On the night of April 14, 2014, four years ago today, terrorist group, Boko Haram, invaded the premises of Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok, Borno state, and kidnapped 276 female students from the school hostel.
Boko Haram’s most prominent doctrine is its objection to the spread of western education and values in the country and prior to the Chibok incident, the group had shown commitment to this as it began to target schools in 2010.
The attacks on schools intensified in 2014, with the most high profile incident happening in Federal Government College of Buni Yadi in Yobe state where 59 male students were killed in February 2014. Some died from gunshots or knife stabs, while others were burned to death.
The abduction of the 276 Chibok girls happened just a few weeks later.
Just before the Chibok incident, Boko Haram had been rumoured to be taking to the trend of abducting schoolgirls whom they used as cooks, sex slaves and porters.
According to reports about the abduction, when the terrorists attacked the school, they were pretending to be guards.
There were 530 students from multiple villages registered for the Senior Secondary Certificate Examination at the school which had been closed for four weeks prior to the attack due to the deteriorating security situation in the region, but students had been called in to take final exams.
The girls were loaded into trucks during the night raid with 276 of them believed to have been taken away from the premises of the school.
According to an account by Naomi Adamu, one of the schoolgirls who was released in 2017, the terrorists had not planned to kidnap the girls during the invasion.
In a diary she kept with four other captives while with the terrorists, she noted that they had attacked with the intention of stealing an “engine block” on the school premises which they reportedly failed to find.
Kidnapping the girls was a decision reached on the spot by the militants to appease Shekau, their leader who wasn’t part of the operation.
Adamu’s diary read, “They started argument in their midst. So one small boy said that they should burn us all and they said, ‘No let us take them with us to Sambisa.’ Another person said, ‘No let’s not do that. Let’s lead them…to their parent homes.’ As they were in argument, then one of them said, ‘No, I can’t come with empty car and go back with empty car… If we take them to (Abubakar) Shekau (Boko Haram’s leader), he will know what to do.”
Escapes, rescues and backroom deals
In the initial hours of the abduction when 276 of the girls were being transported from Chibok to the terrorists’ Sambisa Forest stronghold, 57 of them escaped by jumping off the trucks and running into the bushes before their captors caught on.
Two of them, Debbie and Grace, reportedly escaped as soon as they got to Sambisa Forest and made a tiring week-long journey back home. In the end, a total of 219 girls made it to Boko Haram’s nest.
Amid waves of public criticism of the federal government’s lukewarm reaction to the abduction, former Minister of Education, Oby Ezekwesili spearheaded the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media that became an advocacy group pressuring the government for the return of the girls.
The campaign reached far and wide into the corners of the world, all the way into the White House of the United States of America when then-First Lady, Michelle Obama, held up a sign to demand the girls’ return.
The BBOG campaign kept the government more on its toes, but the rescue of the girls became more elusive especially after Shekau displayed them in a video and threatened to sell them off.
“Allah instructed me to sell them, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions,” he said.
It took two years before another Chibok girl regained her freedom.
Amina Ali Nkeki was found by a patrol group in May 2016 by the Civilian Joint Task Force along with her 4-month-old child named Safiya and an alleged Boko Haram member, Mohammed Hayatu, who described himself as her husband.
Another four months passed before the first mass release of the girls happened after Boko Haram reached an agreement with the federal government. 21 girls were released in October 2016 before a further 82 regained their freedom in May 2017.
The deal cost the government the release of five Boko Haram commanders who were in the military’s custody. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal in December 2017, President Buhari also paid the group €3 million to push the deal through despite his reluctance.
Troops of the Nigerian Army rescued Maryam Ali Maiyanga with her 10-month-old son near Pulka in Gwoza local government area of Borno state in November 2016; while another girl, Rakiya Abubakar, was rescued with her 6-month-old baby in January 2017. The last Chibok girl to have escaped to date is Salomi Pogu who was found by troops in Gwoza in January 2018 after she escaped.
The girls returned with sad tales of having to endure long periods of hunger in captivity as they were made to work as servants for the militants who also reportedly raped them especially if they refused marriage proposals.
