The Riddle of the Abducted Chibok School Girls
By Priye S. Torulagha
If there is one issue that continues to boggle the mind, it is the case of the abducted Chibok school girls in Northeastern Nigeria. The reason is that the more an individual makes attempt to comprehend the dynamics of the unfortunate incident, the more the person is left with a greater sense of bewilderment about how the matter unfolded. It is like a story in a Greek tragi-comedy. Hence, the story is filled with riddles, thereby, necessitating the asking of endless questions about what really happened in order to get to the bottom of the story. Unfortunately, the story never ends, thereby, adding further to the mystery.
It should be recalled that about two hundred and seventy six students from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok were abducted by the militant Boko Haram Islamic sect on April 14, 2014. The abduction gained world-wide news coverage, resulting in demonstrations and the demand for the Nigerian Government to do everything possible to free the girls from their captors. About 57 of the girls were able to escape from captivity in the immediate aftermath of the abduction. However, a majority of the girls were not able to flee, hence, remained in captivity until security forces started to free some of them incrementally. Former President Goodluck Jonathan was criticized by many Nigerians and some foreign governments for not acting fast enough to rescue the girls. As a result, prior to the presidential election of March 28, 2015, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) party promised to expedite the rescuing of the kidnapped school girls, as soon as they get into power in Nigeria if they win the election. The promise to act with military precision convinced many voters in the country to vote for Gen. Buhari and the APC party. Eventually, Dr. Jonathan lost the presidential election and Gen. Buhari won.
Based on the campaign promises, Nigerians had high hopes that the girls would be speedily freed from captivity with Maj. Gen. Buhari serving as the president of the country and the All Progressives Congress (APC) ruling as the dominant political party. President Buhari was sworn in as the head of state on May 29, 2015. Again, like a riddle, despite the campaign promises, there has never been any speedy freeing of the girls as the Nigerian armed forces waged war to destroy the Boko Haram. Instead, a few number of the girls were rescued through military operations while the majority of them remained in captivity. Then, on October 13, 2016, 21 of the girls were freed Boko Haram through a negotiated deal Involving Nigeria, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government. The freeing of the 21 girls raised hopes again in Nigeria and throughout the world that the sad incident would come to an end soon. Again, like a riddle, nothing else happened and the fate of the remaining girls are still unknown, thereby, raising much concern about their whereabouts.
The political pressure to resolve the matter compelled the Nigerian military to intensify its military operations. It decided to attack the Sambisa Forest, which has been the major hideout of the Boko Haram from the group. Eventually, on December 24, 2016, the Nigerian military was able to retake the forest, thereby, forcing the Boko Haram to flee in different directions. With the retaking of the Sambisa forest, Boko Haram finally lost the last of its territorial stronghold in its self-declared Islamic caliphate. Again, like a riddle, even the retaking of the Sambisa forest has not resulted in freeing of the remaining Chibok girls. In short, the girls were not found in the forest. If the Sambisa Forest was the stronghold of the violent group and no Chibok girls were found, then the question as to where they are looms large again. So, where are the remaining Chibok girls? Perhaps, some of them might have been killed during military operations. However, what about the others?
It should be noted that Nigerian, Cameroonian, Chadian and Nigerien military forces have rescued thousands of abducted civilians. Despite the successes in doing so, the remaining Chibok girls are still in captivity somewhere that the military forces and intelligence agencies have not been able to locate.
Were the Girls actually abducted or Not?
When the heart-breaking news of the abduction of the students of Chibok Government Girls Secondary School captured the attention of the world, there was a debate about the authenticity of the abduction. In Nigeria, the debate was very intense. Some Nigerians strongly believed that the kidnapping was a politically staged event intended to create the impression that former President Jonathan was a weak, clueless and incompetent leader. The doubters insisted that the staged event was part of the tactical actions taken by some very powerful political leaders in the country to make the country ungovernable so that President Jonathan and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) could be defeated in the presidential election that was scheduled for March 2015. Following this line of thinking, the doubters continue to maintain that the girls are kept in safe houses owned by powerful political and religious individuals who are working with the Boko Haram to score political points and create personal sources of wealth.
