•Buhari promises they will be rescued
• Find the now, says BBOG as police bar protesters from Aso Rock
• Gordon Brown renews call for global action to assist with release of the girls
Bolaji Adebiyi, Tobi Soniyi in Abuja and Michael Olugbode in Maiduguri
Following the broadcast of the proof of life video showing 15 of the abducted Chibok girls by US cable news network, CNN on Wednesday, THISDAY has confirmed that the 219 girls who were kidnapped from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, exactly two years ago have been broken up into groups and are being offered by different Boko Haram cells to federal government negotiators in exchange for huge sums of money.
Their abduction sparked a social media campaign and global outrage which drew attention to the horror of the six-year-old insurgency in the Northeast.
However, the release of the video has added pressure on the federal government to secure their release, with President Muhammadu Buhari promising the parents and relations of the missing girls yesterday that they will be rescued and returned to them.
Sources in the intelligence agencies informed THISDAY yesterday that they were aware of the negotiations with the Islamist terror group, which have been stalled due to the ransoms demanded by different Boko Haram cells for the release of the girls in their possession.
One senior intelligence source said that in the course of negotiations for the girls’ release, one cell asked for $50 million in exchange for the 15 girls shown in the video on Wednesday, prompting the recording last December by the Boko Haram cell to show that the girls were still alive.
“Then yet another group offered another 10 girls for over 1 million euros, reinforcing intelligence reports that they had been broken up and dispersed to different cells,” he said.
He explained that the large ransoms demanded by different cells of Boko Haram further confirmed the federal government’s position that the terror group had been significantly degraded and has its back against the wall, hence the astronomical demands for money in exchange for the girls.
The source added, however, that the federal government has refused to yield to the demands of the different cells, insisting that all 219 girls must be released at the same time.
He said the government was also against paying any form of ransom for their release, as the monies could be used by Boko Haram, which has been declared the deadliest extremist sect in the world, to rearm and continue their reign of violence and wanton killings in its bid to carve out a caliphate in the Northeast.
“The group is deadly, cannot be trusted and is led by maniacal leaders. As such, the federal government has refused to yield to the demands of the cells. Their supply channels have more or less been cut off, so paying them such huge amounts for a handful of girls will only be giving them the ammunition to rearm and continue the deadly destruction and mayhem in the north,” he said.
Despite the lack of progress in securing the girls’ release, the president yesterday assured the parents and relations of the kidnapped schoolgirls that they will be rescued, adding that he frequently reflects on the ordeal of the captives in the hands of Boko Haram terrorists and shares in the pain of their continued absence from home.
A statement by his spokesman, Mr. Garba Shehu, said on the second anniversary of the kidnap of the girls, Buhari affirmed that as a parent and leader of the country, he understood the torment, frustration and anxiety of the parents and would not spare any effort to ensure the safe return of the girls.
The president said he continued to believe that with the total commitment of the federal government, Nigerian Armed Forces and security agencies, and the support of the international community, the girls would be eventually rescued.
Buhari noted that thousands of persons, mostly women and children, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, had already been rescued and reunited with their families.
The president said he shared the hope of the parents that the Chibok girls would ultimately be rescued and reunited with their families as well.
The president assured the parents that the federal government and security agencies would continue to explore all possible options for the safe return of the girls.
Buhari urged the parents to continue to exercise patience and understanding as “the government works diligently to ensure that the girls are returned home unharmed”.
The president thanked all Nigerians, religious and civil organisations, and the international community for their continued sympathy, support and prayers for the return of the Chibok girls.
The president spoke just as the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) movement marched on the Presidential Villa in Abuja yesterday to commemorate the second year of the abduction of the 219 schoolgirls from Chibok and asked Buhari to rescue the girls immediately.
“The most important activity we expect from our federal government and countries with capabilities to support the rescue effort for our 219 girls is to act without any further delay,” the group said in a statement read within the vicinity of the Presidential Villa, adding: “Our government must lead a well-coordinated, coherent, sustained and results-focused SWAT search and rescue team that mobilises every possible intelligence assets available anywhere in the world to rescue our Chibok girls and all other citizens still languishing in the den of terrorists.”
The peaceful march led by the former Minister of Education, Mrs. Obi Ezekwesili, was however stopped a few metres from the first pilot gate of the Villa by the police who expressed concerns about “the security implication of allowing the procession into the Villa”.
A mild argument immediately ensued as Ezekwesili engaged Grace Longe, a Chief Superintendent of Police (CSP), who led the operations, demanding to know why in spite of the peaceful nature of the procession, it was being denied access to the seat of government.
