One Year Later, Hopes Fade for Girls Kidnapped by Boko Haram

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A Woman Attends A Demonstration In Abuja
A woman attends a demonstration in Abuja, Nigeria, calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped girls of the government secondary school in Chibok. Even under a new government, locating and freeing the victims will remain a formidable challenge. Photographer: Olamikan Gbemiga/AP Photo

A year after his daughters Amina and Zainab were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, 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, the Nigerian town where more than 200 female students were snatched from their school dormitories. “Who knows if the girls are even still alive?”

The Empire State Building in New York City will be illuminated in red and purple on Tuesday 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.

“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.”

No Promises

Buhari, who’s scheduled to be inaugurated as president 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, U.K.-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.”

Missing Girls

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 Africa’s most populous nation, according to the government. 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, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

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.

Military spokesman Major-General Chris Olukolade didn’t respond to two calls to his mobile phone on Monday.

National Embarrassment

One of the main reasons the girls have not been found is a lack of political will to tackle the problem, according to Yemi Adamolekun, executive director of Lagos-based advocacy group Enough Is Enough Nigeria. “Part of what this new administration supposedly comes with is a different attitude to governance and a different attitude to security,” she said in a phone interview.

“Nigerian leaders and the international community have not done enough to help you,” Pakistani campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Yousafzai said in an open letter to the girls. “They must do much more to help secure your release.”

The length of time they have been missing is a national embarrassment, 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,” he said.

Not Serious

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 than Jonathan’s government 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.”

After almost a year, hopes of finding the girls have faded significantly, according to Nnamdi Obasi, senior Nigeria analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “There is really no basis for optimism that Buhari will fare better specifically at finding the girls,” he said.

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