It is five years today since Nigeria slipped into infamy: five years since the remote town of Chibok in Borno State, powered tragically into global spotlight. It was the day Nigeria’s former president, the military, and the police watched helplessly as Boko Haram terrorists drove away with 276 schoolgirls they had just captured as they prepared to sit an external examination. As the world marks the fifth anniversary of that dark episode, President Muhammadu Buhari and his security chiefs should get the message loud and clear: bring back the remaining 112 young ladies.
Buhari should resist the temptation for complacency or self-adulation; yes, he deserves kudos for acting faster than Goodluck Jonathan – his predecessor – whose inertia and preposterous denial in the critical few hours and days after the abduction, allowed the terrorists to move leisurely away with their priceless human cargo. The New York Times had written then: “The kidnappings occurred just as (President) Jonathan is about to hold the World Economic Forum on Africa, with 6,000 troops deployed for security. That show of force may keep the delegates safe, but Nigeria’s deeply troubled government cannot protect its people, attract investment and lead the country to its full potential if it cannot contain a virulent insurgency.”
When he assumed office, Buhari was able to liberate the territory occupied by Boko Haram and flush them out of their Sambisa Forest stronghold, where the bulk of the captives were reportedly being held. Seriousness in having the girls back had yielded a breakthrough: First, in 2016 when 21 of the girls were returned after negotiations brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government. Later in 2017, another batch of 82 of the girls was released in exchange for some Boko Haram commanders earlier captured by the Nigerian security forces. Full details of the swap remain under wraps.
It is clear however that apart from another four of the girls that escaped individually, 112 of the girls are still in captivity. They must be found. One of the returned girls said in 2016, “When you are with them, there is a constant fear that they can kill you. Or maybe the bombs or stray bullets from the soldiers can also kill you. It was just terrible.” Five years of this nightmare is much too long already, the hellish experience must be brought to a close. We hold Buhari to his word that he will not consider the insurgency defeated until all the girls are freed.
All Nigerians share in the collective guilt. The episode will remain the darkest chapter of the Jonathan administration; together with the security chiefs that served under him. They betrayed the confidence reposed in them and let the girls, the community and the country down; it took 18 full days after the abduction for Jonathan to acknowledge the disaster.
Apart from the intrepid amazons that demonstrate often, joined by some civil society groups and individuals, most Nigerians have opted for arms-length sympathy. The #BringBackOurGirls group led by Oby Ezekwesili and Maryam Uwais could hardly muster enough people to help shut down Abuja in their peaceful marches to remind the government consistently and the world of the girls’ anguish. Whereas the rest of the world views the plight of such innocents as a collective responsibility, many Nigerians maintain an aloofness that is at odds with our culture, shared values and the surfeit of religious fervour that pervades the country.
The military’s failure to press their advantage and destroy Boko Haram has enabled it to regroup and resume the kidnapping of girls, children and women. In February 2018, it kidnapped another 110 girls, this time in Dapchi, Yobe State, but released all but one five weeks later, due to the quick reaction by the Buhari government. The only victim held, then 17-year-old Leah Sharibu, has become another iconic symbol of resilience and personal integrity: she remains in captivity as punishment for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.
The United Nations estimated that over 1,000 children were kidnapped by the group between 2013 and April 2018. An equal number of women and girls have been captured and used as “wives,” cooks and domestic servants. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy, West Point, Boko Haram has used more female suicide bombers than any other terrorist group in history. Some 244 of the 434 bombers the group deployed between April 2011 and June 2017 were female, mostly adolescent girls, compared with Sri Lanka’s defunct Tamil Tigers, the previous record holders that used 44 female bombers in a decade.
All options should be on the table: ransom, rescue, if militarily feasible, and continued military degradation of Boko Haram with its ability to hold territory, hide or hold hostages. For countries conscious of their responsibility, the life of even one citizen is never trifled with. They never close the files until nationals held hostage, missing or even deceased are brought home. Thirty-seven years after he went missing in battle with Syrian forces, Israel recovered the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel from Lebanon and gave him a befitting burial. Israel’s release of 1,027 Palestinian militants in exchange for a single soldier in 2011 typifies how far a country can go to protect its own. Though it has a long-running official policy of not paying ransom, the United States finds legal ways round this, exchanging five Taliban fighters in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Berghdal (a deserter), in 2014; more frequently, its commandos mount rescue operations, deploying the full range of its military, technological, intelligence and diplomatic power. The United Kingdom government does not pay ransom for hostages but allows individuals and companies to do so.
We encourage the Nigerian government to continue to work through third parties and diplomatic “back channels” to recover the girls. France, Spain and Germany pay ransom to secure the release of their nationals. Islamist terrorists, says a BBC report, have earned $125 million as ransom from diverse governments between 2008 and 2015. Ultimately, however, the solution to the terrorist rampage is to destroy Boko Haram by improved military, intelligence and local policing.