A recent swap deal between the federal government and the Boko Haram terrorist sect, which traded detained member of the group for the release of 82 of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, is neither strange nor peculiar to Nigeria. Olawale Olaleye writes
The excitement that greeted the release of 82 of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls, who had been kept in captivity since April 2014, did not undo the debate woven around the circumstance of their freedom. Certainly, the release of the girls could not have come at a better time, especially for the government. For an administration battling many crises at different fronts, more so at the risk of its goodwill and credibility, the release of the girls provided some respite.
Yet, the elated atmosphere of the release of the girls has not discountenanced the debate about the circumstance of their freedom amongst the generality of the people, some of whom reckoned the swap deal was in a way trading a part of the authority of the government as a sovereign state.
A statement by the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, confirmed that the girls were released in exchange for some Boko Haram suspects, who were hitherto held by the authority.
He added that the release was a follow-up to the earlier freedom of 21 girls in October last year, after which he said the president tasked security agencies to sustain their efforts until all the girls were freed and reunited with their families, noting that the president had since then been receiving briefings from the Director-General of Department of State Services (DSS), Lawal Daura, on the negotiation progress.
“The President is pleased to announce that negotiations to release more of the Chibok Girls have born fruits with the release of 82 more girls today. After months of patient negotiations, our security agencies have taken back these abducted girls in exchange for some Boko Haram suspects held by the authorities.”
This immediately attracted knocks and kudos for the government. One of the first condemnations came from the Senator Ahmed Makarfi-led faction of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which claimed the prisoner swap deal was inadvertently strengthening the terror group.
Similarly, a former National Vice-Chairman of the PDP and currently the Deputy National Chairman of the Sheriff-led faction of the party, Cairo Ojuogboh, said former President Goodluck Jonathan was the first to initiate the move to swap the kidnapped girls for the captured Boko Haram terrorists but the attempt was scuttled by a prominent Borno government official he declined to name.
But quickly, the federal government through the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, fired back and described the opposition party’s reaction as “indecent, inhuman and ill-timed”, accusing the PDP of insensitivity for attempting to douse on the altar of politics, the universal joy that has greeted the release of the girls abducted from their school on April 14, 2014.
A prisoner exchange or swap deal is not a practice peculiar to any nation, indeed, it is a common development in developed climes. For instance, in 1955, Israel released 5,577 Egyptian prisoners of war in exchange for the release of an Israeli pilot and three soldiers. Recall that after the 1967 Six days war between Israel and Arab, the Israeli army
took 4,338 Egyptian soldiers and 899 civilians, 553 Jordanian soldiers and 366 civilians, and 367 Syrian soldiers and 205 civilians captive. They were exchanged for two Israeli soldiers and the dead body of another.
On April 4, 1975, Israel released 92 terrorist held in their custody, in exchange for the dead bodies of 39 of their soldiers, while on November 23, 1983, six Israeli Defense Force soldiers were exchanged for 4,700 Palestine terrorists.
On May 25, 1998, the dead body of Itamar Ilyah, an Israeli soldier was exchanged for 65 living Hezbollah terrorists. Over 400 Palestinian and 30 Lebanese prisoners, including Hezbollah leaders ash-Sheikh Abdal-Karim Obeid were exchanged in 2004 for the bodies of three dead IDF soldiers captured in 2000.
On October 18, 2011, captured IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit was released by Hamas in exchange for 1027 Hamas terrorists. And as recently as 2014, Sergeant Bowei Bergdahl of the US army in Afghanistan was released by the Taliban in exchange for five notorious Taliban commanders, held at Guantamo bay by the US government. The US sergeant was kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban since June 30, 2009.
Essentially, a swap deal appears unacceptable, especially from a conservative point of view as it seeks to reduce the sovereignty of the nation at the receiving end. But on moral ground and in good conscience, it is also difficult for anyone to disagree with the idea of swapping the terrorists for the young girls, who had been stolen from their parents since 2014.
Unfortunately, since a swap deal is the last resort by the Nigerian government if it must keep to its promise of securing the release of the girls, government can only be commended for summoning the courage to do so. Although the idea of a swap deal by the Jonathan administration was frustrated by the then opposition party on many grounds, the approach should have been informed by what it is now: the safety and freedom of the girls.
It is therefore hoped that in discharging this onerous national assignment, the national security of the country and her pride as a sovereign state have not been compromised in the process. The government had treaded the most difficult path and moving forward, it must ensure that any situation that could put itt in such an uncomfortable corner is envisaged and tackled head-on, even as the negotiations continue for the release of the remaining girls.