The Chibok Schoolgirls Kidnapping

Parents whose daughters were kidnapped.
Parents whose daughters were kidnapped.

On the night of 14–15 April 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. Responsibility for the kidnappings was claimed by Boko Haram, an extremist and terrorist organization based in northeastern Nigeria. 57 of the schoolgirls managed to escape over the next few months and some have described their capture in appearances at international human rights conferences.

Since then hopes were raised on various occasions that the 219 remaining girls might be released. Newspaper reports suggested that Boko Haram was hoping to use the girls as a negotiating pawns in exchange for some of their commanders in jail. In May 2016, one of the missing girls, Amina Ali, was found. She claimed that the remaining girls were still there, but that six had died. A second girl was discovered later in the week, but parents have expressed doubts as her name is not among those originally missing.

Background

The Islamist group Boko Haram wants to institute an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria and is in particular opposed to western-style modern education, which they say lures people away from following Islamic teaching as a way of life. Thousands of people have been killed in attacks perpetrated by the group, and the Nigerian federal government declared a state of emergency in May 2013 in Borno State in its fight against the insurgency. The resulting crackdown has led to the capture or killing of hundreds of Boko Haram members, with the remainder retreating to mountainous areas from which they have increasingly targeted civilians. However, the campaign has failed to stabilise the country. A French military operation in Mali also pushed Boko Haram and AQIM terrorists into Nigeria.

Since 2010, Boko Haram has targeted schools, killing hundreds of students. A spokesperson for the group said such attacks would continue as long as the Nigerian government continued to interfere with traditional Islamic education. 10,000 children have been unable to attend school as a result of activities by Boko Haram. Boko Haram has also been known to kidnap girls, whom it believes should not be educated, and use them as cooks or sex slaves.

Boko Haram’s attacks have intensified in 2014. In February, the group killed more than 100 Christian men in the villages of Doron Baga and Izghe. Also in February, 59 boys were killed in the Federal Government College attack in northeastern Nigeria. In March, the group attacked the Giwa military barracks, freeing captured militants. The abduction occurred on the same day as a bombing attack in Abuja in which at least 88 people died. Boko Haram has been blamed for nearly 4,000 deaths in 2014. Training received from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has helped Boko Haram intensify its attacks.

Kidnapping

On the night of 14–15 April 2014, a group of militants attacked the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria. They broke into the school, pretending to be guards, telling the girls to get out and come with them. A large number of students were taken away in trucks, possibly into the Konduga area of the Sambisa Forest where Boko Haram were known to have fortified camps. Houses in Chibok were also burned down in the incident. The school had been closed for four weeks prior to the attack due to the deteriorating security situation, but students from multiple schools had been called in to take final exams in physics.

Damage to the school.
Damage to the school.

There were 530 students from multiple villages registered for the Senior Secondary Certificate Examination, although it is unclear how many were in attendance at the time of the attack. The children were aged 16 to 18 and were in their final year of school. Initial reports said 85 students had been kidnapped in the attack. Over the 19–20 April weekend, the military released a statement that said more than 100 of 129 kidnapped girls had been freed. However, the statement was retracted, and on 21 April, parents said 234 girls were missing. A number of the students escaped the kidnappers in two groups. According to the police, approximately 276 children were taken in the attack, of whom 53 had escaped as of 2 May. Other reports said that 329 girls were kidnapped, 53 had escaped and 276 were still missing.

Amnesty International said it believes the Nigerian military had four hours’ advance warning of the kidnapping, but failed to send reinforcements to protect the school. Nigeria’s armed forces have confirmed that the Nigerian military had four-hour advance notice of the attack but said that their over-extended forces were unable to mobilize reinforcements.

Jonathan N.C. Hill of King’s College London, has pointed out that Boko Haram kidnapped these girls after coming increasingly under the influence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and asserts that the group’s goal is to use girls and young women as sexual objects and as a means of intimidating the civilian population into non-resistance. Hill describes the attacks as similar to kidnapping of girls in Algeria in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Aftermath

Non-Muslim students have been forced to convert to Islam. The girls have been forced into marriage with members of Boko Haram, with a reputed “bride price” of ₦2,000 each ($12.50/£7.50). Many of the students were taken to the neighbouring countries of Chad and Cameroon, with sightings reported of the students crossing borders with the militants, and sightings of the students by villagers living in the Sambisa Forest. The forest is considered a refuge for Boko Haram. Local residents have been able to track the movements of the students with the help of contacts across north eastern Nigeria.

On 2 May 2014, police said they were still unclear as to the exact number of students kidnapped. They asked parents to provide documents so an official count could be made, as school records had been damaged in the attack. On 4 May, the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, spoke publicly about the kidnapping for the first time, saying the government was doing everything it could to find the missing girls. At the same time, he blamed parents for not supplying enough information about their missing children to the police.