On the other hand, those who believed that the abduction in April 14, 2104 was an actual event, maintained that Boko Haram took the action single-handedly to embarrass the government and to impress upon Nigerians that it was winning the war against the armed forces. The believers castigated those who viewed the kidnapping as a staged event for being too cynical. They hoped and prayed that the government would take whatever action deemed necessary to free the remaining students from bondage. They continue to maintain that the kidnapping was real and should be treated as such.
The Logistics of the Kidnapping Operation
For those who doubted the authenticity of the abduction, the logistical capability of Boko Haram to plan and execute the operation so swiftly without any hitch, seemed to bother them the most. At the time of the kidnapping, Boko Haram had not established a protective territorial base. This meant that they were operating in a classic guerrilla fashion, moving from place to place and attacking different targets. Thus, without a permanent territorial base, it was logistically impossible for a mobile guerrilla force to plan so ambitiously to attack a school and kidnap more than 250 people at the same time, considering the fact that at the time, the Northeast region was under military emergency. People wondered about the capability of the Boko Haram to abduct the students and drive them away in a number of vehicles without being seen by any branch of the Nigerian armed forces and the police that were posted to the region?
Moreover, the doubters questioned the ability of the group to capture and keep in custody over two hundred human beings. The reason is that it takes a lot of money, food and other necessities to provide for more than two hundred people on daily basis. Moreover, under normal circumstances, the toilet needs of the captives would make it exceedingly challenging for a guerrilla force to keep such a large number of people for any length of time without tactical support from some members of the community. Indeed, even a regular conventional military force might find it challenging to capture, keep and maintain two hundred people. Therefore, the issue of logistics tends to create doubt about the capability of Boko Haram to carry out such an operation by itself at that time without getting support from some powerful individuals in society who provided money, housing, food and health care to the captives.
The Effort to rescue the Girls
The effort to rescue the Chibok girls too is filled with riddles, thereby, confounding the matter.
First, initially, the Nigerian military was powerless to create an immediate impact militarily since it was penetrated by elements that were sympathetic to Boko Haram. Fifth-columnists within the armed forces enabled the Boko Haram to operate without fear, hence, it was able to strike at any target it wanted, especially in the northern parts of the country.
Second, many Nigerian soldiers felt that the situation was hopeless due to poor and unworkable equipment. Some actually ran away and refused to fight, claiming that it was suicidal to confront the Boko Haram without effective weaponry. It was this period that enabled Boko Haram to capture a large territory and declared the Islamic Caliphate.
Third, the search for the abducted girls did not proceed at a pace many Nigerians expected. There were too many political and logistical obstacles that disadvantaged the Nigerian military while providing advantage to the Boko Haram.
Fourth, it took a change of army leadership for Nigeria to make progress in pushing the group back. Thus, before the presidential election of March 2015, the Nigerian Army, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Kenneth Minimah, became very successful in actually recapturing territory from Boko Haram. This allowed the citizens of the region to vote in the presidential election of March 28, 2015. Thus, by the time Dr. Jonathan left office, about 50 to 70% of the territory that Boko haram occupied had been retaken from the group.
Fifth, despite successful military effort to drastically degrade the capability of Boko Haram, under the Army leadership of Lt. Gen. Tukur Yusuf Buratai, the Army has not been able to locate the remaining abducted girls. As a result, the 21 girls that were rescued took place through a negotiated effort and not through military operation. Some Nigerian believed that the federal government paid fabulously, in addition to releasing a number of captured commanders of the organization before the girls were released to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The government denied any payment but doubting Nigerians wondered why Boko Haram released 21 captives without any precondition. The question of whether money was paid or not added to the mystery surrounding the Chibok girls.
Sixth, the most surprising riddle about the effort to rescue the Chibok girls was the sudden departure of the United States, Britain and France from the search effort after volunteering to do so. The US and the other Western countries left without informing or explaining to the world the information they gathered about the kidnapped girls. The sudden departure forced some Nigerians to speculate that, perhaps, the US, Britain and France might have discovered that the kidnapping was a staged political event, hence, they packed and left. Sadly, up till today, no explanation has been given for the sudden departure from the search effort by the United States. The suddenness of the departure simply adds to the mystery of the abducted school girls.
