LAGOS, Nigeria — For two and a half years, their parents, their fellow citizens and people around the world have been demanding, pleading, begging the terrorists of Boko Haram to “bring back our girls.”
Indeed, soon after more than 200 young women were kidnapped in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014, the campaign to win their freedom went viral. Even the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, held up the famous hashtag on Twitter: #BringBackOurGirls.
But it is only now, after long negotiations—indeed, what some officials are calling “confidence building”—between Nigeria’s government and a faction of the terror organization, that we have seen a few of the victims released, and of those 21 girls, as many as 18 reportedly are now mothers.
The extent of their trauma and confusion, at this point, one can only begin to imagine. These were educated young women sitting for a science exam when the Boko Haram militants abducted them. Afterward, when the Christians among them had been forced to convert to Islam and most or all were compelled to marry their kidnappers, which is to say they were raped, some may have found ways to try to accept their situation.
All that is clear at the moment is that the negotiations to free those released so far, and perhaps many more in the future, were prolonged, difficult, and demonstrate just how complicated the war against Boko Haram has become.
A statement on Twitter last Thursday by Nigerian presidential spokesperson Garba Shehu said the liberation of the 21 Chibok girls is “an outcome of negotiations between the administration and Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government” and that “negotiations will continue” for the release of the remaining young women held captive.
The Swiss government confirmed it was involved in the release, and that it helped coordinate talks between Nigerian officials and Boko Haram.
“At the request of the Nigerian government, Switzerland facilitated contacts between government representatives and emissaries from Boko Haram,” Swiss foreign ministry spokesman Pierre-Alain Eltschinger said. “Switzerland’s engagement was motivated by humanitarian reasons.”
Various media are reporting that the released girls were exchanged for four Boko Haram prisoners in the northeastern town of Banki, close to the border with Cameroon.
Nigeria’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, denied any such trade was made. “This is not a swap, it is a release [of the hostage women], the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides,” Mohammed said. “As soon as the necessary confidence was built on both sides, the parties agreed on the date and the location of the release of the 21 girls.”
Just what those confidence-building measures were, and whether they included the release of prisoners, Mohammed did not say.
After the girls were handed over to security officials who assessed them, they were taken to Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, where they met with the country’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, for an official welcome.
“I can confirm they are in good health,” Osinbajo told reporters. “In the next few days or months we will be able to negotiate the release of more of the girls.”
The Nigerian government late on Thursday identified the girls as Mary Usman Bulama, Jummai John, Blessing Abana, Lugwa Sanda, Comfort Habila, Maryam Basheer, Comfort Amos, Glory Mainta, Saratu Emannuel, Deborah Ja’afaru, Rahab Ibrahim, Helen Musa, Maryamu Lawan, Rebecca Ibrahim, Asabe Goni, Deborah Andrawus, Agnes Gapani, Saratu Markus, Glory Dama, Pindah Nuhu, and Rebecca Mallam. All 21 girls were reunited with their families on Sunday in a highly emotional atmosphere during a special Church service in Abuja.
“I did not know that a day like this will come that we will be dancing and giving thanks to God among people,” Glory Dame, one of the rescued girls said on behalf of her fellow captives, hinting at the hardships they had experienced. “We had no food for one month and 10 days, be we did not die. We thank God.” She said she narrowly escaped a bomb blast in the forest.
Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, while speaking at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday said about 100 more schoolgirls “are still in the hands of the terrorists somewhere in the Lake Chad Basin area which include Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria,” and that the government hopes to “get enough intelligence to go about securing the rest of them.”
Earlier this week, Buhari’s office said Boko Haram jihadists have expressed a willingness to negotiate the release of 83 more Chibok girls, and that the release of the 21 girls on Thursday was a demonstration that the particular Islamist group negotiating with the Buhari administration truly does hold the women it says it does.
“These 21 released girls are supposed to be tale bearers to tell the Nigerian government that this faction of Boko Haram has 83 more Chibok girls,” Buhari’s spokesman, Shehu, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The faction said it is ready to negotiate if the government is willing to sit down with them.”
As many as 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dormitory in Chibok in April 2014 as they prepared to sit for a major science exam. About 57 of them escaped not long after, and one was rescued by Nigerian forces with help from local vigilantes in May.
The release of the 21 schoolgirls reduces the number of students still unaccounted for to 197.
“We see this as a credible first step in the eventual release of all the Chibok girls in captivity,” said Information Minister Lai Mohammed. “It is also a major step in confidence-building between us as a government and the Boko Haram leadership on the issue of the Chibok girls.”
Just last month the government announced that it had entered into talks with Boko Haram, but those broke down when the jihadists, after agreeing on a prisoner swap, issued a new set of demands.
The pattern was a familiar one. John Paden, an American scholar who is close to the president, writes in his just-published biography, Muhammadu Buhari: The Challenges of Leadership in Nigeria, that Boko Haram originally demanded €5 billion (about $5.6 billion) in exchange for the release of the schoolgirls.
“On several occasions, prisoners were taken to Maiduguri to facilitate an exchange. But these negotiations stalled when Boko Haram demanded a ransom of €5 billion for the girls,” writes Paden, a professor of International Studies at the George Mason University in Virginia.
“The Nigerian government was not going to accede to Boko Haram’s extra-ordinary demand for a vast sum of money which would no doubt be used to fund future attacks,” Paden concluded.
A Nigerian government official The Daily Beast privately last month that the jihadists also asked for the release of terrorists linked to the al Qaeda-backed group that masterminded the bombing of a United Nations building in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, in 2011, and which has murdered a number of foreign nationals.
“The government wasn’t willing to negotiate the release of these persons,” the official said. “Freeing them will put the country greatly at risk.”
Boko Haram has been plagued with dissension and divisions, as some factions have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, while others are more closely aligned with the core al Qaeda organization.
The Boko Haram leader originally associated with the Chibok kidnapping was Abubakar Shekau. But he appears to have been overthrown earlier this year by a man calling himself Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who vowed to end attacks on Muslims and places used by Muslim faithful. He accused Shekau of failing to adhere to the teachings of Islam by killing fellow Muslims, including members of his own jihadist group.
It appears that the Nigerian government’s negotiations have been with the new Boko Haram leadership, not the old. And, indeed, the Nigerian military announced recently that it had killed a number of Boko Haram top commanders and “fatally wounded” Shekau in an airstrike—a claim Shekau later surfaced to refute. It is not clear if Shekau and his loyalists still hold some of the Chibok girls.
Although the government denies there was a swap and says no ransom was paid for the release of the 21 schoolgirls, those with knowledge of how the jihadists operate are of a different opinion.
“It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that the schoolgirls’ release did not involve a prisoner swap,” says Bala Chabiya, co-founder of the Hands of Love Organization, an initiative that works with rescued victims of Boko Haram.
“The militants have over time demanded for the release of fighters in exchange for the schoolgirls, and I tend to believe that is what happened,” said Chabiya, who has counseled a large number of Boko Haram victims.
For those who have campaigned more than 900 days for the girls’ release, all that matters for the moment is that they’ve returned, and have brought hope with them for others still held.
“I can only weep right now. You know that kind of cry that is a mix of multiple emotions,” tweeted Obiageli Ezekwesili, co-convener of the #BringBackOurGirls movement. “We cry out and use them as a Point -Of-Contact for the rest 197.”