Makoko Floating School: Young girls displaying inscription tagged bring back our girls.
Makoko Floating School: Young girls displaying inscription tagged bring back our girls.

On 5 May 2014, a video in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed responsibility for the kidnappings emerged. Shekau claimed that “Allah instructed me to sell them…I will carry out his instructions.” and “Slavery is allowed in my religion, and I shall capture people and make them slaves.” He said the girls should not have been in school and instead should have been married since girls as young as nine are suitable for marriage.

Following the kidnapping incident, Boko Haram again abducted another eight girls, aged between 12–15, from northeastern Nigeria, a number later raised to eleven.

Chibok is primarily a Christian village and Shekau acknowledged that many of the girls seized were not Muslims: “The girls that have not accepted Islam, they are now gathered in numbers…and we treat them well the way the Prophet Muhammad treated the infidels he seized.”

CEE-HOPE Nigerian organized an event to commemorate one year anniversary of bring back our girls.
CEE-HOPE Nigerian organized an event to commemorate one year anniversary of bring back our girls.

On 5 May 2014, at least 300 residents of the nearby town of Gamboru Ngala were killed in an attack by Boko Haram militants after Nigerian security forces had left the town to search for the kidnapped students. On 9 May, former Boko Haram negotiator, Shehu Sani, stated that the group wanted to swap the abducted girls for its jailed members. On 11 May, Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State in Nigeria, said that he had sighted the abducted girls and that the girls were not taken across the borders of Cameroon or Chad. On 12 May, Boko Haram released a video showing about 130 kidnapped girls, each clad in a hijab and a long Islamic chador, and demanded a prisoner exchange.

A journalist-brokered deal to secure the release of the girls in exchange for 100 Boko Haram prisoners held in Nigerian jails was scrapped at a late stage on 24 May 2014 after President Goodluck Jonathan consulted with U.S., Israeli, French and British foreign ministers in Paris, where the consensus was that no deals should be struck with terrorists, and that a solution involving force was required.

On 26 May, the Nigerian Chief of Defence Staff announced that the Nigerian security forces had located the kidnapped girls, but ruled out a forceful rescue attempt for fears of collateral damage.

On 30 May, it was reported that a civilian militia in the Baale region of Northeastern Nigeria found two of the kidnapped girls raped, “half-dead,” and tied to a tree. Villagers said the Boko Haram group had left the two girls, and killed four other disobedient girls and buried them. 223 were still missing.

Sir Andrew Pocock, British High Commissioner to Nigeria said that a couple of months after the kidnapping a group of up to 80 of the Chibok girls were seen by American ‘eye in the sky’ technology but nothing was done. The girls, a camp and evidence of ground transport vehicles were spotted next to a local landmark called the ‘Tree of Life’ in the Sambisa forest.

On 24 June, it was reported that 91 more women and children were abducted in other areas of Borno State. One source estimated in June that there could be as many as 600 girls held by Boko Haram in three camps outside Nigeria.

On 26 June, it was announced that Levick, a Washington, D.C. public relations firm, had received “a contract worth more than $1.2 million” from the government of Nigeria to work on “the international and local media narrative” surrounding the Chibok schoolgirl kidnapping.

On 1 July, a businessman suspected of carrying out the kidnappings of the school girls, as well as the bombing of a busy market in northeastern Nigeria, was arrested. Military sources said that he was also accused of helping the Islamist militant group kill the traditional leader Idrissa Timta.

On 15 July, Zakaria Mohammed (‘the Butcher’), a high-ranking member of Boko Haram, was arrested at Darazo-Basrika Road while fleeing from the counter insurgency operations going on around the Balmo Forest.

On 12 October 2014, it was reported that four girls from the original kidnapped group had escaped and walked three weeks to freedom in Nigeria. They said they had been held in a camp in Cameroon and raped every day.

Stephen Davis, a former Anglican clergyman, contacted three Boko Haram commanders who said they might be prepared to release Chibok schoolgirls and went to Nigeria in April 2015. He was given proof of life (a video of them being raped) and was told 18 were seriously ill, some with HIV. Davis got initial agreement that Boko Haram would release these ill girls. However, after three attempts the deal fell through when another group abducted the girls believing they could make money out of them and Davis left Nigeria. Davis commented that it was not difficult to locate the five or six main Boko Haram camps. He could find them on Google Earth.

In May 2015, it was reported that the Nigerian military had reclaimed most of the areas previously controlled by Boko Haram in Nigeria including many of the camps in the Sambisa forest where it was suspected the Chibok girls had been kept. Although many women had been freed, none of the Chibok girls had been found. It was reported that some of the girls had been sold into slavery for N2,000 (about $10) each, others had been forcibly married to Boko Haram fighters and they may have been killed. Kashim Shettima, the Borno state governor said he suspected the Chibok girls were being kept in underground bunkers.

