It was supposed to be a month when Nigeria could bask in flattering coverage of the first World Economic Forum on Africa meeting to be held in the country. China’s premier, Li Keqiang, would be flying into the capital, Abuja, for the forum, along with seven African presidents and 900 leading figures from business, government, civil society and academia. Equally upbeat was the announcement that the country had overtaken South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy by GDP (though it still lags far behind GDP per capita).

But Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan will be lucky to get much good publicity in his campaign for re-election next February after his government’s staggering ineptitude was revealed by the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state by the Islamic militants of Boko Haram. Indeed, some analysts have asked to what extent Jonathan could be said to be actually governing Nigeria.

The raid on the school came on 14 April, days after the slaughter of 135 civilians in three locations in Borno state and a bomb blast that killed at least 71 people at a crowded bus station in Abuja. But the medieval horror of young girls being taken from their beds at night—after a firefight with the handful of soldiers and police who had been left to guard the school, the only one in the district that had not been destroyed by Boko Haram—had the world’s media transfixed, even if the federal government largely ignored it for several more weeks.

Officials’ confusion over the details, or perhaps their desperate PR damage-limitation exercise, was revealed early on when the authorities declared that about 100 girls had been taken, despite parents—and girls who had escaped—saying that the number was nearly three times as high. The next day the military said most of the girls had managed to escape or had been freed, and only eight girls were still missing. It also claimed that the armed forces had responded by sending in troops, helicopters and aeroplanes to hunt for the militants.

This was flatly contradicted: ‘When it was clear these girls had been abducted, no reinforcements were sent to the town,’ Makmid Kamara, an Amnesty International researcher, told CNN. In fact, nothing was done for 21 days, one anguished father said.

Forty or so girls escaped after the abduction by jumping from lorries taking them away or running when they were sent to fetch water. But, as The New Yorker was told by a local official in Chibok: ‘Nobody rescued them. I want you to stress this point. Nobody rescued them. They escaped on their accord. This is painful.’

Deutsche Welle noted: ‘More and more Nigerians are wondering whether their president has the situation under control, or whether he has lost touch with reality.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the prize-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, wrote in the Nigerian news site The Scoop: ‘I find our president’s actions and non-actions unbelievably surreal … I want the president to stop issuing limp, belated announcements through public officials … I want the president to be angrily heartbroken about the murder of so many, to lie sleepless in bed thinking of what else can be done, to support and equip the armed forces and the police, but also to insist on humaneness in the midst of terror … I want him to put aside the forthcoming 2015 elections, and focus today on being the kind of leader Nigeria has never had.’

The frantic parents, meanwhile, were appealing for help from anywhere as their government also appeared to have gone missing. ‘We are pleading for others who are outside … to please come and help us,’ one woman told the BBC.

Faced with official apathy, parents and local youths armed themselves as best they could and set off to the vast Sambisa thorn-tree forest in pursuit of the militants. But the difficulty of the terrain and the civilians’ powerlessness in the face of well-armed and organised militants put paid to their efforts.

The more details trickled out, the worse it reflected on the authorities. Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International reveal that the Nigerian security forces failed to act on advance warnings about Boko Haram’s armed raid on the school. Amnesty confirmed through different sources that the military headquarters in the state capital, Maiduguri, was aware of the impending attack soon after 7pm on 14 April, nearly four hours before Boko Haram began their assault on Chibok.

Ordinary Nigerians, outraged at their government’s ineptitude, or indifference to the plight of the abducted girls and their families in the remote north-east, began demonstrating in Abuja and elsewhere. ‘We want to know what happens to all the money being spent on security every year. What is it for?’ said one protester in the capital, referring to the government’s $5.9bn annual security budget. This question was answered by one long-time observer of Nigeria, Heinrich Bergstresser: ‘Cautious estimates suggest about €2.8bn [$3.8bn] go directly into the pockets of the top people in politics, the military and the police—only a small portion is used to fight the terrorists.’

The president’s wife, Patience Jonathan, received a delegation of protesters but after a ludicrous performance of fake piety and weeping for the camera, the first lady accused the activists of fabricating the abductions to give the government a bad name as her husband readies his re-election campaign, and, though Mrs Jonathan has no formal powers, ordered the detention of a protest leader, Naomi Mutah Nyadar, (presumably for lèse-majesté). One Nigerian blogger on Sahara Reporters said: ‘Her cry wasn’t in sympathy for the abducted girls and their bereaved relatives and friends (as she doesn’t believe the story in the first place and even called on the protesters to desist or have themselves to blame), but for the “insubordination” and “disregard” for her high office.’

‘They are claiming it is a hoax and that her daughter was not abducted. But when we say “bring back our daughters” the campaign means it in the broader sense of “daughters of Nigeria”,’ said fellow protester Lawan Abana, whose two nieces are among the abductees. ‘They are so clueless.’

Reinforcing the idea that suppressing bad news is more important than dealing with its causes, Yusuf Siyaka Onimisi was emerging from prison as Nyadar was being taken to one. Onimisi’s crime, for which he spent two weeks in custody without trial, was to tweet about an attempted jailbreak by Boko Haram from the State Security Service headquarters in Abuja.

By now, however, an international media campaign had sprung up, rallying around the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOur Girls. Michelle Obama added her voice to the chorus of condemnation in the weekly US presidential address. The United States deployed surveillance aircraft over Nigeria and is sharing satellite imagery with the government, the Guardian reported. Britain, France, Canada, China and Israel also offered reconnaissance aircraft, satellite imagery, hostage negotiators and special forces, which a reluctant Nigerian government felt obliged to accept (though Abuja has been loath to let US drones overfly Nigerian airspace from their base in neighbouring Niger).

