Nigeria faces mounting pressure to rescue girls abducted by Boko Haram 1,000 days ago

police disrupt Bring Back Our Girls rally in Nigeria

By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kieran Guilbert

CHIBOK, Nigeria/DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nigeria is facing mounting pressure to find some 200 schoolgirls abducted 1,000 days ago in Boko Haram’s most infamous attack after the rescue of 24 girls raised hopes that they are alive.

For more than two years there was no sign of the girls who were kidnapped by the Islamist fighters from a school in Chibok in northeast Nigeria one night in April 2014, sparking global outrage and a celebrity-backed campaign #bringbackourgirls.

But the discovery of one of the girls with a baby last May fueled hopes for their safety, with a further two girls found in later months and a group of 21 released in October in a deal brokered by Switzerland and the International Red Cross..

For parents like Rebecca Joseph the return home of the group of 21 girls at Christmas was a bitter-sweet celebration.

Her daughter, Elizabeth, is one of an estimated 195 girls still held captive by the jihadist group, which has tried to force some of them to convert to Islam and to marry their captors.

“I am happy that some of the girls are returning home even though my own daughter is not among them,” Joseph told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the town of Chibok in Borno state.

“My prayer is that my daughter and the rest of the girls will be rescued and returned to their families safe.”

With last weekend marking 1,000 days since the girls were abducted, President Muhammadu Buhari said he remained committed to ensuring the abducted schoolgirls are reunited with their families “as soon as practicable”.

“We are hopeful that many more will still return,” said Buhari, who came to power in 2015 and replaced a government criticized for not doing enough to find the missing girls.

“The tears never dry, the ache is in our hearts,” he said in a statement.

STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM

The Nigerian government said last month that it was involved in negotiations aimed at securing the release of some of the girls as the army captured a key Boko Haram camp, the militant group’s last enclave in the vast Sambisa forest.

The exact number of Chibok girls still in captivity is believed to be 195 but it has been hard to pin down an exact number since the girls went missing.

Academics and security experts say it may be a huge challenge to obtain the girls’ freedom given the significance of the abduction for Boko Haram, which has killed about 15,000 people in its seven-year insurgency to set up an Islamic state.

“Outside Nigeria, the Chibok girls have come to symbolize the Boko Haram conflict,” said Sola Tayo, an associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“The global outrage generated by their captivity has added to their value to the insurgents,” she added, adding that they were also significant to Buhari because he made their release a key campaign pledge before his 2015 election.

The government said in October that it had not swapped Boko Haram fighters or paid a ransom for the release of the 21 girls but several security analysts said it was implausible that the Islamist group would have let the girls go for nothing.

“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,” said Ryan Cummings, director of risk management consultancy Signal Risk.

“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.”

DEEP DIVISIONS

One of the major obstacles to securing the release of all of the Chibok girls who remain in captivity is the deep divisions emerging within Boko Haram, said Freedom Onuoha, a security analyst and lecturer at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka.

The militants split last year with one faction moving away from the group’s established figurehead Abubakar Shekau over his failure to adhere to guidance from Islamic State to which Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2015.

It is unclear how many Chibok girls are held by the main faction led by Shekau, thought to be based in the Sambisa, and by the Islamic State-allied splinter group – headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and believed to operate in the Lake Chad area.

“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,” said Onuoha.

While the deal to free the 21 girls was seen as a huge boost for the government’s assertions that it would soon bring home the others, a lack of progress since then has seen public hopes dwindle and frustrations arise, academics said.

Although Nigeria has driven Boko Haram out of most of the territory it held, its battle against the militants will not be considered over until the fate of all of the Chibok girls is made clear, said Nnamdi Obasi of the International Crisis Group.

“From various indications, it is most unlikely that all the remaining girls will come home alive, but the government owes their parents and the public the fundamental responsibility of accounting for every one of them,” the Nigeria analyst said.

“In the long run, that’s the only way to bring closure to this sad episode.”

(Reporting by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

Boko Haram frees 21 kidnapped Chibok girls

Members of the #BringBackOurGirls (#BBOG) campaign stand behind a banner with Number 218 during a sit-out in Abuja, Nigeria May 18, 2016, after receiving news that a Nigerian teenager kidnapped by Boko Haram from her school in Chibok more than two years ago has been rescued.

By Alexis Akwagyiram and Felix Onuah

ABUJA (Reuters) – Boko Haram has freed 21 of more than 200 girls kidnapped by the Islamist militant group in April 2014 in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok, the government said on Thursday.

Around 270 girls were taken from their school in Chibok in the northeastern Borno state, where the jihadists have waged a seven-year insurgency to try to set up an Islamic state, killing thousands and displacing more than 2 million people.

