Hope for Nigeria schoolgirls fades after year

Daniel Magnowski, Michael Olukayode
Bloomberg News

A year after his daughters Amina and Zainab were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants with more than 200 other girls from their school dormitories in the Nigerian town of Chibok, Yakubu Maina fears he may never see them again.

“Sometimes I cannot but think my daughters have been killed,” Maina, a 50-year-old farmer, said by phone from Chibok. “Who knows if the girls are even still alive?”

The Empire State Building in New York City was illuminated in red and purple on Tuesday this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the abduction.

It’s part of a bid to boost the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign championed last year by Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a Taliban gun attack to become a global advocate for girls’ education.

Some of the students’ parents, like Lawan Zannah, said they believe Nigeria’s incoming leader, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, may accomplish what President Goodluck Jonathan could not: rescue the children.

“My hope is still strong in my God that one day my daughter will return home,” Zannah, 48, an informal market trader whose daughter Aisha was kidnapped, said by phone from Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern state of Borno. “Buhari is seen by many as someone with a strong will to put an end to Boko Haram. My prayer is that my daughter is still alive.”

New leader pessimistic

Buhari, who’s scheduled to be inaugurated as president of Africa’s biggest economy on May 29, has vowed to crush the Islamist militants, while conceding that finding the children from Chibok may be impossible.

“We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued,” Buhari said in a statement emailed by his office late Monday. “Their whereabouts remain unknown. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them.”

Locating and freeing the victims remains a formidable challenge, said Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst with Verisk Maplecroft in Bath, United Kingdom.

“It is unlikely that the military will be able to mount a comprehensive rescue of the abducted girls,” Liewerscheidt said by email. “While there may be isolated cases where girls are freed or manage to escape from captivity on their own, the schoolgirls will by now have been split into smaller groups making the rescue of all 200 very unlikely.”

Campaign of violence

Boko Haram, which emerged in northern Nigeria in 2002, has killed more than 13,000 people since it started a violent campaign six years ago to impose its version of Islamic law on the continent’s most populous nation, according to the government.

Since the start of 2014, it has carried out mass killings and widespread rape in a campaign that has claimed the lives of at least 5,500 civilians since the start of last year, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

In the past two months, Nigeria’s military and troops from neighboring Chad and Niger have driven Boko Haram out of villages and towns the group had occupied across the northeast. Yet there’s been no word on the fate of the missing Chibok girls.

Nigeria military spokesman Maj. Gen. Chris Olukolade did not respond to phone calls to his mobile phone Monday.

Symbol of oppression

“For them to be missing for so long, it’s an embarrassment, it says that our government has been cold, lacking empathy or concern,” said Sesugh Akume, a graphic designer who regularly joins the small daily gathering of activists on a lawn near the Transcorp Hilton hotel in Abuja, the capital, to publicize the young women’s plight.

“The Chibok girls are a global symbol for the oppressed, the disadvantaged.”

The schoolgirls, many of them raised as Christians, have been converted to Islam and “married off” to Boko Haram fighters, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said on videos posted on YouTube.

Yaga Pagu, whose 16-year-old daughter Janet is still missing, said the military progress made since early February gave him hope that Buhari would be able to do more than Jonathan’s government to combat the insurgents.

“The seriousness was not there initially,” Pagu said by phone from Chibok. “If the abduction had been taken seriously, our girls would have been with us a long time ago.”

The chances that Buhari’s government can find the girls is remote, said Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“After almost a year, hopes of finding all the girls have grown terribly dim. Security services do not seem to know if the girls are still alive or dead, if they are still held together or dispersed,” he said.

“There is really no basis for optimism that Buhari will fare better specifically at finding the girls.”