With Pogu’s escape, there are 112 girls that remain in Boko Haram’s custody, but there have been disturbing reports that indicate some may never return home to their parents.
How many have died?
A week after the abduction, a team of vigilantes claimed that four of the girls were killed and hastily buried for being ‘stubborn and uncooperative’ while they were camped in a scrubland near the village of Ba’ale, an hour’s drive from Chibok.
This report was never officially acknowledged but when the first girl, Amina Ali, returned, she disclosed that six of the girls were already dead.
In a video released by Boko Haram in August 2016, a masked terrorist claimed that some girls died in air strikes launched by the Nigeria Air Force (NAF) in its bid to hurt the militants. He disclosed that some of the girls had been wounded and had life-threatening injuries and that 40 had been married off to militants.
This bears some similarity with a December 2017 report by the Wall Street Journal which disclosed that 13 of the schoolgirls had died from a range of causes during the time spent in captivity.
“Some were felled by malaria, hunger or a snake bite. The majority died in airstrikes. Among those forcibly married to fighters, at least two died in childbirth,” a source said.
In a confidential report that Reuters reported to be the debrief of the 21 girls released in 2016, they indicated that 61 had married Boko Haram militants, eight had died in NAF airstrikes, three during childbirth, and one of an unknown cause.
When a 12-year-old female suicide bomber was intercepted in Cameroon in March 2016, she claimed to be one of the abducted Chibok girls, but it was later discovered that she had been abducted in Bama, another scene of Boko Haram’s carnage in Borno state.
Despite that her story turned out false, there are worries that suicide bombing might have been the fate of a number of Chibok girls as Boko Haram used a record 244 female suicide bombers between April 2011 and June 2017.
However, there is nothing to prove this has ever happened as the group has abducted more than 1,000 children in Nigeria since 2013, according to a report by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF).
What hope is there for the return of others?
While the government continues to fill the Chibok parents with hope that their children will return home from captivity eventually, their prolonged absence becomes worrying with each passing day.
Naomi Adamu disclosed that one of the girls that contributed to her diary while in captivity, Sarah Samuel, succumbed to intense pressure and married a Boko Haram fighter. Such is the fate of some of the girls as many of them that have married have not returned.
In a video released by Boko Haram in January 2018, some of the Chibok girls said they were never going to return home to their parents. In the 20-minute video, where at least 14 of the girls were filmed, the one that spoke also revealed that they have all been married off to fighters.
“We are the Chibok girls that you cry for us to return to you. By the grace of Allah, we will not return to you.
“Poor souls, we pity our other Chibok girls who chose to return to Nigeria. Allah blessed you and brought you to the caliphate for you to worship your creator. But instead, you chose to return to unbelief.”
When 82 girls were released in May 2017, the government had negotiated for the release of 83. One of them had turned down the chance to return because she was “happily married”.
President Buhari’s spokesperson, Garba Shehu, said, “Those who brokered their release told us 83 girls would be on their way. And when 82 out of the expected 83 turned up, the brokers said one of them said she was happily married and didn’t want to come back.”
What has become of freed girls?
Some of the girls from the group of 57 who first managed to escape abduction were sponsored to continue their education in the United States.
10 of them were sponsored to school in the US by Education Must Continue (EMC), a non-governmental organisation, with the help of a US-based human rights lawyer, Emmanuel Ogebe.They were granted admission with full scholarships upon their arrival.
Two of them, Joy Bishara and Lydia Pogu, even met US president, Donald Trump, in the Oval Office in June 2017 after graduating from Canyonville Christian Academy.
In May 2016, the parents of some of the girls signed declaration forms authorizing the federal government to take over guardianship of their daughters after allegations that Ogebe and the NGO were parading the girls in media circles to relive their trauma to raise money.
According to Somiari Demm, a psychologist who provided counselling to the girls, they were subjected to constant media appearances and appeared to have been encouraged to exaggerate their abduction stories to elicit pity and more donations. These appearances were said to affect their academic performances.
“My conclusion is that the support provided to them has been tainted and their worth reduced to iPhones and iPads and a few dollars here and there,” Demm said.