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The Chibok Girls Must Be Found – and Freed
The Chibok Girls Must Be Found – and Freed
Bring Back Our Girls campaigners look on during a protest procession marking the 500th day since the abduction of girls in Chibok, along a road in Abuja on 27 August 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Commentary / Africa

The Chibok Girls Must Be Found – and Freed

Muhammadu Buhari spoke out clearly when he took over Nigeria’s presidential seat from Goodluck Jonathan in May last year: “We cannot claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents”.

At that time, one year had already passed since the 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the insurgent Islamist group Boko Haram. Now, another year later, Nigerians are still waiting to see their government do everything it can to find the girls and Boko Haram’s many other victims.

The ill-fated girls were seized from their dormitory at the Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, Borno state, in a midnight raid on 14 April 2014. Their ordeal since then underscores the toll the Boko Haram insurgency has taken on over one million children, especially girls, in north-east Nigeria and – to a lesser degree – in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The fate of the Chibok girls has come to symbolise the horror of the insurgency, because the victims have been publicly identified by name and face. But there have been countless other incidents where unnamed thousands have been abducted, brutalised, sexually violated and shared out as “wives” to insurgents. Scores have been sent to their death in suicide bombing missions.

The previous government’s response to the kidnapping highlighted much that is wrong with security and governance in Nigeria.

The previous government’s response to the kidnapping – and indeed to the wider insurgency – highlighted much that is wrong with security and governance in Nigeria. The reaction of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration ranged from initial indifference and denial to later incompetence and deception. Crippled by corruption and mismanagement, the government failed or was unable to respond promptly or effectively to the incident. Military authorities falsely reported that the girls had been rescued, then later claimed they knew where they were being held but lacked the capacity to carry out a rescue operation without endangering their lives.

Pressured by public protests in Nigeria and abroad, Jonathan belatedly established a presidential fact-finding committee, headed by retired military intelligence chief Brigadier General Ibrahim Sabo. The Sabo committee determined that 57 girls had escaped while 219 were still in captivity, but its report has never been made public.

In October 2014, the Jonathan government claimed that following negotiations and a ceasefire agreement, the girls would be released in a matter of days. That turned out to be a scam by people pretending to represent Boko Haram, who duped the government and made off with a substantial sum of money. Thereafter, apart from a brief push in counter-insurgency efforts – perceived more as an attempt to win votes in the 2015 general elections than genuine concern for the insurgency’s victims – little else was done to rescue the girls until Jonathan left office in May 2015.

The government has not offered any update on its efforts to rescue the Chibok girls.

Unlike his predecessor, President Buhari offered early hope. While campaigning, he had pledged to do everything possible to rescue the girls. A few months after inauguration, the new government indicated it was exploring negotiations with Boko Haram for the girls’ release. But despite driving the insurgents from many of their strongholds, the government has not offered any update on its efforts to rescue the Chibok girls, leading many to conclude that they have tailed off. By January 2016, Buhari was chiding the missing girls’ parents for not showing sufficient appreciation for the sacrifices made by the government and the armed forces. He promised to order a fresh investigation, but three months later, nothing more has been heard and not a single girl has been rescued.

While the attention of much of the country – and indeed the world – has largely moved on, concern for the girls has been kept alive by the small but persistent “Bring Back Our Girls” movement, based in Abuja with branches in Lagos, Ibadan, Osogbo and elsewhere in Nigeria and overseas.

Defying official reactions which range from hostility and intimidation to denigration and indifference, since May 2014 the group has met daily in Abuja and weekly in Lagos, Osogbo and Ibadan to stage “sit-outs”: hour-long meetings in an open place to review recent developments relating to the missing girls and their families, to reaffirm support and solidarity, and sometimes to issue a statement.

As the Chibok girls enter the third year of their long and unspeakable misery, we urge the Nigerian government to redouble efforts to end their plight.

The movement has conducted marches to the presidency and the National Assembly, engaged with foreign diplomats and development agencies, and relentlessly worked the mass and social media, pressing for continued efforts to rescue, or at least account for, the missing girls. In its passionate and tenacious advocacy, the group also draws attention to all the children harmed, orphaned, displaced or traumatised by the insurgency. Fundamentally, it demands the government must honour its most basic obligations to protect, and be accountable to, its citizens.

As the Chibok girls enter the third year of their long and unspeakable misery, we urge the Nigerian government to redouble efforts to end their plight.

First, President Buhari should order publication of the Sabo committee’s report. As its work was intended, among other objectives, “to mobilise citizens’ support for a rescue strategy”, the first step of that mobilisation must be to let citizens know what the committee found. How did this tragedy happen? How did the state fail so abysmally in its responsibility to protect? With no suggestion that the report’s publication will undermine national security, Nigerians have a right to know, particularly in a democracy with laws that urge proactive disclosure of public information.

Secondly, as military forces close in on Boko Haram’s remaining enclaves, capture a growing number of its fighters and liberate captives, interrogation of these people could yield crucial information on the kidnapped girls. But it has also become glaringly obvious that Nigeria needs to implement effective procedures for debriefing former fighters and captives, as well as effectively collating and disseminating available intelligence.

The Chibok girls are only a tiny percentage of the thousands of children and women abducted by the insurgents.

The Chibok girls are only a tiny percentage of the thousands of children and women abducted by the insurgents. The scale of the toll has only become apparent as more and more of their captives are liberated by the advancing troops. Nigeria urgently needs detailed documentation of all those seized over the years – indeed, of all missing persons – and government must accept that it has a responsibility to account for them.

