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Chibok abduction: From a reporter’s lens

When the Abubakar Shekau-led Boko Haram perpetrated the infamous mass abduction of teenage girls in Chibok, Borno State, on April 14, 2014, precisely a decade…

When the Abubakar Shekau-led Boko Haram perpetrated the infamous mass abduction of teenage girls in Chibok, Borno State, on April 14, 2014, precisely a decade ago today, the first major challenge was the failure of all the relevant stakeholders to reach a consensus that indeed there was a security breach of monumental proportions.

Pundits believed that the disagreement was an expensive error of commission, which is haunting us to date, as stories of mass abductions in schools across Nigeria continue unabated, with the accompanying blame game among those in positions of authority.

For some of us journalists reporting from Maiduguri at the time of the Chibok abduction, which was carried out at night, we approached the news with all sense of seriousness, considering that we were not unaware of Shekau’s propensity for mischief and atrocities.

We knew the abduction was possible, and we quickly established contacts with Chibok, a sleepy town in the southern part of the state capital, to get more details.

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But no one thought the figures were as high as what came to light much later. The initial figure of missing girls was put at between 140 and 200 and thereafter rose to 276, even though some of the girls succeeded in escaping before the abductors took their victims to the point of no return—Sambisa Forest.

For some obvious reasons, despite confirmation from the parents of the girls and community leaders in Chibok, stories of the abduction did not get the desired traction in the first 24 hours.

This might not be unconnected to the fact that the then Borno State governor, Kashim Shettima, who is now the vice president, was alongside other state government officials and various heads of security agencies, trying to come to terms with certain heinous crimes committed between Saturday, April 12, and early Sunday, April 13, 2014, in some parts of the state—hours before the Chibok incident.

In Gwoza Local Government Area, for instance, the terrorists stormed Ngoshe Sama village, which shares a border with Cameroon, where they killed over 30 people.

In the second attack unleashed the following day, seven people, including the village head, were killed by the Boko Haram in Kaigamari, Konduga LGA. The terrorists later used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to burn houses and shops. Such incidents were a daily occurrence those days.

But the pain and confusion in Abuja, were greater, considering that April 14, 2014, was the same day that some Boko Haram arsonists detonated bombs at the Nyanya bus terminal, killing no fewer than 75 people and injuring 124 others, with many mass transit buses and cars destroyed.

However, beyond the happenings in Maiduguri and Abuja, some of us were fully aware of the mutual suspicion between the people of Borno, who had a feeling of abandonment by the powers that be since the resurgence of Boko Haram in July 2010, exactly one year after the killing of Mohammed Yusuf, by the police.

Within the time under review, the damage done to Borno and its people, including in the neighbouring Yobe and Adamawa states, was monumental.

Thousands of people had been killed, villages, schools, health facilities, among others, destroyed and to a greater extent, apart from the state of emergency imposed, empathy from Abuja was virtually very little or non-existent.

The reason is simple. The Peoples Democratic Party-led federal government believed there was a sort of grand design or treachery in Borno, the North-east, and to a greater extent, the North in general, using security challenges to portray the then Goodluck Jonathan administration in bad light.

Therefore, those sympathetic to Jonathan concluded that the Chibok abduction, something that had never been witnessed in the annals of Nigeria’s history, was either a lie or a carefully executed script to intensify anger against the government at the centre.

And coming at a time that Nigeria was bracing up for another round of elections in 2015, they believed the “game” was to deny Jonathan a second chance by portraying him as a weak leader.

This video grab image created on August 14, 2016 taken from a video released on Youtube by Boko Haram showing what is claimed to be one of the groups fighters at an undisclosed location standing in front of girls kidnapped from Chibok in April 2014. 

 

 

The endless blame game

Consequently, the sequence of events in the aftermath of the Chibok abduction was unsavoury, as it did not help the existential problem in any way.

If anything, the blame game that ensued only paved the way for the abductors to have their way; they divided the girls into clusters, hid them, and used the opportunity to violate their chastity.

Also, while journalists in Maiduguri and several others from across the country and beyond were frantically filing reports to draw the desired attention that would elicit action to salvage the daily deteriorating situation, the elite, wittingly or unwittingly, complicated the matter.

They kept posing difficult questions about the validity of the report of the abduction and were, at the same time, reluctant to accept any explanation.

For instance, they cited the closure of schools, especially in Borno, due to insecurity and wondered how students could be abducted when ordinarily, they should be at home.

But it was indeed true that the Government Secondary School Chibok had been reopened to enable the students to write their final year examinations.

