Shola Oyeyipo writes on the intensified clamour by Christian leaders across the divide, for the release of the remaining Dapchi schoolgirl, Leah Sharibu, who has been in captivity for 230 days
“We have been abandoned. Nobody in government is telling us what is happening; we don’t know of any efforts being made for Leah’s release. It’s only our Christian and Muslim brothers living around us who have been comforting us over the situation that we found ourselves. There is no information from the federal or state government regarding Leah’s release. We are, however, hopeful that she will be released soon by the grace of God. We believe in God and Leah too is a firm believer in God and we know He will not abandon her.”
Those were the broken words of Mr. Nathan Sharibu, the father of Leah Sharibu, the 15-year old school girl kidnapped in Dapchi, Yobe State in March 2018 along with 110 other girls. Sharibu freedom was denied by her abductors due to her refusal to denounce Christianity. Her father spoke to a national daily on the pains the family has gone through since the abduction.
There is no doubt that since April 2014 when over 270 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorists from Government Girls Secondary School in north-eastern town of Chibok, Borno State, part of which 163 were freed by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration three years after and the 110 schoolgirls aged between 11 and 19 years kidnapped by the sect from their school in Dapchi, Yobe State on February 19, 2018 and some were released 33 days after, none has elicited as much resentment by various groups in Nigeria as the case of Sharibu who was retained in captivity.
As it stands today, the 113 remaining Chibok girls are still in captivity 1,637 days after, Sharibu has stayed 230 days while it’s been 220 days for the remaining two health workers attached to the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), Alice L. Nggadah and Hauwa M. Liman, who were abducted from Rann.
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.
Recently, the clamour for her release intensified following a threat made by the sect that they would kill her off. Jolted by the news and fearing that the sect would make good their threat, a coalition of Christian bodies in Nigeria quickly went into action last week. They called on the President Buhari-led federal government to go beyond rhetoric and deploy everything within its powers to ensure Sharibu’s release, seeing that she has remained in Boko Haram captivity about eight months after others abducted with her were released.
Initially, the concern was over her protracted stay in the custody of her abductors, but the angst currently is beyond that. Boko Haram in September, threatened to kill Sharibu. Shocking enough, the threat came after the sect kidnapped and killed one of the health workers with the International Committee of Red Cross working in Kala-Balge, Borno State, Saifura Khorsa. She was a midwife.
Nigeria’s foremost online newspaper, The Cable reported that the insurgents claimed they had contacted the government over captives in its stronghold, but did not get any response, stating that “We contacted the government through writing and also sent audio messages but the government has ignored us. So, here is a message of blood. The other nurse and midwife will be executed in a similar manner in one month, including Leah Sharibu.”
Demands by Christian Leaders
Championing the demand for her freedom, the group of Christian leaders, which included Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN); Catalyst for Global Peace and Justice (CPJ), a faith-based organisation; Pentecostal Federation of Nigeria (PFN), Every Nation Movement, Christian Lawyers Fellowship of Nigeria (CLASFON), and others, however had a slant to their demand. They warned that failure to secure Sharibu’s release would have negative impact on the president’s second term ambition.
They subtly said Buhari stands to lose the support of Christians in the forthcoming presidential election if no concrete steps are taken to bring the girl back. In what was a combination of prayer sessions, protest and press conference, the concerned Christian leaders converged on the National Christian Centre, Abuja, to decisively press for the release of Sharibu and other persons abducted by the insurgents.
The convener of CPJ, who is also the Senior Pastor, Realm of Glory International Churches, Pastor Abraham Sam Aiyedogbon was not alone in his demand. He had with him others such as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) PFN Chairman, Reverend Isaac Komolafe; CAN Secretary, Dr. Michael Osamor; the Resident Pastor, Dominion Chapel International Church, Abuja, Archbishop John Praise; the General Overseer, Restoration Life Assembly International, Dr. Udochi Majesty Odikanwa, Pastor Toro Akintara and the representatives of the CAN and PFN presidents. They were all resolute in their demands that the young girl must not die simply because she stood for her Christian faith even in the face of an obvious threat to her life.
An obviously concerned Aiyedogbon who was emphatic that “nobody should be voted for any longer if you will not make your voice known in this matter and you will not do something to change the equation. The president stands a better chance to get votes from us (Christians) if he ensures the release of Leah Sharibu.”
