Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Nigerian girls returned

Twenty-one kidnapped Nigerian women were reunited with their families last week after negotiations between the Nigerian government and the terrorist group Boko Haram, writes Haitham Nouri

Al-Ahram Weekly

Nigerian President Mohamed Bukhari met last week with 21 girls and women who were released by the extremist group Boko Haram after negotiations with the Abuja government through the mediation of the International Red Cross (IRC) and Switzerland more than two-and-a-half years after they were kidnapped.

Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls and women between the ages of 16 and 18 from their school as they prepared to take a science exam in April 2014. Some 57 escaped, one was found by chance during a routine search by the Nigerian army in the Sambisa forest, and with the recent release of 21 others Boko Haram still has 197 girls and women in captivity.

Bukhari said he would provide the best his country could offer to the released girls and once again vowed to reunite families whose daughters are still in captivity.

“Our dear girls have been exposed to the worst experience of life,” he said. “It is time they experience the best.” The president promised to provide them with the opportunity to return to school irrespective of the difficulties they were facing and helping them achieve their professional dreams.

Bukhari is a former general who came to power in 1984 through a military coup. He won democratic elections in 2015 and is known for his firm stance on fighting corruption in Nigeria.

According to the TV news channel CNN, which met most of the girls, they are receiving therapy to help them return to their communities. One of the girls has a child which doctors estimate to be 20 months old, according to a statement by the Nigerian presidency.

Nigerian Information Minister Alhaji Lai Mohamed told a news conference that the release of the girls “came as a result of around the clock efforts by the government to end a sad situation.”

 Mallam Garba Shehu, spokesman for the Nigerian presidency, said that the Swiss government and the IRC had mediated between Abuja and Boko Haram. The Swiss government confirmed this information, according to CNN.

A Nigerian newspaper quoted a “source close to the negotiations” as saying the release of the girls took place in the early hours of 14 October in the town of Bamki close to the border with Cameroon.

No other details about the deal were released, but unnamed government, security and political sources told the Nigerian press that no Boko Haram detainees were released in exchange for the girls.

“That is usual,” said Khedr Abdel-Baqi, a professor at Kano University in North Nigeria. “The government will not exchange anything for the girls. Boko Haram thinks it can build trust with Abuja, especially after the victories of the army there. But military pressure by Nigeria and neighbouring countries is the key factor in the release of the girls.”

Boko Haram is a violent terrorist group that has killed more than 20,000 and displaced millions of people since 2009.

Members of the Lake Chad Basin countries (Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin) have announced they will deploy some 8,000 joint forces in areas where Boko Haram is active. The group is estimated to have some 6,000 combatants, but its ranks are divided between the new leadership of Abu Musab Al-Barnawi and former leader since 2009 Abu Bakar Shekau.

Abdel-Baqi believes the dispute between the two leaders has been caused by military pressure and defeats that have enabled the Nigerian army to diminish the area under Boko Haram control.

Others believe this is not the only reason. The Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) terrorist groups have been vying for the allegiance of armed Islamist groups that carry out violent acts in Africa. The Shabab Al-Mujahideen group in Somalia continues to be loyal to Al-Qaeda, while Shekau has pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

According to Virginia Comolli, a fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the new leader is the son of the founder of Boko Haram and took power at a time when the group was losing “territories, fighters and resources” that cannot be replaced.

Commenting on Bukhari’s announcement to the UN General Assembly this year that the Nigerian armed forces had achieved a great victory over Boko Haram, Comolli said it was frustrating that so many local and western resources were going towards the fighting but terrorist groups continued to appear.

She said that Al-Barnawi had strong ties to Al-Qaeda and had refused to attack Muslims in order not to lose their allegiance. IS, however, was a threat to Sunni Muslims and not just Shiites, Yazidis and Christians, she said.

Comolli said it was unlikely that Al-Baranawi had criticised Boko Haram’s allegiance to IS, but the group was likely gradually to pivot towards Al-Qaeda, especially if IS continues to lose ground in Mosul in Iraq and in Northeast Syria.

Before the negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, Bukhari said he would not hold talks with a terrorist group as long as its real leader was not known. Pivoting towards Al-Qaeda is rooted in Boko Haram’s desire to regain power after its losses, especially since Al-Qaeda is the strongest group in Saharan Africa with strongholds in southern Algeria, Mali and elsewhere.

These developments did not stop Nigerian Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo from announcing on his Twitter account that “in the coming days and months we will be able to liberate more girls.” Nigerian columnist Philip Obaji wrote that this was “confidence building” with Boko Haram.

Although Nigeria has announced it has negotiated with Boko Haram, Bukhari has promised to continue his military campaign against the extremist group. Obaji wondered who was holding the remaining girls captive, speculating that they could have been shipped abroad.

Since the first days of the kidnapping, some Christian girls have been forced to convert to Islam. All the kidnapped girls have also been forced to marry Boko Haram members. The Nigerian security agencies estimate that many of them have given birth or will give birth, and some of them have been sold to human traffickers and are now working in the sex trade, making it difficult to return to their families.

“It might be hard to bring back all the girls,” Abdel-Baqi said. “The state must bring back as many as it can.”

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