- Two other children among freed hostages, FG insists no money exchanged hands
- Girls moved to Abuja, UN, APC, others welcome their return
- PDP alleges kidnapping staged
Tobi Soniyi in Lagos, Omololu Ogunmade, Olawale Ajimotokun in Abuja, Michael Olugbode and Senator Iroegbu in Dapchi
Exactly 30 days after 110 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists from Government Girlsâ€™ Science and Technical College (GGSTC), Dapchi, Yobe State, 104 of the kidnapped girls were returned to the North-eastern town wednesday morning by the Islamist sect, much to the delight and relief of their grieving parents and family members.
But the girls only spent a few hours in Dapchi with their parents before they were moved to Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, and handed over to a federal government delegation.
Confirming the return of the hostages, the federal government said 106 abducted persons, comprising 104 Daphi schoolgirls, one other girl and a boy, were freed by insurgents in the early hours yesterday.
But the return of the abducted girls and two other children raised concerns that federal government may yet again have paid millions of dollars for the return of what may be described as â€œpricedâ€ hostages.
The federal government had paid millions of euros last year for the release of 83 Chibok schoolgirls, who were abducted by the same terror sect four years ago.
Although the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed who led the government delegation to Maiduguri immediately after the Dapchi girls were freed yesterday, said no ransom was paid, nor did a prisoner swap take place, there was no explanation from the government as to why Boko Harmam seemingly increases their attacks on soft targets in the North-east once hostages have been released.
There was no word also from government on the fate of seven Dapchi schoolgirls that may still be in the custody of the Islamist sect, since it had given the number of girls that were abducted from their school on February 9 at 110.
There were unconfirmed reports that five of the girls may have died from suffocation, having been moved around by their captors under horrendous conditions during captivity.
During his briefing in Maiduguri, Mohammed said all the 106 persons were freed unconditionally, contrary to reports that ransom was paid and some insurgents swapped for the release of the girls.
â€œIt is not true that we paid ransom for the release of the Dapchi girls, neither was there a prisoner swap to secure their release.
â€œWhat happened was that the abduction itself was a breach of the ceasefire talks between the insurgents and the government, hence it became a moral burden on the abductors.
â€œAny report that we paid ransom or engaged in prisoner swap is false,â€ he said.
Also speaking earlier before his departure for Maiduguri, the information minister told State House correspondents that the only condition given by abductors of the girls was that they would return the girls to where they were abducted.
However, he said the girls were not dropped in a single place but in various locations and from there, went to their various homes.
He also expressed ignorance as to how a boy came to be among the freed girls.
â€œThe girls were released unconditionally, no money changed hands. They only had one condition, that they will return them to where they picked them.
â€œSo, in the early hours of today, they did return the girls and most of them went to their parentsâ€™ homes.
â€œMany of the girls that were released were not dropped in one place. Some were dropped on the road and they went back naturally to their parentsâ€™ houses.
â€œI can tell you that this is authentic. Whether they picked the boy or not, I canâ€™t hazard any guess but donâ€™t forget that even in a girlsâ€™ school, which is a boarding school, there will be parents.
â€œThere are teachers who can have children amongst them. But what I have been told is that the Dapchi girls and one boy have been released,â€ Mohammed said.
On what emboldened the abductors to bring the girls in such a huge number to Dapchi, Mohammed said there was an agreement that once negotiations started, the military would stay action.
â€œLike I said in the statement released to you earlier, once violence and confrontation were ruled out and negotiations started, there was a deliberate pause on the part of the military.
â€œIn other words, it was agreed that there will be no force. There will be no confrontation. That was why it was possible for them to drop the girls.
â€œIt was part of the agreement that they will release the girls; there will be no violence or confrontation. And donâ€™t forget that the lives of these children are much more important to us than any cheap victory,â€ he said.
On what government would do to prevent a repeat abduction, Mohammed said the security agencies had been directed to secure schools in the North-east region while there were also efforts by the government to merge some schools.
President Muhammadu Buhari had dispatched the federal government delegation to Maiduguri once the girls were freed.
The delegation comprised Mohammed; the Minister of Interior, Gen. Abdulrahman Dambazau (rtd); Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hajia Khadija Bukar Abba Ibrahim; and Hon. Goni Lawan Bukar, a member of the House of Representatives from Dapchi.
Upon their arrival, the military Theatre Commander, Operation Lafiya Dole, Maj.-Gen. Rogers Nicholas, handed over the Dapchi girls and two other children to the federal government delegation at the Nigerian Air Force base.
The girls were subsequently airlifted to Abuja onboard a military transport plane.
How the Girls Were Freed
The military, which was apparently aware of the deal to release the girls, had stationed a large detachment of soldiers at Dapchi since Tuesday and stopped journalists from going into the town to take photographs.
Even when THISDAY and ARISE Channel crew arrived the town wednesday to cover the solidarity visit of parents of the Chibok schoolgirls with the Dapchi parents at 8.30 a.m., they were told to turn back.
