Tuesday 16 January 2018

One year on and hope is fading for kidnapped Nigerian girls

Parents of missing Chibok schoolgirls gather on April 14, 2015 to mark the one-year anniversary of the abduction of 219 schoolgirls by Boko Haram Islamists in the northeastern Nigerian city of Chibok in Borno State
Parents of missing Chibok schoolgirls gather on April 14, 2015 to mark the one-year anniversary of the abduction of 219 schoolgirls by Boko Haram Islamists in the northeastern Nigerian city of Chibok in Borno State
Women hold a signs as other protesters gather outside Nigeria House to mark the one year anniversary since a group of Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted on April 14, 2015 in London

A year after his daughters Amina and Zainab were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants with more than 200 other girls from their school dormitories in the Nigerian town of Chibok, Yakubu Maina fears he may never see them again.

"Sometimes I cannot but think my daughters have been killed," Maina, a 50-year-old farmer, said by phone from Chibok. "Who knows if the girls are even still alive?"

The Empire State Building in New York will be illuminated in red and purple today to mark the one-year anniversary of the abduction. It's part of a bid to boost the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign championed last year by Michelle Obama and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a Taliban gun attack to become a global advocate for girls' education.

Some of the students' parents, like Lawan Zannah, said they believe Nigeria's incoming leader, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, may accomplish what President Goodluck Jonathan could not: rescue the children.

READ MORE: Malala Yousafzai tells schoolgirls: 'Stay strong and never lose hope'

"My hope is still strong in my God that one day my daughter will return home," Zannah, a 48-year-old informal market trader whose daughter Aisha was kidnapped, said by phone from Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern state of Borno. "Buhari is seen by many as someone with a strong will to put an end to Boko Haram. My prayer is that my daughter is still alive."

Buhari, who's scheduled to be inaugurated as president of Africa's biggest economy on May 29, has vowed to crush the Islamist militants, while conceding that finding the children from Chibok may be impossible.

"We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued," Buhari said in a statement e-mailed by his office late on Monday. "Their whereabouts remain unknown. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them."

Locating and freeing the victims remains a formidable challenge, according to Malte Liewerscheidt, senior analyst for Africa at Bath-based Verisk Maplecroft. "It is unlikely that the military will be able to mount a comprehensive rescue of the abducted girls," Liewerscheidt said in an e-mailed response to questions.

"While there may be isolated cases where girls are freed or manage to escape from captivity on their own, the schoolgirls will by now have been split into smaller groups making the rescue of all 200 very unlikely."

Boko Haram, which emerged in northern Nigeria in 2002, has killed more than 13,000 people since it started a violent campaign six years ago to impose its version of Islamic law on the continent's most populous nation, according to the government. Since the start of 2014, it has carried out mass killings and widespread rape in a campaign that has claimed the lives of at least 5,500 civilians since the start of last year, according to Amnesty International.

In the past two months, Nigeria's military and troops from neighboring Chad and Niger have driven Boko Haram out of villages and towns the group had occupied across the northeast. Yet there's been no word on the fate of the missing Chibok girls.

"For them to be missing for so long, it's an embarrassment, it says that our government has been cold, lacking empathy or concern," said Sesugh Akume, a graphic designer who regularly joins the small daily gathering of activists on a lawn near the Transcorp Hilton hotel in Abuja, the capital, to publicize the young women's plight. "The Chibok girls are a global symbol for the oppressed, the disadvantaged."

The schoolgirls, many of them raised as Christians, have been converted to Islam and "married off" to Boko Haram fighters, the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said on videos posted on YouTube.

Yaga Pagu, whose 16-year-old daughter Janet is still missing, said the military progress made since early February gave him hope that Buhari would be able to do more t to combat the insurgents.

"The seriousness was not there initially," he said by phone from Chibok. "If the abduction had been taken seriously, our girls would have been with us a long time ago."

The chances that Buhari's government can find the girls is remote, according to Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"After almost a year, hopes of finding all the girls have grown terribly dim. Security services do not seem to know if the girls are still alive or dead, if they are still held together or dispersed," he said.

"There is really no basis for optimism that Buhari will fare better specifically at finding the girls."

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