Vanished Without a Trace: Where are Nigeria’s “276″ Missing Schoolgirls?

Nearly a month after girls went missing still more questions than answers

#bringbackourgirls protest, Borno state, Nigeria. Courtesy: Nigerianeye.com

As we honor and pay tribute to mothers across the country in celebration of Mother’s Day, the lamentations of distraught mothers, sisters and daughters in the west African nation of Nigeria is reaching a frenzied pitch.

The clock is ticking as another week begins without word of any rescues of the 200 or more schoolgirls reportedly abducted by Boko Haram, the militant terrorist group that has become a scourge on the nation.

Al Jazeera reports a new video released Monday purportedly by the group, claims to show about 130 of the missing schoolgirls, alleging they have been converted to Islam and would not be released until all of its prisoners held by the Nigerian government had been freed.

The video obtained by the AFP news agency shows the girls dressed in hijabs and praying at an undisclosed location.

Interior Minister Abba Moro has rejected the deal.

While many are optimistic that the some of the girls and the terrain where the video was recorded can be identified by some parents and security investigators, others doubt the authenticity of the video.

A Lagos resident, Wole Solanke says, “First it took 18 days for this Shekau to release his first video, and only after rising public doubt about if Boko Haram had the girls. Secondly, again after public opinion again doubts they have all the girls and stories confirming no girls have been sold, they again release a video of the girls all looking clean and healthy after nearly a month in captivity”.

In an unprecedented move to mark Mother’s Day, First lady Michelle Obama took to the President’s weekly address to express her support for distraught mothers in Nigeria and condemn the mass kidnappings.

“Like millions of people across the globe, my husband and I are outraged and heartbroken over the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls from their dormitory in the middle of the night. This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education, grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls. And I want you to know that Barack has directed our government to do everything possible to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to find these girls and bring them home.”

The girls are believed to have been abducted sometime during the night on April 14, not long after a bomb attack on the same day, in the nation’s capital, Abuja.

That explosion left more than 70 dead, hundreds wounded, and a city gripped in fear that the bombings that they had believed were largely contained to remote areas in the north, were creeping closer to their doorsteps.

The Nigerian government finally agreed last week, to accept assistance in the frantic search for the girls, from several countries, including the United States, Britain, France and China.

The Associated Press is reporting that Nigeria initially refused international help in the search for the girls for as long as three weeks after the girls were reportedly taken hostage, before finally caving in and reaching out when their efforts to go solo hit a brick wall.

ABC reports, “The delay underlines what has been a major problem in the attempt to find the girls: an apparent lack of urgency on the part of the government and military, for reasons that include a reluctance to bring in outsiders as well as possible infiltration by the extremists.”

A team of US experts are now on the ground assisting with the operation.

President Barack Obama says the team is comprised of personnel from military, law enforcement and other agencies.

“We have already sent in a team to Nigeria . .. a combination of military, law enforcement, and other agencies who are going in, trying to identify where in fact these girls might be.”

The President said he hoped the “heartbreaking” and “outrageous” kidnapping might spur the international community into action against Boko Haram.

“This may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime.”

Nigeria's President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan

Nigeria’s beleaguered President Goodluck Jonathan echoed similar sentiments.

At the opening of the World Economic Forum on Africa summit, which started Wednesday and wrapped up Friday, May 9, Jonathan expressed optimism that the mass kidnappings could be the terror groups undoing, saying, “By God’s grace, we will conquer the terrorists. I believe the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end for terror in Nigeria.”

Officials within the Jonathan administration are touting the success of the summit as an example of how committed they have been to the safety of their citizens.

Dr. Doyin Okupe, senior special asssistant to the president on public affairs tweeted, “Nigeria government just held one of the most successful WEF in history. Highest number of heads of government. Boko Haram could not stop it. Kudos to security.”

Several African heads of state and government, as well as hundreds of delegates from 70 countries, including former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, arrived in Abuja for the summit, About 50 chief executives of big global corporations also attended.
During the summit, security had been beefed up across Abuja, the federal capital territory, a place regarded as the country’s Washington DC.

