In April 2014, militant Islamist group Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls from Chibok—a town in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria—making global news . Widespread concern generated by the incident soon culminated in a global social media campaign, “Bring Back Our Girls,” with an accompanying Twitter hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, that featured Tweets from notable world leaders and international celebrities.
Nigerian security forces have been attempting to neutralize Boko Haram since 2009. The largest of these efforts was the government’s establishment in June 2011 of a special Joint Task Force (JTF), codenamed Operation Restore Order (JTORO). JTORO’s eight thousand soldiers were deployed to the region in a direct military offensive against Boko Haram members—the largest deployment of troops since Nigeria’s Civil War . In spite of these efforts, Boko Haram and its suspected collaborators remained active, although on a smaller scale, in regions of Nigeria bordering Niger, Chad, and Cameroon .
In January 2015, Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s then-president, vowed to take all necessary action to halt the impunity of insurgents and terrorists by targeting every suspected enclave of Boko Haram . Subsequently, in September 2016, newly-elected President Mohammadu Buhari expressed his willingness to work with the international community and local interlocutors to negotiate with a faction of Boko Haram for the release of the Chibok girls. Speaking during a meeting with the United Nations secretary-general during the seventy-first UN General Assembly in New York, President Buhari expressed the Nigerian government’s willingness to negotiate but was struggling to get “credible and bona fide leadership of Boko Haram to discuss with.” He stated that the “government had reached out, ready to negotiate, but it became difficult to identify credible leaders. We will welcome intermediaries such as UN outfits, to step in .
Negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram—brokered by officials from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Swiss government, among others, arguably led to the release of twenty-one of the Chibok girls on October 13, 2016 . This success serves as a point of hope that all the girls will be released as negotiations continue.
Some have speculated that the girls were released in exchange for four Boko Haram members held in a prison in Banki, in northeastern Nigeria, but the government has vehemently refuted these claims and defended the negotiations. The release of twenty-one of the girls not only represents a modest achievement for those campaigning for their release, but also shows that negotiations with “moderate” elements within Boko Haram offers one option, among several, in engaging with the group and similar extremist organizations. The release of the girls arguably marks a starting point for exploring forms of peaceful engagement with such groups.
To accomplish these ends, the Nigerian administration must not portray the success of the negotiations as a political triumph to boost its power and legitimacy, nor manipulate the negotiations over the release of the Chibok girls remaining in captivity as a form of political propaganda. The fight to free the remaining Chibok girls and rid the country of Boko Haram extremists must continue until these aims are fully achieved, and the painstaking processes of reconstruction, reconciliation, and peace are able to take root in the traumatized region.
1. Aminu Abubakar, “As Many as 200 Girls Abducted by Boko Haram, Nigerian Officials Say,” CNN, April 16, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/15/world/africa/nigeria-girls-abducted/.
2. Daniel E. Agbiboa, “The Ongoing Campaign of Terror in Nigeria: Boko Haram versus the State,” Stability: International Journal of Security & Development 2, no. 3 (2013): 52, http://doi.org/10.5334/sta.cl.
3. Freedom C. Onuoha, “Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Extremist Islamic Sect,” Al Jazeera Center for Studies, February 29, 2012, http://studies.aljazeera.net/mritems/Documents/2012/2/29/2012229113341793734BOKO%20HARAM%20NIGERIAS%20EXTREMIST%20ISLAMIC%20SECT.pdf.
4. “Nigerians on the Run as Military Combat Boko Haram,” Integrated Regional Information Networks, May 22, 2013, http://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2013/05/22.
5. Augustine Ehikioya, “Chibok Girls: Buhari Asks UN to Serve as Negotiator,” The Nation, September 22, 2016, http://thenationonlineng.net/chibok-girls-buhari-asks-un-to-serve-as-negotiator/.
6. “Nigeria: Boko Haram ‘Releases 21 Chibok Girls’,” Al Jazeera, October 13, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/10/nigeria-boko-haram-releases-21-chibok-girls-161013102746662.html.