In January 2016 the Nigerian military were reported to have freed 1,000 women held captive by Boko Haram but none of them were Chibok girls.

In April 2016 Boko Haram released a video showing 15 girls who appeared to be some of the kidnapped Chibok girls. The video was apparently taken in December 2015 and the girls seemed to be well fed and not distressed.

On 18 May 2016, Amina Ali Nkeki, one of the girls was found along with her baby and Mohammad Hayyatu, a suspected Boko Haram militant who claimed to be her husband, by the vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force group in the Sambisa Forest. All three were suffering from severe malnutrition. She was then taken to house of the group’s leader Aboku Gaji who recognised her. The group then reunited the girl with her parents. She met Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on 19 May. Government officials announced the same day that the Nigerian army and vigilante groups had killed 35 Boko Haram militants, freed 97 women and children and claimed one of the women was a Chibok schoolgirl. However, there were doubts that this girl, Serah Luka, was really one the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls. On 21 May 2016, Amir Muhammad Abdullahi, who claimed to be the Boko Haram second in command and speak for several senior militants, offered to surrender so long as they would not be harmed and in return they would release hostages including the Chibok girls. However he said of Chibok girls; “…frankly, just about a third of them remain, as the rest have been martyred”.

Reaction

After the kidnapping, Governor Kashim Shettima demanded to visit Chibok, despite being advised that it was too dangerous. The military was working with vigilantes and volunteers to search the forest near the Nigeria-Cameroon border on 21 April. The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UNICEF condemned the abduction, as did former Nigerian military ruler Muhammadu Buhari. The UN Security Council also condemned the attack and warned of action against Boko Haram Militants for abducting the girls.

A truck in Nigeria promotes the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag launched to spread awareness of the kidnapping.
A truck in Nigeria promotes the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag launched to spread awareness of the kidnapping.

Parents and others took to social media to complain about the government’s perceived slow and inadequate response. The news caused international outrage against Boko Haram and the Nigerian government. On 30 April and 1 May, protests demanding greater government action were held in several Nigerian cities. Most parents, however, were afraid to speak publicly for fear their daughters would be targeted for reprisal. On 3 and 4 May, protests were held in major Western cities including Los Angeles and London. A lawyer in the Abuja, the capital of Nigeria started the hash tag #BringBackOurGirls which began to trend globally on Twitter and the story spread rapidly internationally, becoming for a time Twitter’s most tweeted hastag. By 11 May it had attracted 2.3 million tweets and by 2016 it had been retweeted 6.1 million times. A woman who helped organise protests was detained by the police, apparently because the First Lady of Nigeria, Patience Jonathan, felt slighted when the woman showed up for a meeting instead of the mothers of victims. The woman was released soon after. Reports said the First Lady had further incensed protestors by suggesting some abduction reports were faked by Boko Haram supporters. Several online petitions were created to pressure the Nigerian government to act against the kidnapping. On 30 April, hundreds marched on the National Assembly to demand government and military action against the kidnappers.

The President of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria called on Muslims to fast and pray “in order to seek Allah’s intervention in this precarious time.” Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto, also called for prayers and intensified efforts to rescue the students. On 9 May, Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State called on all Muslims and Christians to join in “three days of prayers and fasting.” On the same day, Muslims in Cameroon called on fellow believers not to marry any of the girls should they be offered to them. On the same day, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, joined other religious leaders in the Muslim world in condemning the kidnappings, describing Boko Haram as misguided and intent on smearing the name of Islam. He stated that Islam is against kidnapping, and that marrying kidnapped girls is not permitted.

The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, holds a sign with the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag, posted to her official Twitter account, helping to spread the awareness of the kidnapping.
The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, holds a sign with the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag, posted to her official Twitter account, helping to spread the awareness of the kidnapping.

The scale of the kidnapping was unprecedented, which led former United States Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell to declare that Boko Haram’s strength “appears to be increasing. The government’s ability to provide security to its citizens appears to be decreasing.” Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, J. Peter Pham, said “The failure of the government to even get a clear count further reinforces a perception of systemic governmental failure”. The Economist “labeled President Goodluck Jonathan as incompetent,” saying that Jonathan and the Nigerian military “cannot be trusted any longer to guarantee security for Nigerians,” adding that “the worst aspect of the Nigerian government’s handling of the abduction is its seeming indifference to the plight of the girls’ families. It took more than two weeks before Jonathan addressed the matter in public.” Jonathan later attributed his silence to his desire not to compromise the details of security efforts carried out to rescue the girls. President Jonathan also engaged a public relations firm, Levick, for $1.2m to improve the public presentation of his handling of the crisis.

