It was a story that shocked the world: on the night of 14 April 2014, Boko Haram militants seized 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the northeastern town of Chibok. Over the intervening years a number of the girls have managed to escape and 103 were freed following negotiations. But around 100 are thought to still be missing.
In recent weeks, several former schoolgirls have been found by the Nigerian Army – most carrying the children they gave birth to in captivity – prompting speculation that Boko Haram may be abandoning their captives as the military steps up its campaign in the northeast.
Mary Dauda and Hauwa Joseph, both now mothers in their early twenties, were found by the military two days apart in June.
A few weeks later, the Nigerian Army held a news conference to announce that it had freed three more of the Chibok captives. "Three of the Chibok girls are here with you, these girls are Ruth Bitrus, Kauna Luka and Hannatu Musa. All of them were rescued by the troops of the 21 special armoured brigade after operations that created an enabling environment for these girls to escape from their captors," said Waibi Shaibu, Commander of the 7th Division, as reported by Africa News.
On 13 August the Army reported on Twitter that it had rescued a sixth girl, Aisha Grema, along with her four-year-old child.
The Nigerian news website HumAngle says the young women regained their freedom amid “a wave of [Boko Haram] defections and movement” from their hideouts in the Sambisa forest to government-controlled areas in recent months.
Boko Haram under attack on two fronts
CSI Senior Research Fellow Franklyne Ogbunwezeh regards Boko Haram as “a spent force” that has been “decimated by internal wranglings and its fight for supremacy with ISWAP, which led to the death of its leader Abubakar Shekau”.
“Many of its fighters took advantage of the amnesty programme offered by the Nigerian government. Others joined rival Islamist group ISWAP or left and joined the bandits roaming northwestern Nigeria. All these factors dealt a huge blow to the group. The little pockets of resistance and holdouts are incessantly being attacked from two fronts, namely the Nigerian military and ISWAP. That may explain why the military is now able to reach and retrieve some of those kidnapped girls abducted from Chibok and other places.”
Following their abduction from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State, the girls were distributed to different camps where they were compulsorily married off to terrorists, Dauda and Joseph said. They reported that more than 20 of their schoolmates were still being held in Gazuwa camp in the Sambisa forest.
Buhari wanted to be seen as liberator
It was not until May 2016, two years after the abduction, that the first of the captured girls were found. Over the next two years, 103 others were freed following negotiations between the Nigerian government and the militants.
Ogbunwezeh said that Chibok was initially “a very hot issue” for the Nigerian government led by President Muhammadu Buhari, which was under international pressure to win the girls’ release. The #BringBackOurGirls global campaign that trended on social media gained even greater prominence after being endorsed by then First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.
“Chibok was one of the reasons Goodluck Jonathan lost the 2015 elections. Buhari wanted to be seen as the liberator of the Chibok girls. That explains why he was willing to release Boko Haram fighters in exchange for some of the girls,” he said.
But since 2018 there has been little progress in securing the remaining girls’ release. Ogbunwezeh says some of the girls may have been moved to more remote locations as fighters changed sides. Those girls still in captivity may still be being held as bargaining chips.
What was initiated by Boko Haram was soon to become a tactic adopted by other jihadists, terrorists and criminal gangs as a means to finance their operations. Kidnapping for ransom is now big business in Nigeria, according to Ogbunwezeh. Between January 2016 and March 2020, families of victims paid out nearly 11 million US dollars to kidnappers to secure the release of their loved ones, a study by geopolitical intelligence platform SBM shows.
Campaign group BringBackOurGirls says 112 Chibok girls are still missing. Most are presumed to be married to jihadists and living in camps.
For those girls who have managed to escape the future is uncertain.
“The government will make the usual promises of guaranteeing them rehabilitation and a better life. But experience has shown that most of these promises are simply the government playing to the gallery,” Ogbunwezeh commented.
“It will be difficult readjusting from a life in the bush and being constantly on the run to a settled life. Some of them now have kids, which they were forced to bear. Both the children and their mothers are victims. There have been cases where girls were rejected by family members because they came back with children. But I hope that their family members will see them as the victims that they are and help them in every way possible to heal.