Senator Iroegbu examines the processes leading to last week’s return of 21 of the over 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014
On Thursday, Nigeria and the global community received the cheery news that 21 of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls had been released to the federal government as part of the deal brokered by the Swiss government and other actors that are yet to be named. The media assistant to the president, Mr. Garba Shehu, and Minister of Information, Mr. Lai Mohammed, who confirmed the news, informed the public that the girls had been handed over to the Department of State Service.
Shehu stressed that the 21 girls were the first batch to be released, as negotiation was still on-going to free the rest in what many considered part of the prisoner swap agreement with the Boko Haram terrorists group.
While the nation, Chibok community, and especially the girls subjected to two years of trauma, heave a sigh of relief, it would be worthwhile to recall the intrigues, twists and turns of the whole kidnap saga, which has many questions still unanswered.
Road to Freedom
The tragic story of about 276 girls of Government Secondary School, Chibok, in Borno State, began on April 14, 2014 when they were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists, who have unleashed mayhem in several parts of North-east.
Reports had it that the terrorists group had led siege to the school on the night of 14–15 April 2014, abducting between 200-300 female students, who were taking their final Senior Secondary Certificate Examination. The terrorists were reported to have broken into the school, disguised as security guards, and ordered the students to come out for their safety. Oblivious of their plans, the students were said to have been taken away by the terrorists in trucks to Sambisa Forest and other undisclosed locations while destroying houses in Chibok in their way.
Initially, there were conflicting figures between the military, school authorities and Borno State government, until it was settled at 276 girls out of about 530 students from multiple villages that were reported to have registered for the SSCE. But based on the police, approximately 276 children were taken in the attack, parents claimed 234, while the military initially claimed 129 and other reports said 329 girls were kidnapped. However, the number of those in attendance during the night of the attack is still unknown.
Release Gaffe, Controversy and Crack in Confidence
The first indication of the controversy that would trail the Chibok girls issue came few days after their abduction, on the weekend of April 19-20, 2014, when the Defence Headquarters, acting on false tip-off, announced that more than 100 of 129 (their initial figure) girls had been freed. This was however, quickly debunked by the GSSC Principal and Borno State government, forcing the military to cross-check their facts and consequently, retract their statement on April21.
This incidence polarised the rescue parties; with the military (that felt betrayed by the information allegedly provided by the then school principal) and federal government in Abuja on the one hand, and the GSSC principal and Borno State government on the one other.
Consequently, while the federal government accused the Borno State government of reopening the school it advised closed for four weeks prior to the attack due to the deteriorating security situation, the military accused the principal of misleading them and providing conflicting information.
The authorities questioned why students from multiple schools had been called in to take final exams in Physics when there was a directive to the contrary based on security information.
While the back-and-forth went on, with no concrete actions being mapped out on how to free the girls, hope came when 57 of the girls escaped from their abductors, reducing the number from the official police figure of 276 to 219 girls still in captivity.
Patience Jonathan, BBOG and International Outcry
Irked by what seemed to be lack of progress in resolving the missing Chibok girls issue, and concerned that it was damaging the reputation of her husband’s administration, the then First Lady Patience Jonathan decided to intervene. Breaking protocols, she summoned the GSSC principal, Chibok community leaders and some key figures in Borno State government to seek clarifications and amicable solution to the missing girls’ conundrum.
Mrs. Jonathan was, however, disappointed that only the principal and few others heeded her call, necessitating one of the most popular tearful outburst: “Na only you waka come…”
While the action polarised opinion, it, however, raised the bar, changed the dynamics, bringing international dimension to the rescue of the girls.
The protracted case accentuated with seeming confusion on the part of government on how to rescue the girls, and a military more engaged with Boko Haram terrorism at its peak, created a vacuum for several stakeholders to volunteer intervention and criticism. This gave rise to the Bring Back Our Girls movement, which started as a “One Million Match for the Release of Abducted Chibok Girls” led by the current Director-general of Nigerian Ports Authority, Ms. Hadiza Bala Usman, with behind the scene backing of Borno State government and the then opposition party elements.