The Rescued Girls and the Great Silence
Another interesting aspect of the Chibok girls riddle is the unwillingness of those who are familiar with the case to speak publicly about it. Generally, in any kidnapping or abduction situation, as soon as the victim is released from captivity, the media would try to conduct a personal interview in order to get the full story out. Sometimes, it is the victim who decides to hold a press conference to explain what happened. In the case of victims involving minors, the parents often make the effort to inform the world about what happened to their children while they were in captivity. For instance, in the kidnapping cases involving minors such as Ese Oruru, Ifeoma Odugusi, Habiba Isyaku, Progress Jacob, Blessing Gopep, Linda Christopher, Lucy Ejeh, and Patience Paul, the parents spoke to the press and informed the world about their painful experiences. Yet, in the Chibok girls’ case, no one is willing to speak openly about the matter. The silence is a great mystery that defies common logic in dealing with abduction cases.
First, the few Chibok girls who were rescued through military operations were never allowed to speak directly to the media and explain their experiences during captivity after they had been debriefed by the military and intelligence agencies. If the girls had been allowed to speak to the media and narrate their experiences, the doubt about the authenticity of the kidnapping would have disappeared.
Second, the 21 girls who were released from captivity through a negotiated deal have not been allowed to speak about their personal experiences in an open manner. After a group picture of their release was taken, they were immediately whisked away and made to remain very quiet about their ordeal. The 21 girls are now free but remain psychologically imprisoned by being compelled to remain invisible and voiceless. Why?
Third, a very baffling thing is that the parents of the girls that have been rescued are not eager to speak to the media in an open manner. Generally, parents always want to speak and inform the world about what happened to their children while they were in captivity. In the case of the Chibok girls, the parents are almost invisible. They also remain voiceless, like the children. The silence on the part of the parents tends to create the impression that there is more to the story than the public is made to believe. It appears that neither the children nor the parents are at liberty to speak about their experiences. This creates the impression that there might be other explanations.
Fourth, Chibok is an African community with communal traditions. This means that when something happens to the community, the leaders of the community would speak to clear the air. In the case of the Chibok girls, the Chibok community does not seem to act in a communal manner to protect the community. The community leaders remain voiceless and are not eager to explain to the world the experiences of their children. This is contrary to the behavior that happens elsewhere. In the Agatu, Nimbo and Southern Kaduna killings, community leaders and the victims spoke about their personal experiences to the entire world. They even gave specific details about what precipitated the killings. In the case of the Chibok community, the leaders, like the parents of the girls and the victims, remain speechless and voiceless. The speechlessness further adds to the riddle about the authenticity of the abduction.
Fifth, the federal government too behaves very strangely. Generally, when security forces are able to successfully carry out an operation to rescue victims of kidnapping or terrorism, the military branch that was responsible for carrying out the operation will hold a press conference and speak about the operation. While addressing the press, the rescued victims are allowed to speak briefly about their experiences before taking the next step. In the case of the Chibok girls, neither the military nor the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture is willing to allow the girls to address or speak to the media. The 21 girls were released in October 2015 and Nigerians still have not heard directly from them about their experiences. The world is still waiting anxiously to hear directly from the mouths of the victims. It seems that they are in a protective custody.
The riddle of the Chibok girls is further reinforced by the fact that even the Nigerian media are not too eager to interview the girls. Ordinarily, journalists would have been crawling all over the Chibok area in an attempt to get first-hand information from the rescued girls about their ordeal. By now, reporters and editorial writers would have made comments about the difficulty of speaking to the girls on first-hand basis. It is amazing that Nigerian journalists made strenuous efforts to speak to victims of other incidents in the country, yet, do not seem to show any concerted effort in speaking either to the girls or the parents of the girls directly. Why? Is anything preventing them from interviewing the girls directly about their ordeal? Even during the heydays of armed opposition in the Niger Delta, both national and international journalists took the risk to find their way to speak to the fighters in the creeks. Similarly, the Niger Delta armed groups allowed journalists to take pictures of their captives. Yet, in the Chibok case, it is a journalistic no-go-area.
Civil Society Organizations
Like the Nigerian media, civil society organizations too seem to behave in a manner that creates a feeling of doubtfulness about the matter. When the abduction took place, demonstrations and protests were mounted by various groups to put pressure on the government to free the girls. In particular, the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) group captured the attention of the world by mounting demonstrations and speaking in various venues to highlight the unfortunate issue. However, since some of the girls gained freedom from captivity, suddenly, the civil society groups too have not been eager or interested in speaking to the girls directly and informing the whole world about what happened. Why are they also maintaining silence? This is puzzling indeed.
