- More girls to be released soon, says Osinbajo
- Abductee freed with baby
- Buhari, Saraki, Atiku, BBOG, others overjoyed
The federal government, Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) group and Nigerians from all walks of life yesterday were in a celebratory mood, following the release of 21 girls who were kidnapped from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno State more than two years ago in a cash-for-girls exchange deal.
Although the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, dismissed initial reports yesterday that the girls were released in a prisoner swap deal, reliable sources in the presidency informed THISDAY that the girls were released yesterday morning after an undisclosed amount of money was paid to the Boko Haram leaders.
When THISDAY confronted Mohammed with the information on the cash that was paid to secure the release of the girls, he also denied it, saying his information was coming from the “very top”.
The 21 girls, who emerged from captivity, were some of the 276 girls abducted by the terror sect on April 14, 2014 from their school dormitory, sparking global outrage and the demand for their release by world leaders including U.S. First Lady, Michele Obama.
Of the 276 girls kidnapped on that fateful night, 57 immediately escaped from captivity while 219 were held captive for two years, until one of the girls, Amina Ali Nkeli, escaped last May with her baby who was conceived and born in captivity and one of her abductors, whom she called her husband.
With the release of 21 girls thursday, 197 remain in captivity with a promise by the Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo thursday that more of the girls would be released in the next few days or months.
The president’s media aide, Garba Shehu, gave the names of the freed girls as: Mary Usman Bulama, Jummai John, Blessing Abana, Lugwa Sanda, Comfort Habila, Maryam Basheer, Comfort Amos, Glory Mainta, Saratu Emannuel, Deborah Ja’afaru and Rahab Ibrahim.
Others included Helen Musa, Maryamu Lawan, Rebecca Ibrahim, Asabe Goni, Deborah Andrawus, Agnes Gapani, Saratu Markus, Glory Dama, Pindah Nuhu and Rebecca Mallam.
One of the 21 girls, who all looked emaciated and grief-stricken in the photographs released by the State House, Abuka, had a baby clinging to her.
Osinbajo, who spoke with State House correspondents after he met with the girls at the Office of the Department of State Services (DSS), said Nigerians should congratulate themselves and thank God for the girls’ release.
He also confirmed the information minister’s assertion that the federal government did not swap the girls for detained members of Boko Haram.
He said: “We should congratulate ourselves and thank the almighty God for the release and subsequent return home of 21 of the Chibok girls who were taken hostage two years ago.
“It is exciting news for the whole country. Everyone is really excited and I believe that we should be very thankful to God.
“I also want to thank the military and all the security services, DSS, intelligence services across the county as well as our friends and partners, locally and internationally who have also helped in bringing to a happy end of the captivity of 21 of the Chibok girls.
“About an hour ago, I met with the 21 Chibok girls who have been brought back and they are in good health, considering the circumstances they have been held in, and they are now being well taken care of in the medical facility.
“They will be staying there for sometime until we are satisfied with their health. Their parents will be coming to join them hopefully by tomorrow.
“There will be therapy, there will be counselling. Of course, we can imagine what they have gone through. So we expect that a lot of psychological therapy and so much needs to be done to get them back in the right condition.”
On whether the girls were released through a swap for suspected members of Boko Haram in government custody, the vice-president said: “There was no exchange of any kind. There was no swap of any kind.
“When we started negotiations, we said we would consider all options available to us. Absolutely, there was no exchange of any kind.”
When asked further if the government will agree to future swaps to secure the release of the remaining girls, he replied: “We must be sensitive to the fact that the government wants these girls back and alive.
“Again, we must balance it against the security and safety of the country. In the process of negotiations, we will look at all options and we will weigh the options carefully and decide on what to do.
“But what has happened and the process we have begun is one which has not involved any type of swap of Boko Haram commanders or any militant in any way.
“That is a very good turn of events. We believe that in the next few days and months, we will be bringing in more of these girls using exactly the same kind of negotiations and the same template that we used.”
‘Red Cross Helped Convey Girls’
Providing clarity on the involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which yesterday stated that it was not involved in negotiations for the release of the girls, Osinbajo said: “The Swiss government worked with us in the process of negotiations, but the Red Cross was not involved in the negotiations.
“But in conveying the girls back, of course, we worked with the Red Cross because we were unable to take our own medical team. The Red Cross was not involved at all in the process of negotiations. It was the Swiss government and our own officials comprising the DSS, intelligence and the military that were involved.”
Cash Paid for Girls
However, despite the federal government’s insistence that there was no prisoner swap to secure the release of the girls, an authoritative presidency source informed THISDAY that the government was forced to part with cash to get the 21 girls out.