Dozens escaped in the initial melee, but more than 200 girls are still missing. The kidnapping brought outrage worldwide and their plight was promoted by a Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls.

“The release of the girls … is the outcome of negotiations between the administration and Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government,” a presidency statement said. “The negotiations will continue.”

The presidency gave no details of the deal, saying only that the 21 girls were very tired and would first rest in the custody of the national security agency. They would then be handed over to Vice President Yemi Obinsajo, the statement said. President Muhammadu Buhari will travel to Germany on Thursday.

CNN published on its website a picture it said showed several of the freed girls, wearing veils and being escorted by soldiers in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state.

Authorities said in May one of the missing girls had been found and Buhari vowed to rescue the others.

In the past days, the Nigerian military has been carrying out a large-scale offensive in the Sambisa forest, a stronghold of Boko Haram, which last year pledged loyalty to the Islamic State militant group.

Boko Haram controlled a swathe of land around the size of Belgium at the start of 2015, but Nigeria’s army, aided by troops from neighboring countries, has recaptured most of the territory. The group still stages suicide bombings in the northeast, as well as in neighboring Niger and Cameroon.

Boko Haram published a video in August apparently showing recent footage of dozens of the kidnapped girls and said some had been killed in air strikes.

The militant group has kidnapped hundreds of men, women and children but the kidnapping of the Chibok girls brought it worldwide attention.

In the last few months Buhari has said his government was prepared to negotiate with Boko Haram over the release of the girls.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram, Felix Onuah and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Activists put pressure on Nigerian government for kidnapped schoolgirls

Bring Back Our Girls" campaigner Christabell Ibrahim, 8, speaks during the media conference marking two years from the abduction of the Chibok girls, in Abuja

By Ulf Laessing and Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS/ABUJA (Reuters) – A video showing 15 of the 219 schoolgirls held by the jihadist group Boko Haram has added pressure on the Nigerian government to secure their release, after activists accused authorities of mishandling the case in the two years since their mass kidnap.

Weeping parents identified the girls captured by Boko Haram fighters, who want to establish an Islamist state in northeast Nigeria and have waged a seven-year campaign of violence, killing thousands of people and displacing two million.

President Muhammadu Buhari, elected a year ago on a promise to end endemic graft and crush the group, said in December the government could talk to Boko Haram if credible representatives emerged.

In January he said the government was launching a new investigation into the kidnapping, vowing to return the girls captured at a school in the town of Chibok while taking exams. But little has emerged since then.

In the video, apparently taken in December and given to government officials by Boko Haram as proof of life for the negotiations, a person asks the 15 girls to say their names as they stand quietly in two rows, wearing headscarves.

“I saw all the girls and they are Chibok girls,” Esther Yakubu, a parent of one of the abducted girls who saw the video broadcast by CNN said. “I recognize some of them because we are in the same area with them.”

Yakubu was marching with some 30 other parents and activists to the presidential villa in the capital Abuja to demand the government do more to return the girls. Police stopped them at the road leading to the villa.

Witnesses to the kidnapping, Nigerian military and security officials, Western diplomats and counter-terrorism experts blame a series of failings by politicians and the military in dealing with the militants, including a lack of co-ordination.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed told CNN the government was still reviewing the video. When asked about efforts to get the girls released he only said: “There are ongoing talks.”

A top government official who declined to be named said an official reaction would only be made once the military had established the video’s authenticity.

INFORMATION “LOST”

Activists said Buhari’s government is not doing enough, urging the state to use the video for clues to find the girls and speak to girls who had managed to flee Boko Haram captivity.

“The incredible wealth of information that victims of terrorists can offer our security forces is being lost in the current undefined and ineffective approach,” Aisha Yesufu of the #BringBackOurGirls group said in a statement.

Buhari has blamed his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan who was slow to react to the abduction.

Under Buhari’s command, Nigerian troops backed up by Chad, Niger and Cameroon have recaptured most of territory held by Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year.

However, Boko Haram has no unified leadership which makes it difficult for the government to find someone to negotiate with, analysts say.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau appeared in a video circulated last month in which he seemed to suggest he was ailing and Boko Haram was losing its effectiveness. But another video emerged last week saying there would be no surrender.

Fulan Nasrullah, a security analyst, said there was little chance of a breakthrough in the talks between the government and the militants after the failure of previous efforts.

“The government is angry about the leak, as are the insurgents,” he said. “The insurgents are not currently willing to negotiate for the girls following the government’s alleged bad faith in previous negotiations,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuoha, Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by James Macharia and Dominic Evans)