#BringBackOurGirls? Two Years After the Chibok Girls Were Taken, What Do We Know?
In his inaugural speech in May 2015, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari made a bold claim: “There is no defeat of Boko Haram without the rescue of the Chibok girls.” Yet two years after the April 14, 2014 abduction of 276 mostly Christian schoolgirls from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state, 219 are still missing. Fifty-seven girls were able to escape in the days immediately after being taken. Despite numerous reports, no other girls have been confirmed seen since those first weeks. However, some observers of Boko Haram, such as the Nigerian journalist who has the closest contacts to Boko Haram’s inner circle, Ahmad Salkida, have asserted that they are still “alive and kicking” as recently as December 2015. Even if true, however, this may only refer to a small number of them — not all.
This is why CNN’s release on the kidnapping’s two-year anniversary of a proof-of-life video from Boko Haram that shows 15 of the Chibok girls can bring at best just a glimmer more hope for their situation. In the video, which is allegedly from December 25, 2015, the 15 girls appear healthy and well, surprisingly so given the hardships they have undoubtedly suffered since their abduction. This may indicate Boko Haram has expended resources on the welfare of this small group. However, the fate of the other 204 girls remains unknown, even if the date of the video is genuine, and this has yet to be proved.
President Buhari declares that Boko Haram is “technically defeated.” But despite his confidence, and amid accusations of inaction, he has stated that Nigeria’s security agencies have no clues as to where the girls are. The location of the most recent video is unclear; with the 15 girls standing only in front of a mustard-colored wall, it provides few leads on where they may be now. Meanwhile former President Olusegun Obasanjo has warned that the girls might never be returned. The trail has gone cold. So, too, has the international media campaign for the release of the Chibok girls and the social media hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, despite the ongoing pressure applied by the Nigerian campaigners behind that movement. Meanwhile, in Chibok, parents grow ill with the stress of their loss and failing hope, and some have died because of it. The new video will bring renewed hope for some, and fear for others.
Worse, media narratives transform the “Chibok girls” into a symbol of Boko Haram’s power, particularly over women. Reports focus not on efforts to find them, but their alleged transformation to “brainwashed killers” and forcible recruits of Boko Haram. The popular consciousness has demonized them into the role of “bogey(wo)man.” The so-called “truth effect,” in which familiarity with a story outweighs reliability of its source, means each repetition of the girls as terrorists further entrenches it as received wisdom. There is no genuine consideration of the girls’ condition outside of sensationalized rumors that they have joined their captors. Recent reports of demands for a ransom and footage of some girls raise hope of return. But, there appears to be no real clear path forward to bringing them back alive.
Most stories about the Chibok girls have no evidence behind them. Rumor proliferates in the absence of fact or analysis, and hinders the girls’ return. Little is certain, as the last verifiable physical sightings of the Chibok schoolgirls’ location — albeit from air — can be dated to several months after they were taken captive, almost two years ago.
By April 2014, Boko Haram had been routinely abducting women in small groups for some time, mainly forcing them to support moving troops by cooking, cleaning, spying, and recruiting for them. They were also raped.
The night of April 14, 2014 was different. In their largest raid, they took 276 girls from their school in Chibok, in a convoy of up to 20 Hilux trucks. The military first downplayed the numbers of girls taken, and then claimed they rescued the girls, which was in turn denied by townspeople.
On May 5, 2014, three weeks after the kidnapping, Boko Haram’s leader Abubaker Shekau released a video claim of the abduction, sparking international media interest. He first chanted ISIL’s main slogans, dawlat al-Islam qamat, dawlat al-Islam baqiya (The Islamic State remains, the Islamic State expands), and then issued a nearly one-hour speech in which he said of the girls, “God instructed me to sell them as slaves, they are his properties and I will carry out his instructions.”
On May 12, 2014, a second video further amplified international reports. This video showed around 130 of the girls wearing long hijabs, chanting Qur’anic verses at gunpoint, and responding to “interview questions” from uniformed Boko Haram militants. In the first part of the video, Shekau also proposed an exchange: the release of Boko Haram prisoners for the schoolgirls.
Then in June 2014, American drones reportedly sighted some 80 of the girls in the Sambisa Forest of Borno State, but a rescue attempt was not made. There were fears that efforts to free these girls would endanger the others. Around this time, an Australian negotiator, Dr. Stephen Davis, reported he was involved in talks to secure the girls’ release. He did not offer evidence but claimed power-brokers in northeastern Nigeria ultimately blocked him. His belief at this stage was that few of the girls were in Nigeria, but instead in Niger, Cameroon, and Chad.
In October 2014, international media widely reported further negotiations, and promises of the girls’ imminent release. Shekau appeared in a video soon after to deny this, saying: “If the women of Chibok … if you know the condition your daughters are in today it could lead some to convert to Islam and some to die from grief.”
In January 2016, President Buhari announced a new investigation into the fate of the Chibok girls. But the international momentum of #BringBackOurGirls is gone; efforts to secure the Chibok girls’ release appear absent; and reports that they are now Boko Haram “fighters” reduce hope.
