Boko Haram’s Abduction of Girls Still Grips Nigeria
A year after militants seized schoolgirls, Islamist insurgency maintains terror threat
By Heidi Vogt
Updated April 14, 2015 12:12 p.m. ET
YOLA, Nigeria—In the year since Boko Haram militants kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls from their dormitories in northeastern Nigeria, the missing girls have come to symbolize an insurgency that doesn’t need a large footprint to terrorize a population.
Protests continue nearly weekly in the capital Abuja to urge the government to do more to free the more-than-200 girls. Each time a town has been retaken from the Islamist militants, local newspapers and radio stations ask the government if the girls were found there.
After the recapture of the key town of Gwoza in late March, the headline of the Nigerian website Pulse headlined its story: “No sign of Chibok girls as soldiers recover Gwoza from terrorists.” The Nigerian newspaper Leadership has written weekly stories as a countdown to the hopeful liberation of the girls.
In the past two months, Boko Haram has lost much of the territory it had seized, leaving it with just a sliver of the northeast. But what may be a more persistent threat remains—that of a hit-and-run organization that instills terror through mass abductions.
Boko Haram has abducted at least 2,000 women and girls since the start of 2014, Amnesty International said in a new report. Many of those women have been forced into sexual slavery or trained to fight, the rights group said.
But the schoolgirls seized in the town of Chibok and publicized in the #bringbackourgirls Twitter campaign have been the ones that caught the world’s attention and galvanized Nigerians to say they wouldn’t stand for this level of chaos in their country any longer.
“This is about Chibok but it is also about what’s happening in northeast. It is about Boko Haram. It’s something that people can organize around,” said Liz Donnelly, a London-based Nigeria analyst with the Chatham House policy institute. “People believe maybe they can do something about Chibok, maybe that there is hope that the girls are still out there,” she said.
It isn’t clear if they are. There have been rumors in recent weeks both that the girls have been killed and that they were spotted in Gwoza, but neither has been substantiated. Ms. Donnelly said it is very likely that they have been separated and so there isn’t one specific group to find.
And rather than the triumph of finding the girls, there may be more kidnappings to come.
With less land under its control, Boko Haram may further target civilians, said Jennifer Cooke, the head of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It’s weaker in one sense, but as lethal in another,” Ms. Cooke said. She said Boko Haram has adapted its tactics from bombings in Abuja to suicide attacks in the northeast to kidnappings to seizing territory—depending on which is easiest at the time.
The group—whose name roughly means “Western education is forbidden”— seems to mostly be driven by a motivation to disrupt the Nigerian government in the north. Most recently, the group launched deadly attacks across the border in Cameroon.
President-elect Muhammadu Buhari hasn’t made it clear how his strategy will improve on that of Goodluck Jonathan, who he unseated partly on the pledge to wipe out the insurgency. Mr. Jonathan also said he was doing everything to tackle Boko Haram, but failed to make much progress before aid came from a regional force.
“He’s made fairly broad promises of crushing Boko Haram. It’s not entirely clear what he will do differently,” Ms. Cooke said.
Mr. Buhari and his staff didn’t respond to requests for further comment.
Just as worrying as the kidnappings of young women is that men and boys are also regularly forced into Boko Haram’s ranks.
One young man in Yola—where hundreds of thousands fled to escape the militants—told The Wall Street Journal that Boko Haram tried to force him to join its ranks when it took over his town of Mubi in October.
For two weeks, the militants kept 22-year-old Umar Shuaibu handcuffed at night, then took him along on their shooting rampages in town and tried to get him to participate. Mr. Shuaibu said he refused and that they ridiculed him, then called him stubborn and said they would shoot him if he didn’t join in.
“They tried to make me bomb some shop and I refused,” Mr. Shuaibu said, adding that they tied him up in a room for three days without food and water. One evening, he said, they took him with them to pray at a mosque and he fled while they were inside.
The Nigerian military freed Mubi in November, but Mr. Shuaibu said he has no plans to return. Instead, he stays at a makeshift camp in Yola, where he has no job or money, but at least no one is trying to kill him.
Of the girls who escaped the militants a year ago in Chibok, some have been taken in by an American-run university in Yola and are continuing their studies. But they struggle to move on while carrying the mantle of friends who disappeared.
A 19-year-old girl who escaped out a window that night said it is hard for her to think about still-missing friends and family members still living in Chibok with the fear of militants returning.
“When I think about the past and also about the destruction, it makes me feel very bad,” said Deborah, who only gave her middle name because she is still scared of the militants coming after her.
Deborah is one of 21 young women now studying at American University of Nigeria through scholarships. The university has organized classes to help prepare them for their university entrance exams. She hasn’t returned to Chibok and got quiet when asked about friends who were taken away that night.
She mentioned a girl named Saratu who she said was killed that evening. She said her friend was the one who was always quick to help or give advice. Now when Deborah needs advice, she thinks of Saratu, saying, “Her memory is always there.”