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Friday, 14 April 2017

Chibok Girls: Three Years After, Our Girls Are Not Yet Back

In their usual manner of launching attacks, the dreaded Boko Haram insurgents, in a convoy of more than ten Hilux vehicles, drove through Damboa into Chibok, a dusty town tucked inside hilly terrains on the southern part of Borno.

It was about midnight, April 14th, 2014, and Chibok was asleep when sporadic gunshots broke the silence. The sleeping Chibok residents weren’t really alarmed by these gunshots as many of them took it to be the occasional test-firing exercise carried out by the soldiers stationed in Chibok. “We were hearing gunshots and we thought it was the usual military exercise,” Hassan Usman Chibok, one of the residents recollected. Not until they started hearing the sound of bomb explosions, none of the residents was bothered. The soldiers, about 14 of them, were overpowered by the insurgents who came in their hundreds with explosives and sophisticated weapons.

The entire Chibok community would wake to the wreckages left of Government [Girls’] Secondary School, Chibok, and the reality that more than 200 of their schoolgirls who were preparing for their exams have been taken away by the insurgents.

On the 5th of the following month, in one of his propaganda videos, a now factional leader of the sect, Abubakar Shekau told the world that he took the girls. “Allah instructed me to sell them,” Shekau boastfully claimed. “I will carry out his instructions,” he added.

Government’s denial, back and forth blame game
Immediately the news broke, there was an outrage all over the country, and many calls were made on the government of President Goodluck Jonathan to act swiftly and ensure the safe return of the girls. The presidency, however, remained indifferent. It would take about two weeks after the abduction of the girls before the president, in a live TV broadcast admitted, saying wherever these girls were, he would surely get them out.

In his own reaction, the Borno State governor, Kashim Shettima at an event hosting a former President, Olusegun Obasanjo in Maiduguri, said it took 19 days for him to receive a call from the Jonathan’s presidency. Shettima, attempting a comparison of both presidents’ governments added that the abduction of the girls would have been handled more perfectly were Obasanjo, the former president, in power at the time it happened. “I brought this mainly to show the difference, because we will only appreciate scenarios when we make comparisons,” explained the governor.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV Africa, Obasanjo reiterated that Jonathan who lived in denial of this incident for more than two weeks may have withheld valuable decisions that could have led to the rescue of the Chibok girls. “If the president got the information within 12 hours of the act and he reacted immediately, I believe those girls would have been rescued within 24 hours, maximum 48 hours,” Obasanjo said.

Shettima, accused of not calling the presidency, but rather waited for weeks to be called, said he had it on good authority that the president was well briefed soon after the incident. He argued that, “what happens in our unwritten protocol in Nigeria is that, in event of major security problems, it is the president that summons a governor or calls him on phone or directs the Vice President to call on his behalf for sympathy, seek additional information where necessary and to assure or discuss aspects that require Federal intervention. Governors don’t rush to the Villa during emergencies, they remain in their respective states to provide leadership because their presence means so much in managing situations.”

From his own corner, Femi Fani-Kayode who was the Director General of Jonathan’s campaign team alleged that Muhammadu Buhari, the APC’s presidential candidate and Lai Muhammed, the party’s spokesman knew the whereabouts of the abducted Chibok girls. “We have always believed that Buhari, Lai Mohammed, Governor Shettima and the APC know far more about the whereabouts of the Chibok girls and the activities of Boko Haram than they have cared to admit,” Fani-Kayode said.

“Let it be clearly understood that if anything happens to those girls and if they are not produced at the soonest we will hold Lai Mohammed, Buhari and the APC responsible,” he added.

Patience Jonathan, the president’s wife wasn’t left out as she claimed that the Chibok girls weren’t missing. The first lady, who held no official portfolio, allegedly ordered the arrest of one Naomi Mutah, who led protests over the abduction of the schoolgirls. Mrs. Jonathan accused Mutah of being a member of the terrorist group and of fabricating reports of the girls’ abduction mainly to smear the government of her husband.