Although he did not disclose the amount involved, he said: “As you know, the federal government started negotiations for the release of the Chibok girls in July last year.
“However, there were two previous attempts to secure their release which failed because Boko Haram was factionalised.
“Despite this, the government did not give up and continued negotiations through its team led by the DSS, with the support of the Nigerian Army and Air Force.
“The team eventually got the green light recently and delivered the money to the representatives of Boko Haram, following which one of the Augusta Westland helicopters which was transferred by Mr. President early this week from the Presidential Air Fleet to the Nigerian Air Force, was sent to convey the girls early this morning from the Camerounian border.”
The presidency official stated that the handover of the aircraft from the Presidential Air Fleet to the Air Force on Monday had nothing to do with the release of the girls, insisting that it was “sheer coincidence”.
He said once the girls were handed over to the government team, they were verified in collaboration with the Red Cross and flown immediately to Kaduna, where they spent a few hours and underwent a brief medical assessment, before being flow to Abuja.
“The release is the first of many phases that the government has embarked upon. We are very optimistic that more girls will be released in the next few weeks or months,” he said.
‘A Commitment Fulfilled’
Reveling in the release of the 21 missing girls yesterday, the federal government attributed the feat to the commitment of President Muhammadu Buhari to fulfil the promise he made to Nigerians and the international community.
“We can confirm that 21 of the girls were released safely to us by 5.30 this Thursday morning and they were flown to Kaduna from the location of their release.
“This is the most glaring manifestation to date of the unwavering commitment of Mr. President to secure the safe release of the girls and reunite them with their families,” the information minister said yesterday during a press briefing in Abuja.
“It is also a result of the round-the-clock efforts by the administration to put a closure to the sad issue of the kidnap of the girls,” he added.
Explaining the secret deal that led to the release of the girls, the minister along with other senior government officials, confirmed that the effort was led by the DSS in collaboration with a “friendly European country and a renowned international humanitarian organisation” and supported by the military.
He said that as soon as the necessary confidence was built on both sides, the parties agreed on the date and the location for the release of the 21 girls.
“It was a product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides. We see this as a credible first step in the eventual release of all the Chibok girls in captivity.
“It is also a major step in confidence-building between us as a government and the Boko Haram leadership on the issue of the Chibok girls.
“We want to thank all Nigerians for their support and for never losing confidence in the ability of Mr. President to secure the safe release of our Chibok girls,” Mohammed said.
Ahead of their arrival in Abuja thursday, the minister said the government had assembled a team of medical doctors, psychologists, social workers and trauma experts to properly examine the girls, especially because they had been in captivity for so long.
“They will also be adequately debriefed. We have the list of the 21 girls but we are now contacting their parents as part of the necessary verification exercise,” he added.
Earlier while confirming the release of the 21 girls, the presidency in a statement by Garba Shehu, said their release was brokered by the Red Cross and Swiss Government.
However, the Red Cross has clarified that it was not involved in negotiations for the release of the girls but assisted in conveying them once they were released yesterday morning.
Shehu said the Director-General of DSS, Mr. Lawal Daura, briefed Buhari before he departed for his state visit to Germany.
The statement read: “The release of the girls, in a limited number, was the outcome of negotiations between the administration and the Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government.
“The negotiations will continue. The president welcomes the release of the girls but cautions Nigerians to be mindful of the fact that more than 30,000 fellow citizens were killed via terrorism.
“Malam Lawal Daura wants the girls to have some rest, with all of them very tired coming out of the process before he hands them over to the Vice-President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo.
“The president takes off shortly on a trip to Germany for a state visit.”
Buhari, Saraki, Others Overjoyed
Speaking on the girls’ release before leaving for Germany, Buhari through his Twitter handle, said: “As I depart Abuja for Germany on an official visit, I welcome the release of 21 of our Chibok Girls, following successful negotiations.
“The Department of State Services (DSS) has briefed me on the matter, and will continue to provide updates.
“Cooperation on the security and humanitarian situation in the North-east will form a significant part of my discussions with Chancellor Merkel.”
In his reaction, Senate President Bukola Saraki commended the president, the Nigerian security services, the government of Switzerland and the international community for what he described as their combined efforts, which led to the release of the 21 Chibok schoolgirls.
Saraki, according to a statement by his media office, said his heart went out to the families whose daughters were still being held in captivity while his thoughts and prayers were also with the families of those who had returned.