Schools and government agencies were also reportedly shut down for the three days the summit was being held.

#Bringbackourgirls

Meanwhile, across the United States and around the world, the signs bearing the hashtag #bringbackourgirls continue to spread.

It has been trending on Twitter for weeks. The first lady showed solidarity for the global movement for the safe return of the missing school students Wednesday, May 7, by tweeting out a photo holding up a sign with the trending hashtag and the caption: “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It’s time to #BringBackOurGirls. -mo.”

Mrs. Obama’s tweet joins an ever-growing chorus of celebrities, concerned citizens, well-wishers and activists utilizing social media to spread awareness about the mass kidnapping.

Yet, although we are just days away from one month since the girls were reportedly abducted, none have been sighted, at least not until the video released Monday can be verified, and there are still more questions than answers surrounding the situation.

The missing girls, believed to be aged between 16 and 18, attended the Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno state located in the Northern area of Nigeria.

Though Borno state is located in the North, Chibok is a predominantly Christian community, with about “80 percent of the students in the school believed to be Christian.”

As time continues to run out and the scramble to find the girls intensifies, questions continue to linger.

More questions than answers

People continue to ask, “Who exactly are the missing girls and how many have actually been abducted?” Nobody seems to have an exact figure. The number now stands at 276, up by more than 30 from a previous estimate. Some have even speculated as many as 300 girls could be missing. Others believe the number to be somewhere around 180.

Black Enterprise spoke to a member of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration who had reservations about the circumstances surrounding the abductions.

Others have questions about the girls’ identities including the Police department in Borno state who have expressed their frustration in searching for girls they cannot identify.

According to the Commissioner of Police in Borno state, calls for the parents of any of the girls to come forward to register names or names of wards to help out their search are still unanswered.

Channels TV, a local media television and broadcast news network in Nigeria, disclosed that one man, who previously identified himself as an uncle of one of the missing, suddenly refused to come on air shortly before he was scheduled to appear.

An employee at that news network also tells Black Enterprise that one of the girls they interviewed, who had reportedly escaped her abductors couldn’t speak English. He says it is an irregular handicap for a child about to take a school certificate examination similar to the United States’ SAT’s.

But the editor of an online news publication based in Nigeria, the Nigerianeye tells Black Enterprise that the girl may have been intimidated by the bright lights of the camera and the scrutiny, forcing her to revert to her comfort zone by speaking her native tongue.

Our source within the Jonathan Administration put it this way, “Too many stories from the same people talking about the same event. There are too many things that do not add up. I find it inexplicable that one mother out of a potential 200 has not shown up. It is strange behavior for any mother. How can there be so many demonstrations going on all over the country and none of them joined by the parents of any of the missing?”

CNN recently conducted an interview of a family they say are parents are of two of the missing kids.

Others say it is understandable that the parents of the missing children are staying in the shadows. There is the very real and credible threat of retaliation by Boko Haram.

The real and credible threat of retaliation

Residents of Borno state say the atrocities committed by the militant group in the area largely go unreported. There are countless stories of executions, kidnappings and the widespread slaughter of livestock of people – who are mostly farmers – being swept under the rug.

Borno residents are also reportedly wary of the military.

ABC News reports: “The Nigerian military is accused of widespread killings that go beyond members of Boko Haram.”

The Associated Press documented last year how thousands were dying in military detention after being rounded up by authorities.

Amnesty International reported last October that hundreds of detainees were killed, tortured and starved. They say several detainees also suffocated to death in overcrowded cells.

Over the past two weeks, even as this crisis about the missing schoolgirls rages on, there have been a number of bomb attacks believed to have been orchestrated by the militant group.

The office of the Governor of Borno state, Kasim Shettima also agrees that there are several legitimate reasons why the identities of the abducted are being kept private.

A statement put out by the Governor’s office says: “Our fear is not to reveal names that would reveal religion and family backgrounds which could at the end, compromise the safety of these girls; provide basis for families to be reached with demands for ransom or be accused of undermining rescue efforts or sensationalism. In addition to these, abduction of girls are sometimes interpreted to mean automatic rape, where the identity of these are revealed, they could be stigmatized even after being rescued.”