On 22 July, the militant group again attacked the nearby villages, killing at least 51 people including 11 parents of the abducted girls.

On 23 and 24 July, vigils and protests were held around the world to mark 100 days since the kidnapping. Participating countries included Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Togo, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Portugal.

Nigerian artist Sarah Peace created a public art installation in Epping Forest depicting the missing girls with black veiled figures.
Nigerian artist Sarah Peace created a public art installation in Epping Forest depicting the missing girls with black veiled figures.

A Human Rights Watch report released on 27 October claims,

“Their statements suggest that the Nigerian government has failed to adequately protect women and girls from a myriad of abuses, provide them with effective support and mental health and medical care after captivity, ensure access to safe schools, or investigate and prosecute those responsible for the abuses.”

The report also claims, “The relative ease with which Boko Haram carried out the Chibok abductions seems to have emboldened it to step up abductions elsewhere.”

As of 5 January 2015, daily rallies by Bring Back Our Girls demonstrators at the Unity Fountain in Abuja were continuing, despite police efforts to shut them down.

On 13 April 2015 hundreds of protesters wearing red tape across their lips walked silently through the capital Abuja marking a year since Boko Haram kidnapped the girls.

On 29 May 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in his inaugural address to the nation said that they could not claim to “have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents. The government will do all it can to rescue them alive.”

On 12 June 2015, just two weeks after President Buhari was sworn in, he and his wife Aisha Muhammadu Buhari, and the Vice President’s wife Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo met with some mothers of the abducted Chibok girls, a meeting Mrs. Buhari had wanted to hold for a long time.

On 1 October 2015 The Nigerian Military said it will not be in a hurry to rescue the secondary schoolgirls in Chibok who were abducted in April 2014. The Acting Director, Defence Information, Military Headquarters, Abuja, Col. Rabe Abubakar, who said this at a press conference in Lagos on Thursday, noted that while it was of utmost concern to the military to rescue the girls, the operation required demanded adequate patience and planning.

In December 2015 Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian President, said that he was willing to negotiate with Boko Haram for the release of the Chibok girls without any preconditions.

On the 600th day of the Chibok Girl’s abduction, a group of Nigeria experts in the United Kingdom called Nigeria Diaspora Security Forum called on the Federal Government of Nigeria under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari to setup a Special Taskforce tasked solely with the responsibility of looking for the girls.

In 2016 one newspaper article commented that the international publicity for the Chibok schoolgirls has ironically made it more difficult to free the girls. A Nigerian military commander based in Maiduguri commented “Boko Haram sees the Chibok girls as their trump card. We think they are keeping them with their main leadership. The day we get the Chibok girls will spell the end of Boko Haram, but I fear they will kill all the girls in mass suicide bombings in the process.”

International governmental response

  • Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged that Canadians had joined the international effort to free the schoolgirls. Details about the extent and duration of the involvement had been kept secret.
  • China announced its intention to make available “any useful information acquired by its satellites and intelligence services.”
  • European Union – The European Union passed a resolution on 17 July, “calling for immediate and unconditional release of the abducted schoolgirls.”
  • France offered a specialist team. French President Francois Hollande also offered to hold a summit in Paris with Nigeria and its neighbours to tackle the issue.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered assistance to the Nigerian President in locating the missing pupils on 11 May 2014. “Israel expresses its deep shock at the crime committed against the girls. We are willing to help assist in locating the girls and fighting the terror that is afflicting you,” he said. According to an unnamed Israeli official, the Prime Minister later sent a team of intelligence experts to Nigeria. It contained people experienced in dealing with hostage situations, but he said they “are not operational troops, they’re there to advise.” A joint U.S.-Israel project, which modified the Beechcraft C-12 Huron aircraft for electronic warfare and reconnaissance, was being used and “may prove decisive in finding the girls,” according to one source.
  • The United Kingdom agreed to send experts to Nigeria to assist in the search for the students. The British experts were to be drawn from various governmental departments including the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, and would concentrate on planning, co-ordination and advice to local authorities. A Royal Air Force Sentinel R1 reconnaissance aircraft has been deployed to Ghana to assist in the search.
  • The United States agreed to send experts to Nigeria to assist in the search for the students. The American team consists of military and law enforcement officers, specializing in “intelligence, investigations, hostage negotiation, information-sharing and victim assistance.” The US is not considering sending armed forces. Former Nigerian Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, and Dr. Babangida Aliyu, chairman of the Northern Governor’s Forum, “welcomed the US government’s offer of military assistance.” On 12 May, 16 military personnel from US African Command joined the Search and Rescue Operations. On 22 May, the Department of Defense announced that it was deploying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and 80 United States Air Force personnel to nearby Chad. Chad was chosen as a base for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights because of its access to northern Nigeria.

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