The dearth of peace in one corner of a nation usually brings economic disequilibrium and global scorn to the entire country. In Nigeria’s case, its lingering crises with the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, is an investors’ nightmare, an additional dilemma for a nation struggling to climb out of an economic recession.
Boko Haram has reportedly killed over 10,000 Nigerians since 2009, snatched at least 20,000 people (mostly young women and children) from their homes, recruited hundreds of men into its fold and dislocated over 2 million people in the country’s north east.
The sect’s abduction of 276 girls from their Chibok town boarding school on April 14, 2014, however, opened a horrid chapter in the annals of Africa’s most populated nation. Initial reactions to the incident ranged from disbelief, official denial and disgust.
The opening lines of this sad chapter began with many questions: Are certain sacred cows responsible for the heist? Why is the Boko Haram menace predominantly a northern Nigeria phenomenon? Who are the silent sponsors of the militants? Is it a quasi-political movement or are they just a ragtag army of delinquent rogues and rebels? Who is leveraging the threat for economic and political gains?
Some of these questions still remain unanswered.
Protest marches in many capitals fueled by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign may have focused global attention on the plight of the kidnapped Chibok girls and their parents. They, however, have not galvanized freedom for the girls. Well over 900 days after the Chibok incident, most of the girls are still missing.
Treated as human loot and bargaining chips by Boko Haram, there is palpable fear many of the girls have either been sold as slaves, married off to Boko Haram chieftains and supporters across West and Central Africa, or lost their lives in the wilderness of the Sambisa Forest bordering Cameroon and the Lake Chad region. Boko Haram has become a nasty national migraine, compounding government’s laundry list of unfinished business.
On that dreadful night, some of the girls managed to escape within hours of their kidnapping, jumping off lorries and running into the bush. In total, records show that the insurgents made away with 219 girls.
In October, after several reported sightings of the teenage girls around Sambisa forests by locals, 21 of the remaining students in captivity were freed. The Nigerian authorities attributed their release to successful negotiations brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Swiss officials acting as intermediaries with Boko Haram.
For Nigerians and parents of the girls, this is good news but minor progress. Security experts say the multi-national effort to free the girls from captivity may gain momentum with this minuscule result. Was this a swap deal? Possibly. But no one is talking. The Abuja rumor mill has it that four or five Boko Haram commanders in government custody were freed as part of a swap. Government officials deny that any such “political transaction” took place. But Nigerians do not believe their government on this matter. Information Minister Lai Mohammed says the release of the 21 girls is “the first step” towards the liberation of all the remaining girls.
Recent military offensive against Boko Haram has achieved some success. In July 2015, the regional force tasked with obliterating the insurgents was boosted with 8,700 troops from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Up until early 2016, Boko Haram was practically the de facto government controlling huge swathes of the northern Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. Recently recovered territory across these states is now home to about 2.4 million internally displaced people (IDPs. Borno State alone has 13 official IDP camps, each with at least 10,000 people, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has reported incidences of camp leaders, vigilante groups, policemen and soldiers raping and sexually exploiting women and girls in the camps.
“It is bad enough that these women and girls are not getting much-needed support for the horrific trauma they suffered at the hands of Boko Haram,” said Mausi Segun, senior Nigeria researcher at HRW. “It is disgraceful and outrageous that people who should protect these women and girls are attacking and abusing them.”
President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledges the smoldering humanitarian issues, reportedly saying his government was taking the ‘IDP headache’ seriously. “About 60 percent of the children in the camps don’t know their parents, or where they come from,” he says.
Receiving the 21 girls, and their parents, at the Presidential Villa in Abuja, he promised to rehabilitate them, urging them to return to the normalcy of their respective communities. Government will provide comprehensive medical, nutritional and psychological care and support, and also “assume responsibility for their personal, educational and professional goals and ambitions in life.”
“These dear daughters of ours have seen the worst that the world has to offer. It is now time for them to experience the best that the world can do for them. The government and all Nigerians must encourage them to achieve their desired ambitions,” the president said.
The same presidential attention, medical and academic scholarships and special care obviously await the other 197 girls when and if they ever come out of captivity.
In a meeting with Peter Maurer, President of the ICRC, a few days after the release of the 21 girls, Buhari welcomed the support of the G7 group of nations in the rebuilding of the decrepit infrastructure of northern Nigeria. He told Maurer he would only continue negotiations with Boko Haram if “they agree to involve international agencies like the Red Cross.”
Maurer informed the Nigerian leader the ICRC operation in northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region is the second largest in the world, after Syria.
Two weeks after the release of the ‘Chibok 21’, the Nigerian Senate passed a bill to establish the North-East Development Commission. It will rebuild the troubled and impoverished region. For the girls taken by Boko Haram, it might be too little, too late.