Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that the fresh campaign for the release of Leah Sharibu, the remaining survivor of the abducted Dapchi school girls, is gaining traction globally

Today, makes it exactly 209 days since Leah Sharibu, one of the 110 abducted school girls, was kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorist group from Government Girls’ Science and Technical College (GGSTC), Dapchi, located in Bulabulin, Yunusari Local Government area of Yobe State. The town lies northwest of Chibok, where over 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014.

Although 104 of the victims were later released, five died in captivity, save for Sharibu, who is still being held. Reason? She refused to renounce her faith and she paid the price dearly with her freedom.

The Abduction

That fateful day, the school girls had gone about their daily activities unhampered until the terrorists struck. In one fell swoop, more than 100 schoolgirls were abducted in one of the most brazen attacks ever carried out by Boko Haram, after the Chibok saga.

Given the huge outcry that followed, the federal government was compelled to negotiate for their release after the ransom demands had been met. Alas, out of the 110 schoolgirls abducted, 104 of the was initially released except Sharibu and five other girls who died. Prior to their release, the girls had spent four weeks in captivity. On why Sharibu was kept back, the other returned school girls said she refused to convert to Islam.

The abduction initially resulted to a blame game between the military and the governor of the state, Ibrahim Gaidam. The governor had blamed soldiers for having allegedly withdrawn a military checkpoint from Dapchi just hours before the abduction. According to the governor, the withdrawal of soldiers was done without informing either the local police or the state government in advance.

Although the army initially remained silent regarding this accusation, it was however forced to respond afterwards. In their response, the army claimed that it had withdrawn its forces from the town due to the absence of evidence of any Boko Haram activity in the general vicinity, and that at the time, it had formally handed over Dapchi’s security to the police prior to its withdrawal.
Meanwhile, once the news of their abduction was made public, the Federal Government deployed components of the Nigerian Airforce and other security agencies to search for the missing schoolgirls.

The next month, following negotiations by the government, majority of the abducted girls were put into trucks and dropped off in the middle of the town in nine vehicles.

Ransom Claims

Although Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, had stated that the release of the girls was unconditional, a recent report by United Nations (UN) put paid to that claim.

According to the UN report, on March 21, Boko Haram had returned 106 of the girls, with the federal government insisting that it paid no ransom for their safe return. But in the 22nd report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” which was submitted to the UN Security Council, the world body said a large ransom was paid.

While it frowned on the payment of ransoms to terrorists, adding that it fuels terrorism, the report said, “In Nigeria, 111 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi were kidnapped on 18 February 2018 and released by ISWAP on 21 March 2018 in exchange for a large ransom payment.”

But again, countering claims of ransom, the FG, while dismissing claims that it had abandoned the remaining survivor, however, admitted that efforts to secure her release has been tortuous and complicated.

A Plea for Release

Although there has been a silent campaign ongoing for her release, it was again brought to the fore with the release of a recent audio attributed to her. In the audio which was obtained by The Cable, Sharibu made a passionate appeal to the government to rescue her from the clutches of her captors.

While pleading for an urgent intervention by President Muhammadu Buhari, to facilitate her rescue, Sharibu in a 35-second audio said: “I am Leah Sharibu, the girl that was abducted in GGSS Dapchi. I am calling on the government and people of goodwill to intervene to get me out of my current situation.

“I also plead to the members of the public to help my mother, my father, my younger brother and relatives. Kindly help me out of my predicament.
I am begging you to treat me with compassion. I am calling on the government, particularly, the president to pity me and get me out of this serious situation.”

Although there were certain insinuations that the audio might have been doctored, her parents had confirmed that it was their daughter’s voice. According to reports, merely hearing her voice had given her parents gave hope and also strengthened their belief that she would come back home soon.

An Initial Lone Campaign

Recently, Sharibu’s release has been the focal point of some advocacy groups not just in Nigeria but overseas. One of the chief campaigners for her release is surprisingly the Church World Service (CWS), an advocacy group in the UK.

On what spurred the campaign, the organisation had tweeted that “Leah’s parents fear that the world’s attention has moved on to other crises, and their daughter has been forgotten. Let’s show them we haven’t given up on Leah. #FreeLeah.”

