1,000 days later: Is it possible for Nigeria to free the remaining Chibok girls?

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Protesters took to the streets in Nigeria’s capital on Sunday, marking 1,000 days since 276 schoolgirls were abducted in Chibok by the militant group Boko Haram. Participants in the rally in Abuja held banners with slogans such as #BringBackOurGirls, part of the social media campaign that brought international attention to the mass kidnapping in April 2014.

Many Nigerians say that the government has contributed too little effort towards returning the “Chibok girls” to their families.

Since the kidnapping more than two and a half years ago, only a fraction of the Chibok girls have been liberated from Boko Haram. Of these, three were found around the forest where Boko Haram was based, and 21 were released after intensive negotiations with the terrorist group, leaving the majority unaccounted for. But despite international attention and the ongoing fighting between Boko Haram and the military, the government’s response to the kidnapping seems sluggish and ineffectual to many Nigerians who were part of Sunday’s protest.

“We just can’t forget the 195 of them that are still there,” Aisha Yesufu, a representative of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, told Agence France-Presse.

The protesters called on the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to take more definitive action to secure the girls’ release. Mr. Buhari’s administration has faced criticism for his handling of the situation both at home and abroad.

“They are citizens,” Ms. Yesufu told AFP. “If president Buhari’s daughter was taken, would he just stand back? They are as Nigerian as his own daughter.”

Among the protestors’ concerns is the government’s treatment of the girls who have already been freed, and who are being held in Abuja, ostensibly for medical attention and rehabilitation. According to the Associated Press, however, sources who have spoken to the girls say that the government might have ulterior motives for keeping the girls quiet on certain subjects, specifically citing a rumor that three Chibok girls were killed last year during bombings by the  Nigerian Air Force.

It would not be the first time the Nigerian military has put out inaccurate information about the fight against the Boko Haram militant group. They have incorrectly reported the death of the Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the extremists, on multiple occasions, only to have him inevitably resurface in videos taunting the military and the government.

Boko Haram has actually been losing ground in the fight against Nigerian forces for some time, ceding significant outposts and areas of their territory in the Sambisa Forest in the northeast. The group itself also split last year after the organization declared its allegiance to the militant group known as Islamic State, renaming itself “ISWAP.” After the change, IS moved to replace Mr. Shekau with their preferred leader, Abu-Musab al-Barnawi in August of 2016. In response, Shekau, previously the undisputed leader of Boko Haram, split off from ISWAP and often clashes with the faction led by Mr. al-Barnawi. But while a split and weakened Boko Haram is advantageous from a military standpoint, it also complicates potential negotiations to free the Chibok girls.

“It will be difficult to release most of the remaining girls as each faction will maintain a strong hold on them and would negotiate with state officials on their own terms,” Freedom Onuoha, a security analyst and lecturer at the University of Nigeria, told Voice of America.

In October, the Nigerian government announced that 21 girls had been freed through a deal brokered by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The release was followed by an announcement that negotiations would soon reopen with the terrorist group for the release of up to 83 more schoolgirls, but all talks were scrapped when the terrorist organization demanded a $5.2 billion ransom for the remaining women, according to Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed.

“To secure the release of the remaining girls would require concessions by the Nigerian government, which could reverse significant gains it has made against Boko Haram,” Ryan Cummings, director of risk management consultancy Signal Risk, told Voice of America. “In addition to detainees, Boko Haram may also demand supplies, weapons, vehicles and even money which they could use to recalibrate and invigorate their armed campaign against the Nigerian state.”

But for the families of the kidnapped girls, no price is too high for the girls’ return.

“I never thought I was going to see my daughter again but here she is,” one reunited parent told the BBC after the October release. “Those who are still out there – may God bring them back to be reunited with their parents.”

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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