Nearly three weeks after the abduction, Boko Haram broke its silence when its leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared in a video: ‘I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah.’ Shekau is considered the ‘craziest of all the commanders’ of the insurgent forces—one radical splinter group, Ansaru, broke away from Boko Haram because he is regarded as too difficult to deal with. He is certainly very far from the image of a Bin Laden-like mastermind plotting from his lair: so poor is Shekau’s grasp of the world outside his arid heartland that the Nigerian press reportedthat he has issued warnings against Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, unaware that they are both dead.

Shekau released another video, showing about 130 girls in hijabs reciting a verse from the Koran. He offered a prisoner swap but this was rejected by the interior minister, Abba Moro, who said Boko Haram was in no moral position to make such an offer. The information ministry, meanwhile, had earlier said all options were on the table. The next day, however, special duties minister Tanimu Turaki said that if Shekau was sincere, he should send representatives for talks.

Further underlining the shambolic appearance of the government, however, was the previous day’s declaration thatShekau was already dead. And, nearly a month later, the government still had no list of the missing girls. TheChristian Science Monitorreported one official in Abuja saying the federal government was setting up a committee to find out the number.

All the while, Boko Haram was continuing to lay waste to swaths of the north, with African Spotlight reporting that 3,000 people had fled their homes around the town of Liman Kara, the wife and children of a retired policeman had been abducted, and a vital bridge between states blown up. One resident reported that the insurgents came in 10 vehicles, including an ‘armoured tank’.

Reuters reported on how far the once-mighty Nigerian army had slipped from its former position as the military superpower of west Africa and could no longer hold its own against an apparently ragtag guerrilla enemy—albeit one that had managed to seize armoured tracked vehicles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades from its foe. More worrying for Abuja is the degree of collusion of its forces with its supposed enemy. As the BBC noted, the security agencies have largely failed to gather crucial intelligence on Boko Haram—if anything, the militants have been more successful in penetrating them. Jonathan admitted that Boko Haram had ‘infiltrated … the armed forces and police’.

Although Boko Haram have been catapulted into the global spotlight by their abduction of the schoolgirls, they have been in existence for 12 years and have been attacking Nigerian armed forces and civilians alike for the past five years. In 2009 Commonwealth Update reported Boko Haram’s uprising in Maiduguri and noted the abduction of more than 200 girls and women. (Five years ago, however, the rebellion in the oil-producing Niger Delta was occupying the attention of most observers.) Since then, untold thousands have died as Boko Haram widened the scope of its violence from security services to simply anyone, Christian or Muslim, uniformed or civilian. Amnestyestimates that at least 2,000 people have been killed this year alone, (though in 2011 the BBC quoted Nigeria’s defence minister, Bello Halliru Mohammed, his men were once again ‘on top’ of the security situation in the north.

Boko Haram is not even the proper name of the militants’ group, many of whom reportedly prefer the formal name ofJama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad).

And it turns out that much of what we thought we knew about them may not to be very accurate. For example, the name Boko Haram is routinely translated as ‘Western education is sinful’ with the explanation that boko in Hausa, comes from the English word ‘book’. A paper last year by Paul Newman, a professor at Indiana University, confessed that most scholars of the Hausa language had unquestioningly accepted this but argued that the word instead meant something that involved deception and, by extension, had come to denote western education as fraudulent compared with traditional Koranic learning. This was also a useful corrective to the notion that Boko Haram is another player in global terrorism, instead underlining how regional and anti-colonial its roots are.

In a paper for the Journal of Terrorism Research, Jacob Zenn and Elizabeth Pearson have charted a shift in Boko Haram’s adoption of more gender-based violence in its tactics, message and violence,including the extensive targeting of Christian women. Zenn and Pearson suggest abduction and rape of non-Muslim women is a key part of Boko Haram’s appeal to unemployed, poor males whose traditional roles have been eroded by changes in traditional gender roles and the spread of ‘Western’ values.

African Arguments reports Wole Soyinka lamenting this fusion of religion, economics and politics before an audience at the Royal African Society: “It is a product of decades-old political tactics. Religion has become mixed with politics to create a toxic brew.’

‘Boko Haramism’, as Soyinka calls it, ‘began with the culture of impunity on religious grounds. When the first northern governor declared his state theocratic we should have said “No!” … but the president, seeking an unconstitutional third term, needed votes from the north.’

Will Boko Haram become an ideologically-led organisation like Somalia’s al-Shabab or degenerate into an amorphous band with only the vaguest objectives, like the Lord’s Resistance Army?

The government is in a quandary: to negotiate, and thereby risk legitimising militants who behave more like bandits than rebels with a cause, or to throw all the military resources it can at an enemy that has shown itself to be committed and effective, which could widen the conflict.

But Jonathan could do worse than look again at how many of the militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) were bought off in 2009. According to the UN’s Irin:  ‘Between 8,000 and 15,000 gunmen have handed in thousands of weapons and renounced violence under the amnesty programme, according to the authorities.’

It was so successful that three years later the total number of ex-combatants had risen to 30,000, Irin reported, and ex-militia leaders were complaining that there were another 30,000 former fighters who had been left out. ‘A total of 26,358 former Mend fighters have benefitted from the amnesty programme; many have been trained to be welders, carpenters, electricians or other skilled workers for renouncing violence.’

Much of the misery that feeds the recruitment of Boko Haram could be eased with a Marshall Plan of development for the poor and neglected north. But that might be as long coming as the share of the oil siphoned off from under their feet that the blighted Delta’s inhabitants are still waiting for. In the meantime, a small slice of the $20bn in oil revenue looted over just 18 months (and which the central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, was investigating when he was sacked by Jonathan in February) might coax a lot of militants out of the bush.