If it hadn't been for their determined mothers - and for Twitter - the plight of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram would have remained hidden.

For nearly three weeks, the Nigerian government showed no concern for these high school students snatched from their dorm by a radical Islamist group whose name means "Western education is sinful." As the limos rolled in for a glitzy version of the Davos World Economic Forum in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, officials showed no interest in the 276 girls still missing.

Only when relatives demonstrated in Abuja - and the Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls went globally viral - were top Nigerian (and U.S.) officials forced to pay attention. Rather than show empathy, the imperious wife of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan had one of the demonstrators arrested.

How can it be that - before he was publicly embarrassed - the Nigerian leader made no effort to pursue the kidnappers? How could he watch unmoved as their leader, Abubakar Shekau, in a bizarre video, pledged to sell the girls into forced marriage as "slaves," and Boko Haram followers just kidnapped 11 more schoolgirls?

This tragic tale illustrates the abject failure of Jonathan to deal with a growing insurgency in the Muslim north - that is made worse by government brutality and corruption. As for the girls, like Pakistan's Malala, they risked all for an education. They deserve any help Washington can provide to get them freed.

With its 175 million people, and immense oil wealth, Nigeria is a country that experts long hoped would anchor West and Central Africa and provide a democratic model for the continent. Instead, massive corruption has siphoned off oil wealth into leaders' pockets while much of the country - especially the north - remains impoverished.

When I visited northern Nigeria a decade ago, it was shocking to see crumbling schools and men selling oil from jerry cans along rutted roads. Nothing has changed for the better. The literacy rates and girls' school graduation rates are much lower than in the south, and youth unemployment is soaring.

So it is not surprising that a loose Islamist insurgency sprang up around 2005 and has grown in strength. Western education has become a particular target - only two months ago, Boko Haram slaughtered around 50 schoolboys in cold blood at a boarding school (girl students were told to go home and "get married"). Bomb attacks have started hitting the capital, Abuja.

Yet northerners who would oppose Boko Haram's cruelty have been undercut by the Jonathan government's heavy-handed military response: rounding up young men en masse and slaughtering hundreds of insurgents who supposedly "escaped" from a northern prison. "To date, the government's efforts to curb the violence have largely failed," says Johnnie Carson, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. "The violence has metastasized."

So far, say experts, Boko Haram is mainly a collection of local Islamists (and criminals) intent on undermining Jonathan. They may communicate with transnational groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but do not have close ties to the international jihadist movement.

But that could change. The clumsy crackdown by the Christian Jonathan is aggravating sectarian tensions and making ordinary Muslims in the north feel marginalized. In a country nearly evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, that is a very dangerous approach.

Which brings us back to the case of the missing schoolgirls and why Jonathan was so indifferent. Nigerians offer several conspiracy theories: The president just didn't care. Or he thought the kidnapping was a hoax his enemies had cooked up to undermine him. Or, as the girls' relatives believe, he is content to let Boko Haram do its worst, so he can act the strongman before presidential elections in 2015.

Whatever the reason, the Nigerian leader's callousness indicates his cluelessness about the perils facing his country. The missing girls have come to symbolize Nigeria's desperate need for change.

Against all odds, these young women sought an education in an impoverished region. A mixed group (mostly Christian, but some Muslim), they risked returning to school - despite Boko Haram's threats - to take their finals. Such courage represents the best hope for their country's future, and the failure to rescue them reveals the government's ineptitude to the world.

The Obama administration has belatedly offered to help in the search: U.S. satellite and drone images could be vital. But more than that, the White House must be more blunt in criticizing Nigerian government repression and theft, which is dooming this rich country.

The moment is ripe, as tuxedoed visitors arrive in Abuja to celebrate Nigeria's corrupt oil economy. Shine the light on a government that can't or won't find 276 innocent girls.