The movement metamorphosed to the BBOG with the entrance of former Minister of Education and World Bank Vice President, Africa, Mrs. Oby Ezekwisili, which gave the agitation international prominence, especially with the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag.
US, UK, Israel, Others Volunteer to Rescue Girls
On May 2, 2014 the then President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the government was making frantic efforts to rescue the missing girls and left the door open for any local and international assistance that could ensure that the girls were brought back. Jonathan’s assurances were countered by the Boko Haram video of May 12, 2014, with the eccentric leader of the terrorist group, Abubakar Shekau, showing over 130 of the kidnapped girls, each clad in a hijab and a long Islamic chador, and demanded a prisoner exchange.
Against this backdrop, journalist Ahmad Salkida was said to have brokered a deal to secure the release of the girls in exchange for 100 Boko Haram prisoners held in various prisons in Nigeria. This was, however, later abandoned after the federal government consulted with United States, Israeli, French, and British government in Paris, where a consensus was reached to use force instead of prisoner exchange.
Another attempt was made on June 26, 2014 to rescue the girls with the report that the Nigerian government had employed the services of Levick, a US based Public Relations firm, with “a contract worth more than $1.2 million on the international and local media narrative” surrounding the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping. This was followed by an Australian negotiator, Stephen Davis, who contacted three Boko Haram commanders with a promise to release the Chibok schoolgirls. Davis reportedly failed in three attempts, when another group of Boko Haram terrorists abducted the girls with assurance that they could make money out of them and Davis left Nigeria. Left frustrated, the former Anglican Clergy accused some Nigerians of sponsoring Boko Haram but could not provide evidence, while claiming that it was not difficult to locate the five or six main Boko Haram camps as he could find them on Google Earth.
In the same vein, the expectations from Nigerians that they could get assistance from foreign allies were dashed when their entrance into the rescue efforts became futile as they all disappeared from the radar with no meaningful contribution to their mission.
In fact, Nigerian intelligence and security agencies accused their foreign counterparts of espionage, with the foreign allies countering that Nigeria failed to act on the intelligence they were given.
The last attempt to rescue or release the Chibok girls by the Jonathan administration was in May 2015, when the military reportedly reclaimed most of the areas previously controlled by the terrorists in the North-east including many of the camps in the Sambisa forest where it was suspected the Chibok girls had been kept. The success of the military then prompted the former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki (rtd), to express hope that the Chibok girls would be freed before the handover to President Muhammadu Buhari administration on May 29, 2015.
To the credit of the military, over 1000 women and girls were rescued from the recovered territories but none of them included the Chibok girls. Reports emerged that some of the girls had died, while some had been sold to slavery and others were married off to Boko Haram fighters scattered in different groups. However, Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State later assured that the girls were being kept in underground bunkers.
Buhari, Period of Silence and Reopening of Channels
There was a long period of silence about the rescue of the Chibok girls after Buhari assumed office with the first major mention coming during his maiden media chat in December 2015, where he disclosed that “there is no concrete intelligence about the Chibok girls”.
But in April this year, Boko Haram released a video said to have been taken in December 2015 (following the media chat) showing about 15 chubby looking and relaxed Chibok girls. In the same vein, one of the Chibok girls, Amina Ali Nkeki, found by the Civilian JTF in concert with the military, along with her baby and a certain Boko Haram suspect said to be her husband, Mohammad Hayyatu, in Borno State.
That followed Operation Crackdown and bombardment of Boko Haram enclaves in Sambisa forest aimed at liberating the area from the terrorists and particularly, freeing the Chibok girls. Unfortunately, this operation ended without achieving any of these objectives.
Nevertheless, one Amir Muhammad Abdullahi, who claimed to be the Boko Haram second in command and spokesman for several senior militants, on May 21 offered to surrender with a guarantee that they would not be harmed. Abdullahi promised that in return they would release several hostages, including the Chibok girls, but noted “…frankly, just about a third of them remain, as the rest have been martyred.”
