft and illegal bunkering.

These problems exemplify the instability and difficulty that continues to plague Nigeria, despite its massive economic growth.

After a recent GDP rebasing, Nigeria is now the largest economy in Africa, set to grow 7.3 percent this year, up from 6.4 percent in 2013, according to IMF estimates. Nearly a third of the WEF’s newly appointed “Global Growth Companies” are Nigerian firms.

The country’s growing middle class, evolving tech sector and increasingly sophisticated banking network have made it the darling of global investors.

However, Nigeria still ranks 17th on the continent and 147th worldwide on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index.

E&Y's report notes that “corruption, threats to physical security and poor infrastructure are among those often cited as constraints to investment and doing business."

Advocates hope that the WEF will help bring attention to these types of problems, and perhaps inspire international help.

“The horrific abduction shows the serious nature of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law being committed by Boko Haram,” reads a Wednesday blog post from Amnesty International, urging Nigerian policy makers to act fast to ensure the kidnapped girls’ safe return.

“To do this Nigeria needs the help of all its friends attending the Abuja World Economic Forum,” the post reads. 

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