By Crusoe Osagie
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has reiterated the federal government’s commitment to rescuing the abducted Chibok girls from Boko Haram terrorists, revealing that the present administration on three occasions established links with Boko Haram for the exchange of the abducted girls with the arrested members of the terrorist group.
The minister’s revelation of past attempts to negotiate the release of the girls by the Muhammadu Buhari administration confirmed THISDAY’s exclusive report last August that the federal government had made at least two attempts to secure the release of the kidnapped girls through a prisoner-swap deal, but both attempts failed when no member of the sect or the girls turned up at the appointed place for the exchange.
The information minister spoke Saturday night on a live programme on Channels Television commemorating Nigeria’s Independence titled: “Nigeria at 56: Recursive, Resilient, Rising”, which coincided with 901 days since the abduction of over 200 secondary schoolgirls from their school in Chibok, Borno State.
Mohammed stressed that no group, local or international, could claim to have more at stake or was more committed to the rescue of the girls than the federal government.
He added that the issue of the rescue of the girls was a humanitarian one that everyone or group should be “passionate but rational about”.
The minister maintained that contrary to the position of some critics, the government has a robust counter-terrorism policy and had recorded significant successes in the fight against Boko Haram in the North-east.
He noted that the fact that the Chibok girls were yet to be rescued should not be a yardstick to write off the achievements of government at decimating Boko Haram.
Mohammed recalled that upon assumption of the present administration, many parts of the North-east were under the control of the sect and were unsafe and inaccessible.
The minister said the situation was not the same today, as no part of the North-east region was under the control of the group.
He insisted that Boko Haram had been decimated and government was working daily to ensure the release of the abducted girls.
“The North-east is free now, students are returning to schools, all the towns and communities hitherto under the control of the terrorists have been liberated and those who fled their homes are gradually returning,” he said.
The minister further recalled that when the Buhari administration assumed power, it was 410 days after the abduction of the schoolgirls, without any clue on their rescue by the previous government.
He pointed out that in all cases of abduction, especially by terrorists, the first 48 hours are critical to ensuring prompt rescue, adding that the government in power at the time did not utilise the intelligence at its disposal.
The minister said the present administration on three occasions established links with Boko Haram for the exchange of the abducted girls with the arrested members of the terrorist group, adding that on each occasion, the efforts were thwarted by either the link with the terrorists, fresh demands by the group, or divisions in its camp.
Mohammed, however, said the federal government has not foreclosed negotiating with the group on the release of the girls but wants to be certain that the link is genuine and credible.
“There shall be no closure on the Boko Haram issue until and when the Chibok girls are released and returned to the safety of their families. I think that does not contradict what Mr. President has said that we have defeated Boko Haram.
“Of course, anybody who is familiar with the philosophy of insurgency will understand that it is not the regular kind of war where you sign an armistice and the guns become silent forever, but rather it is a kind of guerrilla war.
“But what Mr. President said, which cannot be contradicted, is that as of May 29, 2015, when he took over, we had a chunk of our territory in the hands of Boko Haram. As at 2015, a part of the North-east could not be accessed because of the activities of the terrorists, but the same cannot be said about the area today.
“I want us to put things in correct perspective. Yes, the issue of the kidnap or abduction of the Chibok girls is one that should affect everybody, it is not out of place for anyone to be emotional about it but at the same time we must be rational in our approach to the issue.
“Yes, today might be 901 days since the girls were abducted but it must also be understood that these girls were abducted 400 days before this government came to power, this must not be forgotten and by the time we came in, the trail had gone cold. The first 48 hours after any kidnapping constitute the most critical period.
“If you listen to my press conference some weeks ago with respect to the failed negotiations, it is clear that every occasion starting from the one in August 2015, where for 10 days we were at the appointed point where Boko Haram fighters were supposed to be exchanged with the Chibok girls, the factionalisation of Boko Haram played a key role in our inability to secure the release of the girls,” he said.
Mohammed said the fact that the president approved the deal to exchange even with some Boko Haram armourers for the girls, was the clearest indication of his unflinching commitment to securing their release.
“Like I explained at that press conference, right from the time when we were approached that the Boko Haram leadership wanted to exchange the girls for their people, Mr. President was quite worried because they (Boko Haram) insisted that some of the terrorists who were actually the masterminds behind the bombings should be included on the list of those to be released.
“Despite that, the president accepted and the entire process was activated but for 10 days we were there and there was a breakdown of communication and nothing was achieved.
“So that was what Mr. President meant when he said ‘yes we are ready to negotiate but what we need is a credible leadership to engage with’,” the minister said.
He said government appreciated the efforts of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) group, adding that “the administration is as concerned as they are and ready to work with them in ensuring the release of the girls”.
Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, one of the leaders of the BBOG group, who responded to the minister’s clarification on the efforts made by the Buhari administration to rescue the Chibok girls, agreed with his position that the first 48 hours are critical to achieving success or failure in cases of abduction by terrorists, adding that the past administration failed in that regard.
Ezekwesili, however, said the BBOG group was disappointed that more than 900 days after the girls’ abduction, there was no tangible evidence or convincing plan by government on their release.
She said the group resumed its agitation with vigour to canvass citizens’ engagement in the release of the girls and in order to ensure that government does not avoid the parents of the girls.
She underscored the need for government to carry along the BBOG group in its rescue efforts and be consistent in its messages and briefings.
She pledged the support of the group to the government in ensuring the safe rescue of the abducted girls.