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Chibok anniversary shows Boko Haram still strong

#BringBackOurGirls activists in January 2017.
#BringBackOurGirls activists in January 2017. Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

It has been three years since the mass abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram extremists in northern Nigeria, but nearly 200 still remain captive. Activists are urging President Muhammadu Buhari's government to do more to free them. 


Chibok anniversary shows Boko Haram is still strong

In October, Nigeria announced the release of 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls after negotiations with the extremist group, and said another group of 83 girls would be released "very soon."

But no one has been freed since then... so is there still hope for the girls?

The government said this week that negotiations have made progress, but there are still what it called "challenges."

But for the Bring Back Our Girls movement, the government is far from doing its best to get the girls back.

Kept in the dark

"They said that 83 girls were on their way back, but since October, we haven't heard anything about them. It's been six months, no feedback," Sesugh Akume, the Bring Back Our Girls movement's spokesman, told RFI.

"Whenever there's an anniversary, we'll hear some soundbite such as 'yes, they're still doing something about it', and that's all and then they go back to their cocoons. For us, it's utter darkness, we don't know about anything that's going on, and that's how it has been."

Akume says the government does not provide any information, keeping them in the dark.

"We've had meetings but none of the things we agreed on has been done and followed through to the end. Not one of the things President Muhammadu Buhari himself said would be done has been done. There's no sincerity from the government on that matter."

Akume thinks that, despite the fact that the government has managed to negotiate for the return of some of the girls already, the Buhari administration is simply, as he puts it, "not sincere."

"They don't like being held accountable. So when we are holding them accountable, holding them to their word, they don't like it. For instance, in his inauguration address on 29 May 2015, President Buhari said that the war against Boko Haram cannot be said to have been won until the last Chibok girl is back.

"But he has already declared that technically Boko Haram was defeated. And we said no, Boko Haram still has some girls. And he didn't like that because it holds him accountable."

There are different things at stake right now: what the government wants to do, what the army wants to do and what civil society groups want to do. 

But certainly, as the next elections approach - in 2019 - there is going to be added pressure on the government to bring the girls back.

Abductions ongoing

Although the government claims it has defeated the extremist group, Boko Haram is very much alive and kicking.

And it is not only the Chibok girls that have suffered. Since their kidnapping, Amnesty International says no fewer than 2,000 girls and boys have been abducted by Boko Haram - to be used as cooks, slaves, fighters and even bombers.

"More has to be done, the government has to make the issue of rescuing the remaining Chibok girls, freeing them from Boko Haram, a priority now," Isa Sanusi of Amnesty International in Nigeria told RFI.

"But beyond that, we believe that these abductions of women and girls are still going on every day, across the Borno State, and some parts of northeast Nigeria. Boko Haram is still more people. So the priority should not only be the Chibok girls, but also the others that have been abducted by Boko Haram."

Chibok girls' 'symbolic value'

The organisation has documented at least 41 other cases of mass abductions by Boko Haram since the beginning of 2014.

But Boko Haram knows how important the Chibok girls are.

"The main difference is the prominence of the Chibok Girls. The international attention after the kidnapping of these young girls created a very unique situation for them," Yan Saint Pier, a counter terrorism adviser who works for a group called Modern Security in Berlin, told RFI.

"As such, they've obtained a value to Boko Haram that others don't have, because the federal government wants the girls released in order to be able to say 'we freed the Chibok girls'. So this 'added value' to the girls is really creating the difference here, and Boko Haram is obviously trying to use that position to obtain money or resources that they otherwise couldn't get with any other hostage."

Saint Pier also pointed out that Boko Haram is weaker than it used to be, but that it also adapts well. As it operates across several borders, it can sustain itself.

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