“The authority is not denying you access per se but we have to stop you here because of the security implication of having the march proceed into the Villa,” Longe, who is also the Divisional Police Officer (DPO) for Asokoro, said, arguing: “Since this place is within the precinct of the Villa, you might as well have your press conference here.”
Ezekwesili appealed to members of the BBOG group for calm but quickly seized the opportunity to rebuke the federal government. “It is totally inappropriate that this has happened. We are a civil movement; we mean no trouble; we mean no harm; we simply wanted to exercise our right of access to the seat of power that is accountable to us.
“I assure you that the citizens of this country will not allow government to operate as though we are still under military rule. We are not,” she said.
Saying the group was a law abiding organisation, the former minister prevailed on her members not to proceed beyond the human barricade formed by policewomen, some of them in anti-riot gear, but insisted that the planned press conference would hold in front of the barricade.
Thereafter in a statement read by one of the group’s leaders, Aisha Yesufu, the group expressed disappointment in the failure of the government to find and rescue the girls, 731 days after they were abducted by the terrorists.
“The truth must be told: Nigeria has disappointingly failed those 219 schoolgirls for too long. Two years is unacceptably a long time for young women to be left as captives of terrorists. Not only Nigeria, but the world has failed our girls. We all as humanity have failed our girls in not doing all we can to ensure their rescue these past 731 days,” it said.
It said its members and the parents of the girls were devastated by the feedback received from Buhari, seven months into his administration, which indicated that the government had no clue about the place of captivity of the girls.
“We are still puzzled at the fact that the president in our meeting of January 2016 inferred that the Chibok girls were not yet rescued because the government ‘lacked credible intelligence on the whereabouts of the girls’,” BBOG said.
But in spite of its disappointment with the government’s efforts, the group said it believed there was still hope that the girls would be found and rescued alive, citing a resent video released by the terrorist Boko Haram organisation, which was aired by CNN showing 15 of the girls being interviewed alive by the terrorists.
“Yet, hope endures. That hope has been cautiously renewed by the recent release of a proof of life video of some of the abducted girls identified by some of their parents,” BBOG said.
The group, which had been agitating for more government commitment to the rescue of the girls for 716 of the 731 days of their abduction, called on the federal government to redouble its rescue efforts, even as it appealed to the international community to place at Nigeria’s disposal all the intelligence arsenal that could help in finding and bringing the girls back home.
“Our movement shall not stop reminding our president and the federal government of their constitutional mandate and his personal pledge to rescue our Chibok girls. For 716 days, we have advocated relentlessly and shall continue until our girls are rescued,” it said.
Yesterday’s march started at the Unity Fountain in the Central Area sit-out of the group with six-year-old Christabel Audu, a Chibok girl, leading the procession that included some members of the Chibok community in Abuja and some of the parents and relations of the abducted girls.
Many of them said they were at a loss as to why the federal government had been unable to rescue the girls.
“The government said it had defeated Boko Haram, yet none of our girls has been rescued. What kind of victory is that?” asked Nkeki Mutah, a Chibok man who said two of the abducted girls were his nieces.
The Boko Haram terrorists abducted 276 girls from their school, Government Secondary School, Chibok on April 14, 2014. At various times, 57 of them managed to escape and returned home, leaving 219 of them in captivity.
Following the perceived lackadaisical attitude of the President Goodluck Jonathan administration towards the rescue of the girls, the BBOG group was formed to agitate for a responsive action from government.
Hoping that with the advent of a new government led by Buhari, there would be more concerted efforts at finding the girls, the group met with the president twice, first in July 2015 and later in January 2016.
But it said yesterday that it was disappointed that the administration had not done enough in almost a year in office to find and rescue the girls, vowing that it would not relent in its advocacy to attract a more responsible approach to the issue from the government.
Similarly, the parents of the schoolgirls told a federal government delegation who had been sent to Chibok in remembrance of the second anniversary of their kidnapping, that they had been living in pain ever since their daughters were taken away by members of the Boko Haram sect.
The parents, who pleaded with the federal government delegation led by the Minister of Environment, Mrs. Amina Mohammed, Minister of State for Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, and her Works, Power and Housing counterpart, Mr. Mustapha Baba Shehuri, said only the release of the girls and their subsequent reunion with them could relieve them of pain.
The leader of the parents of the abducted girls, Mr. Yakubu Nkeki said the grief and sorrow over their missing daughters was still boldly written on their faces.
In what sound like a poem to the missing girls, Nkeki said: “We cannot fathom your definite location and the condition you are in right now. Are you alive or dead? Are you pregnant, put to bed or empty. Have you eaten the food of your choice or forced to eat something against your will? Have you taken your bath today? How do you take care of yourself during your menstrual flow?”
