After what seemed like a dead end in negotiations, the recent offer of a swap deal initiated by Abubakar Shekau, the head of the Boko Haram terror group, has emerged as the opportunity to bring the Chibok schoolgirls abduction saga to a closure. After more than 10 years of a bloody internecine confrontation, hopes of scoring a military victory over the Islamists have so far proved to be abortive. The swap deal, therefore, comes as a vehicle for reuniting the abducted Chibok schoolgirls with their families.
April 14 marks exactly six years since 276 girls were snatched in the dead of the night from the comfort and familiarity of their school premises in Chibok, Borno State, as they were rounding off preparations for their final examinations, and forced into a strange and spartan livelihood in the Sambisa Forest by the Islamist terrorists. While some of them have been released through the intervention of some international agencies and mediators, a few others have wandered out of the forest into safety on their own. Yet, over 100 others, many of them already accelerated, willy-nilly, into motherhood, remain in the custody of their abductors.
When that unfortunate incident took place almost six years ago, very few, if any, could have envisaged that the girls would be in the custody of the bloodthirsty terrorists until today. The sheer weight of the numbers of girls involved jolted the global audience into action. The groundswell of agitation for their release caught the interest of eminent personalities beyond the Nigerian shores. The #BringBackOurGirls group was able to attract international support, including that of Michelle Obama, the wife of the then president of the United States.
But, quite disappointingly, the country – and indeed the whole world – that they must have looked up to for their rescue have failed them. For them, it has been a life of forlorn hope. Along the line, many other girls and women have also been taken into captivity by Boko Haram, including Leah Sharibu, who was part of another batch of 110 schoolgirls kidnapped two years ago, in the manner of the Chibok girls, from their school premises. This time the abduction was in Dapchi, in neighbouring Yobe State.
Unlike the case of the Chibok girls, however, pressure was brought to bear on the abductors from many quarters, including the international community, resulting in the eventual release of many of the victims. While over 100 of them were set free a month later, Sharibu remains in captivity for spurning an offer to regain her freedom in exchange for renouncing her Christian faith. Although the government has said that it did not offer anything in exchange for the girls’ freedom, reports have it that heavy ransom was paid before the girls were shipped back to Dapchi by their kidnappers, in much the same manner as when they were taken away – in a noisy convoy – though, this time, in broad daylight.
Since the extremists have held out the olive branch, no known response has come from the government. “Those who are shouting, ‘Bring back our girls, bring back our girls,’ the only way to bring those girls back is for our men in prison to be released. Bring back our members and we will bring back Chibok girls,” Shekau was quoted as saying. It is unfortunate that the country has found herself in a situation where a non-state actor would be dictating terms to her.
However, many had hoped for this opportunity over the years; it is a chance that the government should not hesitate to grab with both hands. The only snag is that it might encourage Boko Haram and its mutants, such as Ansaru and the Islamic State West Africa Province, to continue to capture more girls in the hope of collecting ransom or demanding the release of their captured generals in exchange for their captives.
Besides, there is nothing bad or unusual about swapping prisoners or hostages during hostilities of the manner involving the Nigerian state and the terror groups. The release of a few terrorists should not be too much of a concession for the release of the girls whose only offence was attempting to acquire western education in a section of the country that is educationally backward.
Across the world, many countries – including the superpowers – have had to engage in one form of swap deal or the other when the lives of their citizens are in danger. A very famous instance was the case of a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, whose freedom was bought at the cost of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. A sergeant in the Israeli army, Shalit was abducted in 2006 when some Palestinian militants tunnelled their way into Israeli territory. But when raids of Palestinian territories failed to rescue him, the authorities had to strike a deal for his release five years later. The Israelis apparently considered the life of one of their soldiers more important than those of more than 1,000 Palestinians. One is therefore tempted to ask, what is the worth of a Nigerian life?
Also, in November last year, one American and an Australian were released in exchange for some Taliban prisoners. The American, Kevin King, 63, and the Australian, Timothy Weeks, 50, both lecturers at the American University in Afghanistan, were taken into captivity by the Taliban in 2016 and were only released after it was agreed that three Taliban militants, including Anas Haqqani and Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network, would regain their freedom.
At this juncture, the government does not have to think twice but should seize this moment to bring a closure, not only to the Chibok girls’ saga, but to that of the other girls that have been taken captive by the terrorists. Efforts should also be ramped up to ensure that the Boko Haram insurgency is brought to an end and people can return to their normal lives.