According to the advocacy group, the recent campaign would last 200 hours as that day marked 200 days since Sharibu, who turned 15 in captivity, was taken. At the declaration of the advocacy for Sharibu’s release, the organisers said members of the advocacy group would take turns to sit at a school desk placed in front of the High Commission’s office with Sharibu’s portrait.

CSW on its Twitter handle, @CSW_UK shared a photo of Sharibu and wrote; “Today marks 200 days since Nigerian schoolgirl #LeahSharibu was abducted by Boko Haram. We are standing outside the Nigerian Embassy for 200 hours to pressure the Nigerian government to negotiate Leah’s release, as they did for the rest of her classmates. #FreeLeah #DapchiGirls.”

In a petition written by the group and addressed to Ambassador George Adesola Oguntade of the
Nigerian High Commission in London, CSW said:”I was appalled to learn of the abduction of 110 schoolgirls from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, Yobe State on 19 February 2018. I understand that, in March, 104 of the girls were released following the conclusion of an agreement with the Nigerian government that saw armed forces withdraw from the town, temporarily allowing Boko Haram unhindered access.

“I am aware that one of the girls, Leah Sharibu (the sole Christian in the group) is still being held prisoner by Boko Haram. As well as confirming that five of their fellow abductees were dead and had been buried in the bush, returnees said that Leah Sharibu had been “held back on religious grounds” due to her refusal to convert in exchange for her freedom.

“May I respectfully remind you of your government’s obligations to uphold the tenets and principles of the Nigerian constitution ensuring that every citizen has a right to “be protected irrespective of his/her gender, culture and religious belief”. I urge you to use your good offices to prioritise Leah’s safe return to her family. In addition may I also urge you to put into place an effective strategy to protect educational establishments in vulnerable communities and to ensure that every girl is free to pursue an education without fear. With thanks in anticipation of your support in this matter. “

More Voices

Slowly but surely, the message began to spread but it only gained traction when British member of parliament joined the protest outside the Nigerian Embassy in London. According to the Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, he staged the sit-in outside the embassy to put pressure on the Federal Government to secure Sharibu’s release.
Brake made the call as he participated in the 200-hour #Freeleah campaign held outside the Nigerian High Commission in London. Brake wrote on his Twitter handle @Thomasbrake: “Outside the Nigerian High Commission launching the #freeleah campaign. Leah, who is still held captive by Boko Haram, because she refused to recant her Christian faith, has been held for 198 days.”

In an interview afterwards with CNN, Brake said: “There cannot be a clearer example of someone whose human rights are being ignored than that of Leah who is being detained just because she has maintained her Christian faith.”

Also lending his voice to the clamour, Graham Weeks, who left Nigeria 36-years-ago, having worked as a missionary in the North, was also at the Nigeria High Commission to take part in the 200-hour vigil campaign for her release. Garbed as a Nigerian, he kept watch at the high commission with a placard calling for her release.

In a surprising move however, former Spokesman to ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, Reno Omokri, also led a protest to the Nigeria High Commission in London, to demand the release of Sharibu. Omokri had also called Sharibu’s mum, Rebecca on the phone in front of the camera and encouraged her to stand firm.
He said: “The Nigerian government should negotiate her release since the insurgent group had released an audio to show that she is alive. President Muhammadu Buhari, do everything within your power to secure her release. Don’t try to use that to score political points and then keep her and then maybe release her when it’s time for the elections. Let her go now,” Omokri said.

He condemned the terrorist group for the continuous detention of Leah, stating that the act was anti-Islam and anti-Quran. “What you are doing is wrong. Release Leah Sharibu,” he said. He affirmed Leah’s mother appreciation thanked Nigerians for their support and begged the Nigerian government to ensure her daughter’s release.

A Father’s Plea

As expected, the continued delay of the release of the girl is one bitter pill to swallow for her parents. Her father, Nathan, had in an interview with CNN, said he has been humbled by the international campaign for his daughter’s release

According to him, many Christian organisations have contacted the family noting that they are holding prayers for the student’s safe return. “I am very happy the way Christians around the world have been standing by Leah. This man has not met my daughter or her family before, and he is calling for her release. We are so grateful,” he said.