Some people were also asking questions as to how possible it was to ferry over 250 girls in one fell swoop!

In the following days, it was, therefore, denial and counter-narratives across the country.

In the hitherto sleepy town of Chibok, the ambience was that of suspense, anguish, and sleepless nights soaked in the tears of hapless mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and acquaintances whose beloved daughters had been herded into the wilderness.

They all knew that non-state actors were behind the abductions and feared that anything could happen to their daughters.

In retrospect, the Boko Haram fighters had killed, maimed and mercilessly abducted many women from other communities and turned them into sex slaves.

They had also stolen young boys and forced them to become “child soldiers.”

At their hideouts, the terrorists had also used the boys and girls as human shields, making it difficult for security operatives to launch offensives against them.

Therefore, the people of Chibok were unrelenting in trying to reach out to some of us, journalists, all in the effort to make their voices heard.

In the midst of this, there was a glimmer of hope when, on April 16, a statement by the then spokesman of the Defence Headquarters, Major General Chris Olukolade, said that only eight of the girls were still in  captivity.

But then, within hours, there was a serious pushback from Borno, a development that further rattled the parents of the girls and sympathisers.

“There is nothing in the military statement that is true about our abducted girls,” said Asabe Kwambura, the principal of the school from where the children were taken.

“Up till now, we are still waiting and praying for the safe return of the students; all I know is that we have only 14 of them (who returned), and the security people, especially the vigilantes and the well-meaning volunteers of Gwoza, are still out searching for them.

“The military people, too, are in the bush searching. But we have not received any information that they have gotten from the students yet.

“So, let it be clear that all the information passed on in the media by the military concerning 107 girls is not true.

“I, as the principal, did not tell anybody any figure on the released students other than what our governor, His Excellency, Kashim Shettima, had informed the media,” she said.

Angered by the back and forth in high places, the parents of the abducted schoolgirls staged a protest at the Chibok town market on April 16 to press home their demands.

However, in order to empathise with them, the Borno State government announced a reward of N50 million to anyone with information that could lead to the rescue of the abducted girls.

When Shettima visited Chibok on April 21, one of the parents, Shettima Haruna, told the governor that “234 girls are still missing while only 39 have been reunited with their parents.”

According to him, “We have been having sleepless nights for nearly 10 days—since the day our innocent daughters were taken away. We waited patiently to see what the custodians of security would do, but we could no longer endure.

“We summoned courage and went into Sambisa Forest to rescue our daughters, but our effort did not yield the desired result because of the complexity of the forest.

“We want to seize this opportunity to thank you (the governor) for coming to identify with us at this sorrowful moment, but the truth of the matter is that only 39 out of over 270 students have so far been rescued, and we want to emphasise that we are not happy with this development,” he said.

On April 28, the BringBackOurGirls campaigners started their gathering at Unity Fountain, Maitama, Abuja, and later took the protest to the National Assembly and around the Presidential Villa.

The demand for accountability quickly spread to other states of the federation like wildfire.

The development led to the setting up of a Presidential Committee on Chibok Abduction, led by Brigadier General Ibrahim Sabo (rtd), to look into the matter.

While submitting their report on June 20, 2014, General Sabo said a total of 276 girls were abducted by members of the Boko Haram sect, adding that 57 of the girls escaped while 219 were still unaccounted for.

“Mr President, the committee here wishes to lay to rest any residual doubt on whether or not any student was abducted at Chibok,” General Sabo said.

“As most Nigerians already know, there were some who doubted whether, in fact, any student was abducted from Government Secondary School, Chibok. On the other hand, for those who believed that there was an abduction, there were lingering doubts as to how such a number of victims were conveyed, considering also that information was sparse as to how the raiding insurgents evacuated the victims.”

“During the siege on the school, 119 students escaped from the school premises before the insurgents took away their classmates,” he said.

Undoubtedly, General Sabo might be referring to an incident that happened on May 5, over three weeks after the abduction.

It was the day when the then First Lady, Patience Jonathan, questioned some officials of the Borno State government, including the Principal of GSS Chibok, Mrs Kwambura, and concluded that no girl was missing.

Curiously, nobody can tell whether it was a coincidence or something else, but it was the same day that Boko Haram leader, Shekau, confirmed that he was behind the heinous crime in Chibok.

Again, very few people believed him because he did not back up his claim with what experts call ‘proof of life’, something like pictures, audio, or videos of the schoolgirls, to show that they were indeed in his possession.