One of the soldiers informed the THISDAY-ARISE team, among other reporters who had converged on Dapchi, that they (the soldiers) had been informed that the town may be attacked by the insurgents from any moment.
He even showed some people fleeing the town as an indication that there was likely going to be attack.
But acting on the information from some of the parents that they had been informed to gather to pick their children, the crew from THISDAY and ARISE waited at a distance for the events to unfold.
About ten minutes later, a convoy of about 10 Toyota Hilux trucks were seen driving at high speed through the desert into the town.
This forced reporters to tactically withdraw to the outskirts of Dapchi out of fear that the insurgents may head their way.
Reporters were then told by residents that many of the schoolgirls had been dropped off and the insurgents had left.
Elated and relieved, the reporter rushed back to cover the girls reuniting with their parents, only to be turned back again by the soldiers who surprisingly allowed other motorists to gain access to the town.
At some point, the eager journalists were informed that some girls had been taken to Jumbam village, a 15-minute drive from Dapchi.
When they got there, they found six of the freed girls, five from the village and the sixth, who was a student of the school, but is an indigene of Damaturu, the Yobe State capital.
Speaking at Jumbam, one of the six girls, Khadija Grema, said it was a sad experience, revealing that five girls died due to the strain they went through when they were being moved around after their abduction.
Khadija said she was lucky to be alive, but was at the same time sad that five of her fellow students were suffocated to death.
She revealed that the five girls who died were buried in the bush, adding that two of them were from Jumbam.
A father of one of those killed, Abdullahi Hassan, was grief-stricken, saying it was quite unfortunate to lose her daughter to the insurgents.
Hassan, who said the name of his daughter was Maimuna Hassan, said: â€œI feel sad because my daughter was one of the two girls from Jumbam that died. Her name is Maimuna Hassan and the second girl is Aisha Adamu.â€
But it was a different story for Alhaji Aliyu Maina, whose daughter, Aisha Maina returned alive.
He said: â€œThose we have found, we are happy for their release but still very sad over the loss of five girls.â€
UN, Saraki, Others Welcome Girlsâ€™ Return
Expectedly, the return of the girls drew reactions with the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Guteres, the All Progressives Congress (APC), Senate President Bukola Saraki, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, welcoming their release from captivity.
Guteres, in a statement wednesday in New York, said he welcomed the release of most of the Dapchi schoolgirls abducted by suspected Boko Haram terrorists and called on the federal government to bring their abductors to justice.
He also reiterated his calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all remaining missing girls and for their safe return to their families.
Similarly, Saraki described the release of the 104 schoolgirls and two other children as the answered prayers of millions of Nigerians.
In a statements signed by his media aide, Mr. Yusuph Olaniyonu, Saraki commended the president, the Nigerian security forces and the government of Yobe State, for the efforts that led to the release of the girls, adding that the government should do all within its power to ensure the return of the remaining Dapchi and Chibok girls.
â€œThe release of the abducted Dapchi schoolgirls is tremendous news for the country. Our prayers have been answered.
â€œI commend President Buhari, our security forces and the Yobe State Government for their efforts in bringing back our girls.
â€œHowever, we cannot stop here. We must not rest until all the Dapchi girls and the remaining Chibok girls are back home with their families.
â€œI hope that the girls that have been released will soon be reunited with their families and loved ones.
â€œIt is also necessary that we ensure that they receive the necessary care and rehabilitation that they need to continue to lead normal lives.
â€œI urge the affected families and the Yobe State Government to do all within their power to ensure that these girls continue their education â€” as this will be the strongest signal to their abductors that though they may have kidnapped their bodies â€” they will never break their spirits and their minds,â€ he said.
Dogara also commended Buhari on the release of the students, noting that the presidentâ€™s efforts to ensure that the girls were freed from captivity had yielded results with the hope of ending years of the violent insurgency in the North-east.
He, however, called for proactive steps to be taken to forestall a recurrence of the incident by the security agencies.
He said: â€œWe must remind all those concerned that the mass abduction of innocent schoolgirls should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.
â€œWhile we await the outcome of the investigation by the House Ad hoc Committee, the House of Representatives will not accept any further excuses or buck passing between the various security agencies.â€
He noted that intelligence gathering must be strengthened to prevent attacks before they occur and commiserated with the released girls, their parents and families for the ordeal they went through.
He also added that efforts should be intensified to free the remaining Dapchi and Chibok schoolgirls and indeed all those in captivity.
The APC also expressed elation over the return of the girls, saying their return was prompt and decisive.
APC went on to take jabs at the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), saying that if the former ruling party had acted with similar dispatch, the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls would have been rescued without delay.
A statement issued wednesday by its National Publicity Secretsry, Malam Bolaji Abdullahi said the prompt release of the Dapchi schoolgirls was another solid demonstration of the political will of the Buhari-led APC administration to secure the lives of all Nigerians.