He said the Senate would continue to support federal government’s efforts to secure the release of the Chibok girls, adding that their abduction had remained a dark spot in the country’s history.
“We join all Nigerians to rejoice on the return of our daughters. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families of those who have returned, and those girls who remain in the hands of the terrorists.
“It is our hope that the release of more of the girls is imminent and that our nation remains vigilant in the face of the continued crisis in North-east Nigeria,” he said.
Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, through a Twitter post, said he was incredibly happy at the news, adding: “A lesson, hope always wins. Prayers for the release of the remaining #ChibokGirls.”
The Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima also commended the president on his unrelenting commitment to secure the release of the girls.
He said: “If any Nigerian had doubts about the sincerity and commitment of President Muhammadu Buhari to the rescue of our precious daughters abducted by Boko Haram insurgents at Government Secondary School, Chibok on April 14, 2014, as well as his sincerity in rescuing all other victims and ending the Boko Haram insurgency, such doubts should be eliminated by the success of the negotiations that led to the release of 21 Chibok schoolgirls.”
Shettima’s reaction was contained in a statement issued by Malam Isa Gusau, spokesman to the Borno governor.
He said: “As people of Borno State troubled by the deaths and destructions of the Boko Haram insurgency, one of our major sources of strength since May 29, 2015, has been the undiluted sincerity we saw in President Muhammadu Buhari based on his administration’s absolutely genuine commitment towards recovering our schoolgirls, thousands of other women and children held in captivity as well as ending the insurgency in order to secure the lives of our citizens and make way for reconstruction, resettlement and other development programmes and projects.
“I am certain that the recovery of our 21 precious daughters from insurgency only strengthens the resolve of the Buhari administration to continue to work tirelessly until all the girls and all Nigerians abducted are freed and until the Boko Haram insurgency is brought to an end to guarantee public safety.”
The governor also thanked the Armed Forces and others who worked on the recovery of these 21 daughters of Borno State.
Also, a national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Chief Bola Ahmed Tinubu, said the news of the release of the girls came to him as a “delightful relief”.
“I congratulate the families of these young ladies who have endured so much anxiety and pain on account of this horrendous experience. I am also grateful that these budding young stars now have the opportunity to again pursue their dreams and aspirations.
“I know there is road to recovery and readjustment ahead, but I am confident that the support of their families, our communities, and the assistance of our many collaborators at home, and internationally will provide the tools required for this,” he said.
He congratulated and thanked Buhari for his steadfastness and dogged effort in ensuring the release of the girls, and saluted the gallant men and women in uniform who have continued to make sacrifices on behalf of the Nigeria, and have remained focused in the hot pursuit of the terrorists.
BBOG, Bala Usman Laud FG
Similarly, a statement signed by the duo of Aisha Yesufu and Oby Ezekwesili, on behalf of the BBOG group, said: “The Nigerian government has confirmed the return of 21 of our ChibokGirls. We are extremely delighted and grateful as we await the names.
“We welcome reports from the presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, of the negotiated release of 21 of our abducted #ChibokGirls today.
“This wonderful development confirms what we have always known about the capacity of our government to rescue our #ChibokGirls.
“While awaiting further details, we take this opportunity to salute the work of our security services at the front lines – the commitment, resilience and tireless efforts of our members of the Multi-national Joint Task Force and the Civilian JTF.
“We also thank the International Committee for the Red Cross, the Swiss government and all negotiators involved in securing the release.
“Following this development, we trust that our government will continue to work to keep the safety, security, and well-being of the other girls a high priority.
“We further urge the international community to continue to support our government’s effort to rescue all other abducted Nigerians, so that parents, the Chibok community, the nation, and the world can finally put an end to this nightmare once and for all.”
Still speaking afterwards, Ezekwesili, who is in the United States, took to her Twitter handle to express her joy over the release of the 21 girls.
In emotional several Tweets, she thanked the president and military for the release of the girls, while expressing hope that the outstanding 197 girls still in captivity will be freed soon.
Another founding member of the group, Ms. Hadiza Bala Usman, who is now the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), also expressed joy over the release of the girls and commended the federal government yesterday.
Speaking to THISDAY on the phone, she said: “It is a historic milestone in the fight against the insurgency, having them release 21 of the girls they held captive for over two years.
“It is an indication of their (Boko Haram) decapitation by the Nigerian military. I was overwhelmed with emotions when I heard of the girls’ release, because the Chibok girls have been symbolic of everyone who has been held captive by Boko Haram.
“It is a major symbol for all of us to celebrate, to support the military and support the government to rebuild the infrastructure and social services in the North-east.”