Doyin Okupe says, “We are being extra careful not to jeopardize the safety of the girls. Our administration is in support of the anger and demonstrations playing out in front of the world everyday.”

If it appears absurd and outrageous to you that even with all the global attention surrounding the kidnappings and the resources being pumped into the effort to bring them back safely, that there are some, even within President Jonathan’s inner cabinet, who believe the abductions to be an elaborate hoax, you’re not alone. Critics say there are several motives why some within the Jonathan administration would be looking to distance the government from the crisis.

The human rights group, Amnesty International, reported Friday that the Nigerian military was well aware that militants from Boko Haram were headed toward the girl’s school in Chibok, four hours before the raid.

A statement from their website states: “The fact that Nigerian security forces knew about Boko Haram’s impending raid, but failed to take the immediate action needed to stop it, will only amplify the national and international outcry at this horrific crime.” This quote from Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s Africa Director, Research and Advocacy.

Babasola Kuti, a Lagos based politician with the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, took issue with the statement.

Kuti says, “It is really just tales by moonlight. You cannot create anarchy and expect things to go happily ever after.”

He believes that Amnesty International obtained their statement from a serving senator in Borno state with political motives to push false statements that will undermine the government.

It should be noted though, that the PDP is President Jonathan’s political affiliation.

Conspiracy theories & Whispers about an “elaborate hoax”

Administration officials also remain skeptical. One tells Black Enterprise exclusively and on condition of anonymity that there are too many disturbing circumstances surrounding this case.

He says, “I hope this doesn’t turn into the ‘greatest elaborate hoax of the century’.”

He also claims that the security guards reportedly guarding the school at the time of the reported abductions have repeatedly changed their original story.

Despite repeated attempts, Black Enterprise has not been able to confirm his story.

According to the same administration official, the guards first reported that the school had been burnt down at the time of the kidnappings, before changing their story when investigators turned up the heat.

He tells Black Enterprise confidentially that after being questioned repeatedly by security personnel, the guards reportedly admitted that the school was set on fire a day after the reported kidnappings.

He adds, “The guards have several versions of what happened on that day. First they told us that two lorries (large vans) had pulled into the school and the girls had been piled into them. Later they told us that the lorries were parked a kilometer and a half (about one mile) away from the school and the kidnappers arrived on foot and marched the girls out of the school. I find it difficult to believe that you can fit 276 girls into two lorries, even if they were piled together like sardines.”

He also stresses that there were boys present in different hostels that night, in school at the time to take the same West African Examination Council physics exam. They were unharmed.

Furthermore, according to the administration official, not all the girls in the school that day were taken, some of the girls were left behind.

He also tells BE that the school principal was unaware how many girls were sleeping in the hostels at the time of the abductions, nor were there any staff members present in the school at the time. There was also no electricity at the time and no generators to restore power.

“We keep hearing stories that more than 50 girls have escaped, and we are yet to meet even one. Also, how can scores of girls manage to escape the clutches of trained militants without being spotted or recaptured?”

Kuti also says the girls who managed to escape have yet to be briefed by Nigerian or foreign security forces.

#bringbackourgirls protest, Lagos state, Nigeria. Courtesy: Nigerianeye.com

He asks, “Why are the so-called parents hiding their faces? Why the toned down outrage sitting for an interview with faces blurred? They should be storming government offices demanding that their children are brought back safely”

A story by sunnewsonline.com this weekend put out an unconfirmed list of names they believe to be the girls who either escaped or were set free by the terrorist group.

They say Borno state governor Kashim Shettima’s spokesman, Isah Gusau tells them, “I saw the list this (Friday) morning and I have just confirmed it is authentic. This is contrary to claims by some mischief makers, who promoted false allegations that Borno State government paid Boko Haram ransom to free Muslims from the abducted schoolgirls.

“We welcome the release of the names. But it is unfortunate that we have to be happy with such a publication in which names of young students of Borno are published along religious lines. It is sad for us as a government but records have to be put straight.”

Our source within the Jonathan administration also says a video put out recently by the alleged Boko Haram leader, who goes by the name or title, Abubakar Shekau also “demands scrutiny.”