Captured Boko Haram Fighters as Sources of Intelligence about the Girls
There is no doubt that Nigerian, Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian military forces have captured thousands of Boko Haram fighters. Some of the individuals captured were probably top military commanders of the group. This means that by now, Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon should have been able to obtain reliable information that would have resulted in locating the places in which the remaining abducted girls are kept. The reason is that, generally, captured enemy troops are always excellent sources of reliable information for unraveling the secrets of the enemy. This has always been the proven methodology in every war that has been fought throughout the history of the world. Yet, the war against the Boko Haram seems to turn a common military practice for gathering intelligence upside down. Why is it so difficult to locate the remaining girls when the Boko Haram movement, as reported by Nigerian authorities, has been degraded to the point of defeat? It is very difficult to accept the view that the armed forces and intelligence agencies of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon have not been able to obtain critical intelligence from some of the captured enemy fighters. The lack of appropriate intelligence after almost two years of engaging the Boko Haram, further adds to the mystery of the Chibok girls’ case.
The rescued Girls as Sources of Intelligence
Apart from gathering critical intelligence from captured enemy fighters, another way in which information could be obtained is through speaking to those civilians that have been rescued through military operations. It is a fact that military operations conducted by Nigerian, Chadian, Nigerien and Cameroonian military forces against the Boko Haram have resulted in rescuing of hundreds, if not thousands of abducted children and adults. There is no doubt that some of those who have been rescued through military operations have important information about the hidden operational bases of Boko Haram. Therefore, it is befuddling that critical intelligence that can lead to the location of the remaining Chibok girls has not been obtained from those freed from captivity. Again, this defies common military tactics to gather intelligence for waging war.
Negotiating to Release the Remaining Girls
Not only Nigerians but quite a substantial number of people in the world are baffled that Nigeria is still negotiating with Boko Haram to free the remaining girls after the federal government announced that the group has been defeated, following the retaking of Sambisa Forest. Again, this defies a common military practice. Generally, when an enemy has been defeated, it would make concessions in return for a better treatment of its fighters by the victorious side. If Boko Haram has been defeated, then, it is the responsibility of Nigeria to set a condition that all the remaining Chibok girls must be returned by the group before Nigeria decides to reintegrate its fighters into society and rehabilitate them without severe punishment.
Thus, it is a contradiction to indicate that Boko Haram has been defeated and yet, continue to negotiate with it as if it is still a durable force. The fact that Nigeria continues to negotiate with the group, almost on an equal basis, indicates that the group has been degraded but not defeated. This is why Nigeria is still powerless to rescue the remaining girls without entering into serious negotiations with the group. Apparently, contrary to the notion that the group has been defeated, Boko Haram has increasingly become very tactical and effective in targeting Nigerian military officers. Here again, the Chibok girls matter creates conditions for people to scream and scratch their heads in bewilderment.
Based on the points identified above, the behavior of the actors/stakeholders in the Chibok girls affair tends to becloud the authenticity of the abduction. This is unfortunate, considering the pain that the girls, their parents and their communities have undergone. The entire world is waiting anxiously for the facts to be released to the public. Snap-short commentaries by government officials and civil society groups are not sufficient to calm worried nerves of those who continue to sympathize with the girls.
Thus, when the aforementioned riddles are combined with the reports that N500 million that was budgeted to build the Government Girls Secondary School under the Safe School Fund cannot be accounted for, in addition to the reports that many refugees in the Internally Displaced Program (IDP) camps are starving and being malnourished, it is obvious that current official explanations are not sufficient to douse the view that there must be other explanations. Additionally, the unfortunate bombing of the IDP camp in Raan by the Nigerian Airforce, further adds to the multitudes of questions that need answers.
It is indeed unfortunate that the more an analytical attempt is made to comprehend the abduction, the more questions seem to pop up. Apparently, the Chibok girls’ abduction issue will not go away, even if all the girls are rescued or released, until the truth of the matter is released to the global community about what really happened. At the moment, the girls who have been rescued are still in captivity even though they are supposedly free. The reason is that they are not free to express themselves publicly and must remain in great silence like captured prisoners of war. They and their parents are forced to exist in a state of invisibility. It is sad and painful.