And, as noted above, on the second anniversary of the kidnapping in April 2016, CNN released the proof-of-life video in which only 15 of the Chibok girls appeared.
“Received Wisdom” and its Critiques
The new video offers some small hope. But the prevailing narrative has been that the girls have been trained as Boko Haram killers, based largely on interviews conducted with the now dozens of female survivors of Boko Haram camps. There have now been numerous reported sightings of the “Chibok girls,” mainly from other abducted women.
In 2015, a BBC documentary reported the claims of three women held by Boko Haram in different camps to have seen women dubbed “Chibok girls” who were engaged in beatings of other women, and executions of men. The BBC stressed these could not be independently verified. Similar reports have since been repeated by other women, to other reporters and researchers. The stories vary but consistent themes include that the Chibok girls are converted, meting out killings and punishments, and are better treated than other women in the camps. Some eyewitnesses claim to have seen the Chibok girls themselves; while others heard Boko Haram members boast of how the Chibok girls were brainwashed. According to this narrative, the Chibok girls are used as a cautionary tale, to further terrorize or incentivize the abducted.
There are also suggestions the Chibok girls are female suicide bombers. More than 200 female suicide bombers have carried out attacks across northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region since June 2014, with more arrested. There is also media speculation that the Chibok girls are among them. This speculation began with the first female bomb attacks by young women in Kano, Kano State, in July 2014, and has continued since. Most recently a female suicide bomber arrested in Cameroon was prematurely reported to be a “Chibok girl,” but was in fact from elsewhere. Female bombers have even targeted Chibok itself, but there were no reports they were from the town.
There are however a number of methodological issues with these suggestions. Firstly, there must be systematic attempts to ascertain on what basis eyewitnesses report their sightings of the Chibok girls. It is notoriously difficult to gain good information on Boko Haram. Women freed from their camps are a valuable resource. However, there must be attempts to assess the likely validity of accounts, and any methodological problems with the information provided. This should include research on effects of response or acquiescence bias. Such bias can lead “lower status” interviewees to provide particular answers to “higher status” researchers. Indeed, one reporter writes of being told outlandish stories, including that a Chibok girl “returned” to kill a sibling, and that another “poisoned her family.” The journalist notes the stories are told by many people, seemingly with “no basis in fact.”
Secondly, despite physical evidence left by suicide attacks, not one of the female suicide bombers has been identified as a “Chibok girl,” using DNA, photographic, or other forensic evidence. Yet, the wide reporting of the emergence of Chibok female suicide bombers has given further credence to this speculation. There is little doubt that some abducted women are female suicide bombers for Boko Haram, or that others are forced into violence for them. Interviews with escaped Boko Haram female suicide bombers, including one teenage girl, confirm that women and girls are forced and pressured into carrying out attacks. And the use of abducted girls and women to fight was a tactic of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda as well as in other conflicts. However, there must be far greater attempts to find evidence to link — or distance — claims of suicide bombing to the girls. Such reports not only unfairly implicate the Chibok girls, but distort the ability to read women as having any role in Boko Haram that is not that of “victim.” It is clear that the relationship between other women and Boko Haram is complex, with Boko Haram having willing members who are women as well as men. Narratives of coercion, although undoubtedly applying in some cases, cannot simply be assumed.
Thirdly, if the Chibok girls were dispersed across Nigerian camps, as many analysts and reporters claim, why have none of them been found since the first weeks after the kidnapping in April 2014, now two years ago? The Nigerian military claims to have “rescued” more than 11,000 hostages from Boko Haram camps throughout northeastern Nigeria, and has recovered almost all territory from Boko Haram’s “caliphate” in northeastern Nigeria. How then is it that not one of the reported 11,000 rescued hostages has been a Chibok girl? In the chaos of “internal displacement” in Nigeria, how realistic is it that not one of the more than 200 Chibok girls should be among those thousands of abductees now documented rescued across northeastern Nigeria? And if they were members of Boko Haram, why have none been killed or arrested in the many reportedly successful military raids, or escaped at an opportune moment?
Fourthly, the above-mentioned accounts neglect the initial value Boko Haram placed on the Chibok girls as leverage in any negotiation. Shekau suggested a strategy of abducting enemy women to barter them for arrested Boko Haram members and their families in a series of YouTube videos in the year before the abduction of the Chibok girls. This had proved successful to some degree. At a time of group weakness, the Chibok girls remain the movement’s potentially most valuable asset. Forcible marriage to group members would not detract from this. Using them as suicide bombers, however, would.
Bring Back Our Girls
It is imperative to rationally consider alternatives to the key narratives on the status of the Chibok girls: firstly, that the girls are now Boko Haram members; and secondly, that they are scattered throughout northeastern Nigeria, but somehow have not been found despite the massive ongoing military offensive.