It was much later that it emerged that what Shekau did was deliberate: to hoard vital information in order to increase disaffection among stakeholders and to add bad blood to an already tense atmosphere in Nigeria, considering that the BringBackOurGirls campaign had attracted global attention to the stalemate in the country.

In the video, Shekau mocked the government and the international community and threatened to sell off the abducted girls.

He, however, gave conditions for the release of the girls, saying some of his top commanders who were in the custody of the federal government must be released.

It was a devastating moment for the world! But beyond that, the trauma that the parents of the girls were going through multiplied many times over.

With increased pressure from the left, right and centre, President Jonathan swallowed his pride and also ignored those who still wrongly believed that what was happening was just a charade.

He requested help from Britain, France and China for intelligence-gathering resources.

In retrospect, the then United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr James Entwistle, had called on the federal government to expedite action in bringing back the girls.

The ambassador’s advisory was reinforced when no fewer than 46 businesses, civil societies, and religious leaders from around the world also issued a joint letter calling for global action.

On May 12, Shekau released another video showcasing the abducted girls and claimed that he had converted all of them to Islam.

With that in view, some of us reporting from the epicentre of the crisis, Maiduguri, strongly believed that a new chapter to the imbroglio had been introduced, and we remained focused and continued to report happenings on all sides.

This is because instead of serving as a relief to the distraught parents in Chibok, Shekau’s video, which showed the school girls clad in hijab, only increased the worry.

The incident led to the death of one of them, Mutai Hona, the father of two of the missing girls, when he could not see any of his daughters at a time when others were celebrating the sighting of their children in the video, albeit with cautious optimism.

But considering that President Jonathan had rejected the idea of a swap deal for the abducted girls with some insurgents and a follow-up statement by the then Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh, that security forces knew the location of the girls, pressure continued to mount that the government should use every available means to rescue the girls.

But this did not happen; instead, a rival campaign group suddenly appeared on the streets of Abuja, calling out the BringBackOurGirls campaigners, thereby intensifying the political colouration of the matter.

 

Indeed, the girls were sighted in Sambisa

Though many Nigerians did not believe what the then Defence Chief Bade said, something dramatic happened at the height of the debacle.

A top security source confided in me that indeed, the Chibok girls had been sighted in the Sambisa Forest.

However, when he realised that I was not impressed by what he said, he volunteered and showed me some impressions of the satellite images of the girls provided by some of the foreign rescuers. This verified his claims, and I was appalled. Indeed, the girls had been seen!

I was also excited, but nonetheless, I asked him why they could not bring out the girls before it was too late.

“It is a delicate matter,” the officer said.

“You will not understand,” he concluded, and that was how our conversation ended.

About a month later, I heard from another source that on the verge of rescuing the girls, it was discovered that the plan was leaked to the ‘landlords’ of the Sambisa Forest, who acted quickly and moved the girls in small groups to other locations, making the rescue mission extremely complicated.

There were even claims that the girls were forced to use face masks as a way of repelling any attempt to use unconventional methods, such as making everyone fall asleep in Sambisa Forest, in order to bring the girls out safely!

There were several versions as to why the mission failed. But another price Nigeria is paying now is that while the remaining Chibok girls keep coming out one after the other, they come along with children fathered by terrorists—children they were not prepared to have at that time.

 

Journalists also cry

During my about two decades of reporting various beats, reporting from Maiduguri remains the most tedious of them all.

As news hunters, it is very rare to see journalists give in to emotions in the course of their jobs, even while covering incidents relating to deaths and destructions.

While other people find it difficult to cope, it is common to see journalists struggling to take photographs and interview victims or their relatives, including witnesses, in order to have “good reports.”

But my emotions were defeated a few days after the Chibok incident. It was the day when, for the first time, parents, politicians, and community leaders from the distraught town visited the Borno State Government House to impress their demands.

It was that day tears freely flowed down the cheeks of the high and mighty. Wailing was more than the speeches.

However, despite the emotional outpour, the journalism in some of us, the reporters, did not falter as we strove to take photos and seek answers to some questions.

On a personal note, however, hours later, after I wrote my report, attached “beautiful” photos of prominent people crying, and dispatched the email to Abuja, I really didn’t know what happened, but it quickly dawned on me that what made those people cry could equally happen to any other person, including my humble self.

This thought forced me to succumb to the real human in me. I cried profusely and later joined in the prayers for the return of the Chibok girls.

Unfortunately, since the disappearance of the Chibok girls exactly 10 years ago, it is still not yet clear whether any lesson has been learned as evident in the series of abductions that have continued to be recorded, not only in the North-east, but in other parts of the country.

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