Boko Haram Splinter Group Offers Chibok Girls for Amnesty
One significant ray of hope for the rescue of the Chibok girls emerged around August when Islamic State (ISIS) announced a new Boko Haram leadership as Abu Musab Al-Banarwi, who it was gathered was favourable to negotiation to free the Chibok girls in exchange for some of their commanders. This was followed by a video showing about 50 Chibok girls, with some of them holding babies, and an armed masked spokesman who demanded for the release of jailed fighters in exchange for the girls’ freedom. In the video, the masked gunman claimed that some of the Chibok girls had been killed by NAF bombardment with 40 others being married off.
The military, in response to the video, declared the trio of Ahmad Salkida, Aisha Wakil and Ahmed Bolori wanted over their connections with Boko Haram and information they had with regard to the Chibok girls. Salkida is a renowned journalist with rare access to the leaders of the Boko Haram insurgents, but defines his relationship with them as a professional one. Wakil who is popularly referred to as Mama Boko Haram, is a lawyer and member of the Committee on Dialogue and Peaceful Resolution of Security Challenges in the North, with deep contact with key terrorist figures. Bolori is an activist and coordinator of the Fa’ash Foundation and the Partnership Against Violent Extremism (Pave) and a Peace Ambassador with some vital information that could be useful in the counter-terrorism efforts.
While Wakil and Bolori honoured the Army invitation, Salkida was arrested by the DSS at the Nnamdi Azikiwe airport and taken into custody where he was said to have also provided useful information that helped with the Chibok girls’ release.
Enter the DSS, Foreign Brokers
The ray of hope offered by the Boko Haram video was said to have sparked off series of behind the scenes negotiations that culminated in the release of over 3000 Boko Haram suspects under the Operation Safe Corridor mandate and subsequent release of the 21 Chibok girls and other hostages.
While the neutrality principle of the International Committee of the Red Cross stipulates that their role should not be publicised, the Swiss government as well as key US, UK and other local negotiations paved the way for the deal. The deal, according to THISDAY findings, either involved cash exchange for the girls or a swap deal with some Boko Haram commanders in jail.
A source told THISDAY, “I can confirm that five key Boko Haram terrorists were released for the 21 girls. However, the target is to get all the remaining girls as may be in their custody released but negotiations are still on.”
Sources also revealed that the 21 Chibok girls after their release were first taken to 44 Reference Hospital, Kaduna, before being transferred to the DSS custody in Abuja. According to the sources, the DSS facilitated the negotiation and release of the girls, while the Office of the National Security Adviser coordinated the operations.
The source said, “It is an arranged prisoner exchange programme, and this is the first batch. More of such exchanges are to follow while the girls are in the custody of the DSS.
“On why the DSS is facilitating the exchange, truth is that ONSA is only playing supervisory role in the intelligence community. They really do not have the capabilities to directly carry out any serious operations as they still have to revert to the appropriate agencies for such missions. The DSS is better equipped. And for the military, they still need the intelligence input of the DSS to carry out a successful major operation.”
DSS Role, Sambisa Location Myth and Military Blackout
Many military insiders and observers in the whole Chibok girls saga were on Thursday left stunned by the manner in which the military were left in the cold over the Chibok girls release and negotiations. While the military authorities were comfortable that the issues and negotiation were being handled at the strategic level some expressed shock that DSS hijacked the process. Not until the Presidency released a statement, military authorities were left in the dark about the negotiation. A statement credited to the DHQ even dismissed the initial reports that the girls had been released.
THISDAY findings revealed that the military were also snookered by the DSS over Ahmad Salkida interrogation as he was allegedly not handed over to them after his arrest by the secret police. Concerned security watchers had reasoned that since the military had made the most efforts and borne the brunt of the criticisms on Chibok girls’ saga, it should be accorded credit and recognition for the recent success.
The second issue is that the released Chibok girls were allegedly not held in Sambisa forest, where the military have expended most of their armoury with the hope of liberating the girls.
“It is obviously looking like the girls may not be in the Sambisa forest after all. My suspicion is they were either held in the neighbouring countries or a well secured home in the country,” a source said.