If the Chibok girls are dispersed in Nigeria, and have not been found, this indicates much more sophisticated Boko Haram logistics capabilities than appears possible, given the militants’ situation of being on the run, and the security forces raiding numerous camps. Considering that Boko Haram lost access to its former terrain and hideouts, lost numerous members in battle or as the result of capture, and suffered disrupted communications, high-level logistics are a challenge.
It is more likely that if the Chibok girls are dispersed they are in areas outside of Nigeria’s borders, and have been there since early in their capture, as former negotiator Dr. Davis suggests. Alternatively, it is also possible that the Chibok girls are not scattered in many camps — as reported — but are in one or two main shelters, bases, or “dormitories,” whether in Nigeria or abroad.
Another possibility that must be considered, however unpalatable or unlikely, is that a large number of the girls are no longer alive. This may be due to disease. It may be because Boko Haram has murdered them. Any murders are most likely to have taken place in early 2015, or at the end of 2014, when Boko Haram fled its main camps at the start of the military offensives.
The high status of the Chibok girls as captives presents two scenarios. Firstly, that Boko Haram decided it better to allow none of them to gain freedom, than to be perceived weak in setting them free. If the militants lost patience with the idea of negotiation, the Chibok girls may have been killed, as they represented a drain on resources, and given their need to be moved, fed, cared for, housed, and kept secret. Especially if pregnant, or with small children, maintaining them could have been too “burdensome” for Boko Haram. There would be no advantage for Boko Haram in revealing this.
A second scenario makes relevant Shekau’s pledge of allegiance to ISIL in March 2015, when Boko Haram was renamed Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Shekau has since disappeared from the public eye. However, an April 2016 ISWAP video asserts that ISWAP’s “governor” is still Shekau and that Abubakar Al-Baghdadi is the overall leader. If the girls are still alive, the role of ISIL in any negotiation process must be considered. ISIL has not only praised the Chibok kidnapping in its magazine Dabiq, but its ideologues, such as Musa Cerantonio, have justified the kidnapping on religious grounds. Moreover, ISIL has self-consciously emulated this tactic in kidnapping and enslaving Yezidi girls in Iraq and Syria, some of whom however have been rescued, unlike the Chibok girls. The pledge to ISIL complicates decisions over how and with whom to negotiate. This is particularly pertinent given reports of a demand by Boko Haram in early 2016 for 10 billion Naira ($70,000,000) for the Chibok girls (though not necessarily all of them), which would rejuvenate Boko Haram’s financing after a series of setbacks and would be a condition to which President Buhari agonizingly cannot assent.
Indeed, the timing of this demand is consistent with the date of the proof-of-life video that was filmed on Christmas Day 2015 and given to CNN. The date may be correct, and could even be of significance. Forcing the girls to speak out on a Christian holiday is a way for Boko Haram to torment the Chibok families. However, Nigerian negotiators are right to be cautious until the video’s recording date is confirmed, as well as the status of the other more than 200 girls.
Nonetheless, to bring justice to the Boko Haram perpetrators, in any of these scenarios, it is important to gather forensics at sites where the girls were reportedly held. This is needed for future prosecution, to ascertain the validity of witness claims, or, at the very least, to provide answers to their families and society as a whole.
It is not the intention of this article to suggest interviews with internally displaced “eyewitnesses” have no value, and should not be considered. The purpose is to remind that there has been a steady lack of focused public consideration of other alternatives to what such eyewitnesses attest, alternatives that the new proof-of-life video might support. The assumed fate of the Chibok girls as Boko Haram killers is based on little real evidence or deep analysis. It is one narrative among others, including that many of the girls have even resisted both Boko Haram and conversion to Islam. Additionally, with each rumor of the girls’ transformation, a stronger conventional wisdom emerges.
It’s this “received wisdom” that must be resisted — first of all, because it makes further hyperbolized rumors inevitable. It is the familiar story that people believe, even when it is not necessarily the truth. This changes mindsets, hope, and belief, thus gradually foreclosing the real forensic consideration of other scenarios. This has effectively permitted the “Chibok girls” to become little more than a prop to the propaganda of Boko Haram, and the ongoing terrorizing of the psyche of ordinary Nigerians. This narrative asserts that whatever losses Boko Haram suffers, they have succeeded in one thing. They have not just kept the girls, but made them their own.
In this way, the girls have become a symbol of Nigeria’s wider fears of Boko Haram. Abducted men and women are already stigmatized. The “Chibok girl” stories represent fears that no one touched by the group can be the same again. They also reproduce binary ideas of women as either innocents or “brainwashed” killers; victims to be pitied or killers for whom all hope is lost. The reality is likely to be more complex. It is important to recognize this complexity, particularly with regard to women’s involvement in it.
The abduction of the Chibok girls rightly mobilized the conscience of the world. The Chibok girls now deserve greater institutional engagement with the facts of their fate, and any new information about them, than that which currently exists. They deserve a consideration of their humanity, and the possibility that they will still be brought back alive. They do not deserve simple assumptions of their transformation to Boko Haram killers, however good the headlines this makes.
Lizz Pearson is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London, and a RUSI Associate Fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @lizzypearson.
Jacob Zenn is a Fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation. He is reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.