“The bombing attack last month in Nyanya motor-park (a major bus and taxi terminal in Abuja) that caused the death of more than 70 people happened on the same day that the children were taken. Two days later, Boko Haram sent out a video taking responsibility for the attack. But there was no mention about the kidnapping. Why? It seems to me they would have at least mentioned that one to their list of crimes if they were putting out a video. Why come out three weeks later and suddenly claim responsibility?”

Debunking the “Hoax” theory

However, critics counter that it is no surprise that Jonathan administration officials and supporters would try to undermine reports about the abductions and the campaign to find the girls, in a desperate attempt at damage control. They say they are doing so in an effort to temper the ongoing fallout from this crisis which could likely crush the President’s ambitions for re-election next year.

Plus, several people who have been attending #bringbackourgirls protests scoff at talk that the mass abductions are a “hoax”.

“How can they expect the parents and their relatives to all come forward? They live in Borno state. They are poor farmers. They see people killed and tortured by Boko Haram on a daily basis. They already know the government is powerless to protect them. What if they have other children? Who is going to keep them safe when this crisis blows over and international attention is fixed elsewhere? That is when the militants will return to Borno, hunt down those parents and their relatives and then exact bloody revenge.”

Alarmingly, disturbing but unconfirmed reports that the girls are being systematically moved from the Sambisa forest in Borno state where they were allegedly being held hostage into neighboring countries continue to surface. Some reports have claimed that the girls are being sold for the equivalent of $12. Others claim the girls are already being forced into marriages by their abductors.

Former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, now the United Nations’ special envoy for global education tells CNN, “The search must be in Niger, Cameroon and Chad, to see if we can find information.”

However, officials in Chad and Cameroon are doubtful that the girls are being held in their respective countries.

According to The Voice of America, Cameroon’s Minister of Communication Issa Tchiroma Bakari tells them he is shocked by the speculation that some of the missing girls are being held in the country.

“We insist that allegations from Nigeria that a part of the 200 young female students recently kidnapped in the northeast of Nigeria would have been transferred to Cameroon to be forced into marriage to members of the Boko Haram sect are fully unfounded. Cameroon will never ever serve as a support base for destabilization activities towards other countries,” Bakari said.

The VOA says Bakari also tells them this is not the first time Cameroon has been dragged into what he called the “unfortunate and heinous” crimes taking place in Nigeria. But, he repeated, his country is committed to combating terrorism with Nigerian authorities and all regional partners.

Tepid response, apathy by Jonathan government

While some officials in the Jonathan administration quietly remain skeptical about the circumstances surrounding the reported kidnappings, people across the country are pointing fingers at the administration, blaming their poor and slow response at the time of the kidnappings as the reason why the girls have still not been rescued.

Former UN Chief Kofi Annan is also appealing for action. He has criticized the Nigerian government, as well as other African nations for their tepid response to the kidnapping, and called on them to use whatever was at their disposal to help free the girls.

Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has also complained that the Nigerian government has been “somewhat derelict” in protecting their citizens.

Jonathan has also been heavily criticized for attending a gala for a political party the day after the bomb attack in Abuja, and the mass kidnappings of the schoolgirls in Chibok. The nation watched in shock as he was seen and photographed dancing, while Abuja mourned their dead and parents worried for their children.

All this as the embattled president prepares to begin his campaign for another term. It is fair to assume, that his administration’s inability to contain Boko Haram, 200-plus school children kidnapped on his watch, and the global fallout each day the girls remain missing will likely have damaging effects on his hopes for re-election.

Furthermore, Nigerian troops led the UN peace keeping force in Liberia. Nigeria reportedly has the most capable army in West Africa, but the military might of Africa’s most populous nation has inexplicably proved largely ineffective against the group of militant insurgents who have been terrorizing the country with impunity over the last four to five years. Thousands of people have reportedly been killed since Boko Haram stepped up their bloody campaign in 2009.

Okupe says, “Terrorism is new to us, especially this new wave of violence that started in 2009. Now it includes excessive criminality and religious bigotry.”