The APC statement said: â€œWith this prompt release of the Dapchi girls, the APC government has demonstrated how government should respond to such situations.
â€œIf the immediate-past Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) administration had responded with similar alacrity, the Chibok schoolgirls would have been released or rescued.
â€œInstead, the PDP wasted several weeks wallowing in denial and conspiracy theories such that it was now left for the APC government to rescue many of the girls and rehabilitate them.
â€œWe assure Nigerians that the current administration remains committed to securing the release of the remaining Chibok schoolgirls still held in captivity by Boko Haram and ultimately rehabilitate and reunite them with their families and loved ones.
â€œThe party is confident that the reforms that the government has embarked on would improve the capacity and efficiency of our security agencies to prevent the kidnap of children by terrorists and diminish their ability to carry out attacks on soft targets.â€
However, the PDP, in its reaction wednesday, described the whole incident leading to the kidnaping and subsequent return of schoolgirls from Dapchi as a condemnable act designed to hoodwink Nigerians ahead of the 2019 general election.
The party said the action of the APC and certain officials in the presidency in the alleged abduction saga was â€œa scam of no equal dimensionâ€.
The National Publicity Secretary of PDP, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, said the national leadership of the PDP considered the whole drama leading to the kidnapping and release very spurious.
He said the idea behind the alleged kidnap saga was to create a heroic myth and false sense of achievement around the APC administration and serve as a spur for Buhariâ€™s declaration to contest the 2019 presidential election.
The PDP spokesman, who addressed a press conference in Abuja, said that there was no evidence that the Boko Haram insurgents or any militant group abducted the schoolgirls in the first place.
He called on United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to step in to interrogate the matter.
â€œOur party considers this act as wicked, callous and tormenting to use innocent schoolgirls as pawns in an ignoble script that was designed to hoodwink Nigerians and orchestrate a great rescue and security prowess of a conquering general, all to push a 2019 reelection bid, is an unpardonable gamble with human lives.
â€œWhile this failed Dapchi drama remains a poorly crafted tragicomedy, a scam of no equal dimension, Nigerians are not ready to forgive the APC and the presidency for the torment inflicted on the girls, their parents and the human community worldwide just to score a cheap political point.
â€œNigerians know that the main aim of this devilish act was to delude the public, set the stage for an orchestrated rescue, create a heroic myth and false sense of achievement around the APC administration and serve as a spur for President Muhammadu Buhariâ€™s declaration to contest the 2019 presidential election, perhaps in the coming weeks.
â€œAs a political party, we want to further state unequivocally that by all ramifications, this is a war crime against humanity and gross violation of human rights on the part of the APC administration, all in the bid to push a selfish and ill-lucked 2019 ambition.
â€œThere is no evidence that the Boko Haram insurgents or any militant group abducted the schoolgirls in the first place. Rather, what is evident to all is the high level official manipulation of security movements in Dapchi, both in the staged abduction and in the return of the traumatised schoolgirls.
â€œIt is instructive to note that till date, no report has been presented by the National Security Adviser (NSA), who has been charged by President Muhammadu Buhari with investigation of the abduction.
â€œThis is in addition to deliberate efforts by the government to suppress the free flow of information around the abduction.
â€œEven the regular Nigerian on the street has examined the events leading to this abduction of our daughters, as well as their release, and can deduce the obvious.
â€œNigerians are all aware that both the abduction and return of the schoolgirls were dramatically preceded by the questionable withdrawal of troops and all the security apparatus at checkpoints and flashpoints in the Dapchi area.
â€œThey are also aware that the Buhari presidency, as the principal command center of military operations, has refused to come out clearly on the compromise of security and why no arrest has so far been effected in the entire saga, thus betraying a high-level of government conspiracy against the citizens for political reasons.
â€œThe PDP therefore calls on the United Nations (UN) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) to declare this evil by the APC federal government a war crime against humanity and immediately commence investigation on the matter. We demand the arrest and prosecution of all those involved in this saga.
â€œIn the same vein, we join Nigerians to demand for the setting up of a UN-monitored Truth Commission to unravel the facts around the Dapchi event as well as the abduction of schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, in 2014.
â€œWhile we commiserate with the families of our loved daughters and rejoice with those whose daughters were brought home safely, we urge Nigerians to be alert and continue to monitor the activities of the APC as we approach the 2019 general election, since it is now clear that this government will stop at nothing in its desperate bid to perpetuate itself in power against the will of the people,â€ he said.
Also in his reaction, the National Chairman of the PDP, Uche Secondus challenged the federal government to release the report of the committee set up to investigate how the girls were kidnapped.
Secondus, who spoke to journalists in his office in Abuja, also challenged Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo to provide concrete evidence to back his allegation on Monday that the former PDP administration disbursed N150 billion two weeks before 2015 elections.