He lamented that nobody could answer some of the posers except the abductors of their daughters, urging the government to step up efforts at freeing the girls.
Nkeki stated that the federal government was not doing enough to free the girls, even as he appealed to the Borno State government to rebuild their destroyed school.
Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima, who accompanied the ministers to Chibok, said former President Jonathan should be blamed for the woes of the Chibok parents.
He argued that the schoolgirls would have been freed a few days after the abduction had the president acted.
He said: “The president didn’t even believe the adduction took place. Perhaps that was why he and his wife never visited Chibok even once.”
Commenting on the recent statement by his Ekiti State counterpart, Ayo Fayose, Shettima said: “One noisy governor even recently said the abduction of our daughters was false. This clearly shows their mentality.”
He however appealed to the parents and the entire nation to pray for the return of the schoolgirls and peace in the country.
He challenged the people to submit lists of indigenous contractors of Chibok extraction to the government for consideration for the award of contracts for the building of new schools and a hospital in Chibok.
Also in attendance were Senators Ali Ndume (Borno Central) and Binta Garba (Adamawa North), who joined others at Government Secondary School, Chibok, to pray for the return of the teenagers kidnapped two years ago.
Senators Ndume and Binta in their separate remarks appealed to the parents and families of the girls to be united in prayers.
“President Buhari is committed to securing the release of the girls but we need to be focused and support the government. It is not time for blame,” he said, a position supported by Senator Binta.
She said the presence of government delegation, senators and other senior officials in Chibok to pray with the people underscored the sensitivity of the presidency to the Chibok issue.
The Minister of Environment also announced the donation of a truckload of food items and clothing for the mothers of the missing girls. They were also given cash gifts.
The Chairman of Chibok Local Government, Abba Lawan thanked the federal government delegation and the state government, as well as the initiator of BBOG group, Ms. Bala Usman, who was present at the commemorative event.
Meanwhile, former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Mr. Gordon Brown, in a statement yesterday expressed concern that the 219 Chibok girls were still desperate but powerless after 730 days in captivity.
In the statement sent exclusively to THISDAY, he said that the girls were still relying on a miracle, adding that they and their families deserved better.
“As we mark the second anniversary of the abduction and disappearance of 276 teenagers from a north eastern town in Nigeria, we have all done far too little to secure their release.
“The girls, all studying hard at school before their mass kidnapping, are now a symbol of our apparent weakness to protect young lives.
“The exact whereabouts of the schoolgirls – most of whom are believed to be between the ages of 16 and 18 – remains unclear. In January 2016, the Nigerian military were reported to have freed 1,000 women held captive by Boko Haram, yet none of them were girls from Chibok.
“It has been claimed that some were sold into slavery for N2,000 (about $10) each; others had been forcibly married to militants.
“It has also been reported that Boko Haram has secretly issued a massive ransom demand of N10 billion (around $50 million).
“There had previously been talks about a prisoner exchange – overseen at one stage by the Red Cross – but that deal floundered after the Nigerian government said it did not hold any of the jailed commanders on a list given to them by Boko Haram,” he said.
He expressed sadness that any news about the girls of Chibok has now become rumour, hearsay or theory and the harsh reality is that the group, most with dreams of university and careers, have vanished from the face of the earth as the world idly waits.
“Two years on and still their parents wake up each morning not knowing whether their daughters are alive or dead, married or single or violated as slaves. They surely deserve more than a forlorn hope.
“The treatment of the Chibok girls is among the worst of the horrors inflicted daily on children in conflict zones in a rising number of civil wars which are now at their highest level in 40 years.
“Not since the ending of World War II have so many – 30 million girls and boys – become displaced from their homes. Never outside the context of world wars have so many children – 10 million – become refugees.
“There is no period in history when so many schools in so many countries been subject to so many barbaric terror attacks,” he added.
He was of the view, however, that the UN Security Council could intervene and encourage the Nigeria – with the support of the Americans, the French, the Chinese and the British – to undertake enhanced air surveillance and potential action on the ground to secure the sighting and release of the girls. “And we could and should do far more to protect children from attacks and abductions when in school.
“To show the kidnappers will be punished, the Security Council should adopt a resolution, under which the act of abductions of children will in future trigger an action making these terrorists ‘listed’ by the United Nations Secretary General so that full weight of international pressure is brought to bear.
“All Governments should now support a Declaration on Safe Schools, stating, as Norway has done, that attacks on schools, colleges and universities are crimes against humanity.
“And the international community should ensure the funds for guards, for cameras and simple gates to protect schools in conflict zones.
“This means we must work, at the World Humanitarian Summit, towards increasing education’s emergency aid funding, which is still only one per cent of the humanitarian budget,” he said.