Despite the differences between the government and the people, they unanimously agree that these reports about preying on little girls appear to be a new low, even for a terrorist group.

Former President of Nigeria, General Muhammadu Buhari, a muslim, also weighs in. He is expected to run once again for the presidency during the elections next year.

“I wish to reiterate that there is no justification whatsoever for this unrestrained disregard for the sanctity of human life. It has no place in the Holy Quran and neither does it have a place in the Holy Bible. I fought for a united Nigeria. In my old age, I want my grandchildren, your grandchildren, our youths and indeed all Nigerians to benefit from a prosperous and united country devoid of sectarian violence whether home grown or imposed on us from outside. Now is not the time to play politics. Now is also not the time to trade blames and amplify our ideological differences. The unity of Nigeria is not negotiable and nothing should divide us as a people. I therefore urge all Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora to support the country in her effort to bring an end to this attack on defenseless citizens and indeed a united nation.”

RELATED: Michelle Obama shows support for missing Nigeria schoolgirls

Land of “Confusion and Corruption”

But the questions still linger. People keep asking what is real and what is not. Many Nigerians describe their country as “the land of corruption and confusion”, an apt description in this crisis when even the most seasoned investigators appear confounded.

How many girls are missing? How many were kidnapped from the school in Chibok and how many were kidnapped elsewhere?

Reports about people getting arrested for impersonating family members of the missing children also abound.

Nigeria’s first lady recently ordered the arrest of one woman who they accuse of posing as a parent of one of the girls. It turned out “she didn’t even have children in the school”.

Despite the questions surrounding the credibility of official reports and the stories about the Chibok abductions, one thing is certain. There are young women being kidnapped regularly in Nigeria.

The kidnappings in Chibok are a stark reminder that slavery still remains pervasive across parts of the country. According to numbers from the Walk Free Foundation, there could be as many as 700,000 people enslaved.

It is reportedly of some consolation to parents of children who have gone missing across the country, that global attention is finally fixated on what has been an endemic, but largely silent crisis within the country.

According to the BBC: ”Eight more girls had been abducted in north-eastern Nigeria by suspected militants. The latest kidnapping happened on Sunday night in the village of Warabe in Borno state. The girls taken were aged between 12 and 15. A further three girls have since been seized from another nearby village.”

As the days continue to pile up without the girls being found or rescued, so does the nation’s impatience with their president. Even the nation’s first lady has become a target for criticism.

Dame Patience Jonathan, who put a committee together to assist in logistics and planning for the ongoing rescue mission has been on the receiving end of derision and rebuke for comments she made during a press conference about the missing children.

Still, buried beneath the criticism is a nation in fear over the clear and present danger that is Boko Haram. The real and credible threat of a militant terror group, with a new weapon of inciting fear: Capitalizing on every parent’s worst nightmare.

In a recent video put out by the group, a man some believe to be the terrorist group leader brags that he is holding the girls whom he has threatened to “sell.”

The United States has a $7 million bounty on the group leader.

“I abducted your girls,” the so-called terrorist leader claims in the video, first obtained by Agence France Presse. “There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. I will sell women. I sell women.”

That video has more than 200, 000 hits on YouTube. Another video put out by the group after an attack on a military barracks tallied more than a 100, 000 hits.

Although no one is completely sure about the identities of the members of the shadowy group, even President Jonathan has admitted that the group has infiltrated executive and legislative branches of his government.

There are reportedly pockets of support for the militants in places across Northern Nigeria, some speculate by those who want a northerner to return to power.

Boko Haram, which roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language, spoken in Northern Nigeria, wants a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across the nation.

As the search enters a fourth week, Okupe assures the world, “We are devoted to the pursuit of the terrorists and to find these girls. We will get those girls back. We will get them back. Though our government is being criticized for the handling of this crisis, this is not a football match where you have commentary on a daily basis. We have launched a new website where you can learn more about the efforts to bring back our girls.”

You can check out the website at http://publicaffairs.gov.ng/military-efforts-in-the-search-for-the-girls-missing-in-chibok/

USA Today says Nigeria is offering “a $300,000 reward for information leading to the rescue of the girls”.

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