The currently haphazard approach to the rehabilitation of rescued captives has left most of them psychologically, socially and culturally vulnerable. Humanitarian programs for those affected by the insurgency must make special provision for the children who have been held captive by the insurgents, offering psychological healing and social rehabilitation for their often unspoken inner pain.

Together with the international community, President Buhari must renew his commitment to the standard – freeing the Chibok girls – that he himself set for claiming to have defeated Boko Haram. Failure to do so could harm his credibility, as it did his predecessor, and leave a permanent burden on the international community’s conscience. The Chibok girls must be found – and freed.


Senior Adviser, Nigeria
Ayo Obe
Vice Chair of Crisis Group's Board
Activists take part in a march on the eve of the commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in Santiago, on 22 November 2018. Martin BERNETTI / AFP

Protecting Women’s Space in Politics

Women human rights defenders around the globe are facing heightened threats of violence and repression. Sometimes they are targeted for being activists, and sometimes just for being women. World leaders should do much more to secure space for women’s safe participation in public life.

In early January 2019, unknown gunmen shot dead Maritza Isabel Quiroz Leiva, a 60-year-old Colombian land rights activist on a small farm near the Caribbean city of Santa Marta. Her killing was a stark reminder that speaking out on social and political issues in Colombia – whether land disputes, women’s rights, or the political violence that endures despite the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement – is dangerous business. For Maritza’s death is not an isolated incident: in the last three years, guerrillas (FARC remnants and others), criminals and mystery assailants have killed more than 300 activists (both men and women) like her.

Nor is Colombia the only country in its neighbourhood where violence against all human rights defenders is putting prominent women activists at risk of physical attack and other abuse. In 2018, our global conflict tracker CrisisWatch recorded several such murders elsewhere in Latin America – including that of Guatemalan indigenous activist Juana Raymundo in July and that of Colombian women’s rights activist Maria Caicedo Muñoz in October.

Women who are in the public eye as they challenge established norms and take on powerful interests, from governments to insurgencies to criminal gangs, are prominent targets; and women leaders representing neglected constituencies – such as the poor, ethnic and sexual minorities, displaced persons or migrants – are also preyed upon. The murder in March of Brazilian Marielle Franco, a Rio de Janeiro city council member, is a case in point. In addition to being a campaigner against corruption and police brutality, Franco was a powerful advocate for black women, the LGBT community and youth. The investigation has moved slowly.

In addition to the risk of attack that all activists face, women activists are vulnerable to gender-specific abuse.

From a global perspective, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst highlighted in a 2019 report that in the current political climate – where there has been both a backlash against human rights around the world and a rise in misogynistic rhetoric among political leaders – human rights defenders who are women “have been facing increased repression and violence across the globe”. The report suggests that these women are sometimes targeted for the causes they promote, and sometimes simply because they are women who are publicly asserting themselves.

Moreover, in addition to the risk of attack that all activists face, women activists are vulnerable to gender-specific abuse – which can include stigmatisation, public shaming (as a perceived way to damage their “honour”), threats of sexual violence, online harassment and killings. In April 2018, individuals seeking to undermine and intimidate Indian investigative journalist Rana Ayyub threatened her with sexual violence on social media and used a fake pornographic video to tarnish her reputation. In June, unknown individuals ransacked the home of journalist and activist Marvi Sirmed, who has done much to highlight the central role of women’s rights and the rule of law in Pakistan’s political transition. In July, an unknown man attacked with sulfuric acid anti-corruption campaigner Kateryna Handzyuk in Kherson, Ukraine; with burns over more than 30 per cent of her body, she died from her wounds in November. And in September, masked attackers opened fire on Soad al-Ali, a leading human rights activist and mother of four in her mid-forties, in broad daylight in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. During roughly the same period, three other influential Iraqi women, including social media leader Tara Fares, were killed, or found dead in suspicious circumstances, at other locations.

World leaders should speak out more forcefully about the critical importance of women’s participation in political life.

One concern about the threat of violence or attack on women activists is that it not only affects their safety, but could chill their participation in public life, where women are already under-represented. Globally, only a quarter of parliamentarians are women, and nearly all heads of state or government leaders are men. This is not to say that addressing risks of political violence will by itself increase women’s representation in politics, as there are many possible reasons for the low numbers on women’s political participation worldwide. Nor does progress in this regard necessarily correlate with lesser danger to women. (Latin America, which has some of the highest rates of violence against human rights defenders in the world, boasts a vibrant women’s rights movement, and several of its parliaments have relatively high levels of female representation.) But making it safer for women to participate in public life can only help. States and their leaders should use the tools at their disposal – from good laws to strong enforcement to hold those responsible for abuse to account, to ensuring that security forces are attuned to the protection needs of women – to combat violence against women activists.

Protecting women’s space in politics is especially important in the conflict resolution area. Despite women’s longstanding role in informal dispute resolution, their near absence from peace talks and similar international security processes and mechanisms, as in Yemen or Afghanistan, requires particular attention. Sidelining conflict-affected women – or women representing those with perceived low status in society due to their socio-economic status, age, education, ethnicity or religion – is no way to build inclusive and lasting frameworks for peace.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, world leaders should speak out more forcefully about the critical importance of women’s participation in political life. They should take more measures to prevent and condemn verbal and physical attacks on women human rights defenders or political leaders and their families. They should also carve out greater and safer space for civil society, including women’s groups, to enable them to have a say in government policies affecting their lives.

The implications of violence against women activists and politicians are broad, not just for families, but also for the well-being of societies at large. Failure to protect women like Maritza Isabel Quiroz Leiva and Marielle Franco sends a terrible signal to women and girls wanting to raise their voice in the public square. Chilling their participation in public life would be a tragedy not just for the women whose potential is being squandered but for the communities in which they live.