According to him, in the event that Buhari fails to secure Leah’s release, the Christians would not sit back and fold their arms, adding that “we know what to do. We will be doing RSVP – Register, Select, Vote and Protect our votes.” This literally means that people of Leah’s faith will shop for an alternative to the present leadership in the coming general election.
“We therefore, call on the federal government to do all within its powers to ensure the immediate release of Dapchi school girl, Sharibu. It is bad enough that following the abduction of over 200 Chibok girls in 2014 by Boko Haram extremists and the opprobrium that it brought on the Jonathan administration then, the Buhari administration would allow the recurrence of that incident with the February 2018 kidnapping of Dapchi girl.
“It is much worse that Sharibu was held back by her abductors on account of her heroic refusal to renounce her Christian faith when the government negotiated the release of the Dapchi girls. It is inexcusable that some eight months after her abduction, the federal government has not been able to secure Leah’s release.”
Aiyedogbon said churches in over 70 countries around the world, in conjunction with CAN, the umbrella body of all Christians in Nigeria, were worried about the threat by Boko Haram terrorists to kill Sharibu and two others in their custody the same way they murdered Suifura Khorsa, a health worker with the ICRC.
Also speaking, Praise expressed the views that irrespective of religious leaning or tribal affiliation, it is condemnable that the blood of any child should be spilled. In his opinion, no monetary value can be too much to bring Sharibu back alive. He said: “We do not want bloodshed; either the blood of our daughter or any blood. We want life. We don’t want blood and we want to stand with Catalyst for Global Peace and Justice. There can be no time good to do this than now. Whatever it may take the federal government. It is worth billions. It is worth any amount. No more spilling of blood in our nation.”
Advising the federal government, Odikanwa, who prayed that God should assist the national leadership to get freedom for the girl, noted that “it should not be considered whether she is a Christian or Muslim. You (President Buhari) will be scoring a goal when you release Leah, failure may score you low.”
Komolafe who admonished the church for having laid back for too long over the matter, however expressed optimism that the collaboration between the Christian leaders would yield positive result. He described the CPJ initiative as “an opportunity for us as a church to do what God has said we should do. In the past, it seems we have been sleeping.” Like every one in the gathering, he was also clear about his position that “Sharibu must be released,” because “Nigeria belongs to all of us”.
There are three issues that can be deduced from the demands of the agitators. First is the inhuman treatment being meted to the young girl. That was underscored by every speaker. But putting it in perspective, lady preacher, Akintara, who drew inference from Yoruba adage that says ‘parents are better off with a dead child than a missing child,’ said: “It is agonising when one’s child is missing, because you don’t know what fate is befalling her. Her education and freedom have been stopped.
“Now she is standing for all of us. She is the face of freedom; freedom of religion, freedom education, freedom of movement, freedom of education and freedom to live. We demand her immediate release and we will continue to celebrate her. Leah Sharibu must not die! The people that are said to be weak and vulnerable are women. We are supposed to be protected. The men are supposed to protect us. Why is it that the girls that are meant to be protected that are being stolen?”
The second aspect, though mentioned by each speaker, but more stressed by Osamor was that the church has taken possession of one of their own (Leah), adding that she is now a kind of representative of true believer, because as an innocent child she opted to stand up for God, an action some so-called Christian leaders may not be able to take if faced with similar circumstance.
Therefore, Osamor said: “We want to thank God for Leah Sharibu who has stood as an ambassador of Christ. We want to tell her she is not alone. The church of God is with her. We are one, she should be released. The church of God will not be silent.”
The third aspect, though it is not clear how they intend to achieve it, but the clergies did not mince words, they have tied Christian votes to the president’s effort to bring Leah back alive.
The President’s Call
Not oblivious of the consequences of the actions of the Christian leaders, the following day after their protest, Buhari put a call across to Rebecca (Leah’s mother) and assured her that his administration would do everything it would take to bring the innocent girl languishing in Boko Haram detention back home.
For those in government circles, particularly during the administration of former president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, situations as this is traumatic. It is always a dilemma when there is public outcry and the government wishes to right the wrong but is unable to do it expeditiously.
During his call to the girl’s mother, Buhari consoled the Sharibu family and assured the parents that the federal government would do all that can be done to ensure the safety and security of their daughter.
As things stand now, it is expedient that government goes back to the negotiation table – inasmuch as negotiations brought back those abducted with her, Leah should not become a “political tool and puppet,” as Roseline, one of those who responded to the president’s call to Sharibu’s parents put it.