Twenty-one of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls were released on 13 October.
They were part of the group of 276 girls kidnapped from Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state, in April 2014. On the morning of Thursday 13 October, President Muhammadu Buhari’s spokesman Mallam Garba Shehu tweeted: “It is confirmed that 21 of the missing Chibok Girls have been released and are in the custody of the Department of State Services.” He added, “The release of the girls, in a limited number is the outcome of negotiations between the administration and the Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government. The negotiations will continue.”
The spokesman said the girls needed to have some rest, as they were very tired after coming through the release process. One of them has a 20-month-old son; some reports claimed others had babies too.
Some news sources said the girls were swapped for four Boko Haram commanders, but Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed stated, “Please note that this is not a swap. It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides.”
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo also said there was no exchange: “There was no swap of any kind. Even when we started negotiations, we said we will consider all options available to us. Absolutely, there was no exchange of any kind.”
He added that the Red Cross was involved in bringing the girls back but not in the negotiations, saying: “The Swiss government worked with us in the process of negotiation, but the Red Cross was not involved in the negotiation. But in taking the girls back, of course, we worked with the Red Cross because we were unable to take our own medical team. The Red Cross was not involved at all in the process of negotiation. It was the Swiss government, our own officials: the DSS, intelligence and the military that were involved.”
Last month, President Buhari called for the UN to mediate with Boko Haram to secure the release of schoolgirls, saying he was prepared to swap militants who are in custody for the girls. Claims that no swap took place have led to speculation that ransoms might have been paid, but presidential spokesperson Femi Adesina has denied that any ransom was paid.
Nigerian defence officials say they believe more of the schoolgirls will be released in the coming weeks (197 of the girls remain missing). “We are optimistic we will retrieve more of the Chibok girls from Boko Haram very soon, in the coming weeks,” said defence ministry spokesman General Rabe Abubakar. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said at a news conference, “In the next few days, the next few months, we should be able to bring in more of these girls, along the same lines, using exactly the same negotiations.” However, he cautioned, “We want to ensure that we bring these girls back alive. At the same time we, of course, balance this against the overall safety and security of the country.”
The Chibok girls are the most high-profile of the thousands of Nigerians taken captive by Boko Haram. Of the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014, 57 escaped by jumping from the trucks taking them away. The remaining 219 remained missing since then, apart from one girl who was rescued in May 2016 – Amina Ali was found in the Sambisa Forest by the Civilian Joint Task Force, a vigilante group set up to help fight Boko Haram.
The remaining Chibok schoolgirl captives are thought to have been separated into groups in the Sambisa Forest, held by a Boko Haram faction controlled by Abubakar Shekau. Boko Haram split in August 2016 after an ideological dispute over killing Muslims, and Islamic State announced that Abu Musad al-Barnawi had become leader of Boko Haram.
The girls were released to the Nigerian Army in Borno state. Officials said the military was contacted to deploy some of its men to collect them at a location near Banki, a town in Bama local government area of Borno state, near the Cameroon border. The girls were released in the early hours of Thursday 13 October and immediately taken by helicopter to the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, capital of Borno state.
News reports that claimed a prisoner swap took place said four Boko Haram prisoners were brought in a military helicopter from Maiduguri to Banki, and were driven in Red Cross vehicles to the swap location, Kumshe, about 15km from the military base in Banki. These reports said the girls were brought in Red Cross vehicles to Kumshe, and under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross they were released in exchange for the prisoners.
The girls were flown from Nigeria Airforce Base in Maiduguri to the capital, Abuja, at 9.15 am Nigeria time. Before they arrived, Information Minister Lai Mohammed told a press conference in Abuja: “We have assembled a team of medical doctors, psychologists, social workers, trauma experts, etc to properly examine the girls, especially because they have been in captivity for so long.”
Vice President Osinbajo met the girls at a medical centre in Abuja, hours after they were released, and told them of the government’s strategy to rehabilitate them. (President Buhari is on a visit to Germany.) A news conference was held, at which the girls sat in rows in a room packed with government ministers, officials and journalists, with Vice President Osinbajo behind a table in front, flanked by his ministers.
Vice President Osinbajo described the girls as being in “reasonably good health considering the circumstances they’ve been held in”. He said the government had decided to sponsor the girls’ education and provide them with jobs, and told them, “We are going to see to it that everything that you require going forward, perhaps, your education; those who need to go back to school, those who need to find employment, we are going to make sure that we make all the provisions for you. Your parents will be coming here to join you. You can’t immediately be taken out of here because we need to be sure you’re in very good health. I’m sure you’re going to be very well taken care of. We’ve provided very good accommodation for you where you’ll stay, where you’ll sleep and your parents will come and meet you there also hopefully by tomorrow.”
Names of the released girls
The government has published the names of the released girls: Mary Usman Bulama, Jumai John, Blessing Abana, Luggwa Sanda, Comfort Habila, Maryam Basheer, Comfort Amos, Glory Mainta, Saratu Emmanuel, Deborah Ja’afaru, Rahab Ibrahim, Helin Musa, Maryamu Lawan, Rebecca Ibrahim, Asabe Goni, Deborah Andrawus, Agnes Gapani, Saratu Markus, Glory Dama, Pindah Nuhu and Rebecca Mallam.
(AFP, BBC, CNN, Guardian, NAIJ, New York Times, Premium Times, Punch, Vanguard)