Freedom for 21 Chibok girls

IN a move which gladdened the nation, the Federal Government, over the past weekend, secured the release of 21 of the estimated 276 girls taken hostage by the Islamic insurgent group when it overran their government boarding school in Chibok, Borno State, in April 2014. The girls were released in the town of Banki, close to Nigeria’s border with Cameroon. The negotiations that led to the release of the 21 students were reportedly brokered by the government of Switzerland and the Red Cross International, respectively, and it raises hopes that many more of the kidnapped girls will secure their freedom in the not too distant future.

Indeed, speaking at a joint press conference with the German Chancellor, Angela  Merkel, last Friday in Berlin, President Muhammadu Buhari stated that negotiations would continue until  all the girls secure their freedom. He said: “We have been able to secure the release of 21 of them, but over 100 more are still in the hands of the terrorists somewhere  in the Lake Chad basin area which includes Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria. In getting these 21 out, we hope we will have enough intelligence  to go about securing the rest of them.”

The invasion of Chibok and the abduction of a large group of innocent boarding school girls in April 2014 was an international cause célèbre. It provoked international outrage. American First Lady Michelle Obama lent her immense star power to the agitation to ‘Bring Back Our Girls.’ So did the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, among other world leaders. At home, a group coalesced around a former Education Minister, Oby Ezekwesili, organised rallies and generally put the government on notice that it would not relent until the girls were found and reunited with their families.

As a result, rescuing the Chibok girls and extirpating Boko Haram’s military power were two cardinal promises of the Buhari presidential campaign. With last week’s release, coming on the back of the rescue of 19-year-old Amina Ali Nkeki in May, the Federal Government can point to some success in its efforts to make good its promise to free all the girls from Boko Haram’s captivity. It should be commended for its doggedness, its willingness to work with various transnational actors, and its pragmatism in realizing that the chances of securing freedom for all the kidnapped girls in one fell swoop are remote.

However, while the Buhari administration deserves kudos for its efforts, it is important to keep in mind the grim fact that Boko Haram itself remains untamed. It continues to lay waste to and hold vast territories in northeastern Nigeria, and its ability to blend into a rugged terrain makes its militants extremely difficult to detect and smoke out. Working with the Nigerien and Cameroonian militaries and taking advantage of technical support from the British and US armies, the Federal Government should continue its drive to overcome them and bring peace to a region of the country that has literally been brought to its knees.

Military success becomes particularly urgent in the light of reports in both local and international media that three northeastern states, namely Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe, are on the verge of a serious humanitarian crisis. Commenting on the creeping food shortage in that part of the country, Arjan de Wagt, the Head of Nutrition at UNICEF in Nigeria, said:  “Every time I think I know how bad it is, we get more data and it is worse.” In this connection, as a temporary measure, the government needs to get to the root of the cabal allegedly diverting relief materials meant for the camps of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Boko Haram presents a unique military and political challenge. The Federal Government must find the right balance between defeating the insurgents while ensuring that the victims of its atrocities are given all the help they desperately need before it’s too late.