In July of same year, Jonathan blamed the opposition over the refusal of the abducted Chibok girls’ parents to meet with him. “It now appears that our fight to get the girls of Chibok back is not only a fight against a terrorist insurgency, but also against a political opposition,” a statement from the presidency read. “It is with great regret that I announce the cancellation of the meeting with 12 parents of the abducted Chibok children, as well as five of the brave girls who escaped from the terrorist organization Boko Haram. I scheduled this meeting, which was to be open to the media for coverage by Nigerian and international press, to listen to their stories and to privately brief the parents and the girls on our efforts to rescue the abducted girls.

“My priority is not politics. My priority is the return of these girls.

“Unfortunately, political forces within the Nigerian chapter of Bring Back Our Girls have decided to take this opportunity to play politics with the situation and the grief of the parents and the girls. They should be ashamed of their actions.”

In the previous month, however, Jonathan had backed out of a scheduled meeting with the grieving parents. Sources close to Jonathan cited security concerns as the reason for staying away from the meeting. The parents’ refusal to meet with Jonathan afterwards was traced to the reports that the meeting was part of the plot by Levick, a household-name PR and lobbying firm in Washington hired by Jonathan to engage in an effort to change the international and local media narrative surrounding Nigeria’s efforts to find and safely return the abducted girls.

#BringBackOurGirls, President Buhari’s promise

According to the information available on the group’s official website, the #BringBackOurGirls movement was started by Obiageli Ezekwesili, former Federal Minister of Education of Nigeria and Vice President of the African division of World Bank at a rally in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. It spread to social media via the millions of Nigerians and Nigerian-Americans on twitter who were joined by social justice advocates all over the world.

Since the abduction in 2014, the group had relentlessly had daily sit-outs at the Unity Fountain in Abuja. They remain resolute in their demands that the government should bring back the Chibok girls now and alive, and that they will not stop until the girls are safely back.

In his inaugural speech in May, 2015, a year after the girls’ abduction, Buhari admitted that, “we cannot claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents.” In the government’s commitment to show its efforts at rescuing the girls, leaders of the #BringBackOurGirls group were invited to be part of a delegation for a guided tour of the Sambisa forest where it is believed that the girls are still being held by their captors. “They will tour the NAF base in Yola and witness the first-hand efforts by NAF to search for the unaccounted Chibok girls by joining the day and night sorties to Sambisa forest,” a statement from the government read.

“We returned to Yola after a very full day of learning from NAF and going out with them on a Day Search of Sambisa,” Ezekwesili, a co-convener of the #BringBackOurGirls movement took to twitter to announce. A statement later released by the group explained that, “when our Day Sortie report was later analyzed, it showed that 14 women were gathered around a suspicious location which the NAF designated as the “Tree of Life” because it has been suspecting enemy movement around that spot. The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) stated that they would probe the result further with their army colleagues in order to determine the appropriate response.

“The Night Sortie— At 2.41 am on Tuesday, we participated in the Night Sortie which involved a similar flight search of the theatre of war like we did during the day. We were told by the NAF that until the acquisition of more equipment by our military since July 2015, the terrorists used to be most active at night time as darkness offered them advantage. It was usually during the night that they moved their captives who are mostly women, girls and children across locations.
“Interestingly, our Night Sortie only revealed one movement on the ground– an animal foraging for food.”

The statement concluded that, “there is no contradiction in the fact of the recovery of Camp Zairo by our troops and yet our Chibok Girls not having been recovered at that same time. This is because, in view of the vast land of the Sambisa General Area, our Chibok Girls could have been taken to a new base into which the terrorists relocated when they fled Camp Zairo.”

Hope Endures

April 14, 2017 will make it three years that the girls have been snatched away from their school in Chibok. Although, a few of them have been rescued, more than a hundred are yet to return. “We are not going to give up,” said Hassan Usman Chibok who spoke with Ripples Nigeria from Chibok on the eve of the third anniversary of the girls’ abduction. “We are hoping that government will rescue the remaining girls.” He urged the government to put more efforts in rescuing the girls, adding that the government may have to start searching elsewhere for the girls. “The military has continually combed the Sambisa forest, and the girls ought to have been found if they are really there.”

Femi Owolabi is the Chief Editor on Ripplesnigeria.com

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The Post, Chibok Girls: Three Years After, Our Girls Are Not Yet Back was first published on RipplesNigeria.com.
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