By Alexis Okeowo
April 13, 2016
Late last month, amid a spate of suicide bombings planned by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria and across the border in the far north of Cameroon, something strange happened. A vigilante force in a Cameroonian town called Limani stopped a twelve-year-old girl and a thirty-five-year-old woman who were carrying explosives, and subsequently handed them over to authorities.
While they were being questioned in custody, the girl said she had been sent by Boko Haram to detonate herself, which wasn’t in itself unusual—one of every five suicide bombings that the group has staged or inspired over the past two years has been executed by children, usually young girls. But the girl also said that she had ended up with the Islamist group after it kidnapped her and more than two hundred schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok, in a mass abduction that began on the evening of April 14, 2014, two years ago this Thursday.
As the Nigerian government prepared to send two parents of abducted girls from Chibok to Cameroon to determine whether the girl was, indeed, one of the kidnapped students, Nigerians speculated about her identity, and fretted at the slow release of news from the government. That one of the Chibok girls, of whom there has been no news since 2014, would have turned up as a forced suicide bomber seemed tragic but, in some ways, un--surprising.
Rumours about the girls floated around the northeast: they were scattered around the scrubland of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger; they were sex slaves to fighters; they were trained as fighters; they were dead. But it soon emerged that the twelve-year-old girl was not from Chibok—she is from the nearby city of Maiduguri, and Boko Haram took her from another nearby town, Bama, a year ago—and the woman she was travelling with is a mother of two. With the second anniversary of the Chibok kidnapping approaching, the false identification of the almost-bomber had an extra sting. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari claims that he “technically” defeated Boko Haram in December, but attacks on towns and refugee camps continue. And most of the girls remain missing.
For more than a year, I’ve been periodically meeting up with one of the Chibok girls who ran away in the early hours of the abduction. Now in school in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, she has lost touch with the fifty-six other girls who also successfully escaped, except for a friend who is now attending school in the central city of Jos. She doesn’t have much hope that the other girls will turn up, and tries to think about that night as little as possible. A friend of her family, a lawyer in Abuja, still has two nieces missing. He described a recent meeting between parents from Chibok and President Buhari. “He just looked like he had lost interest,” he said.
The chaos after the abduction—in which the Administration of Goodluck Jonathan, who was then the President, failed to publicly acknowledge the kidnapping until two weeks after it happened—and Buhari’s failure to locate them despite a campaign vow to do so have created an atmosphere of despair, confusion, and suspicion. The Ekiti State governor, Ayodele Fayose, was captured on video recently saying that the kidnapping never happened, that it had been a ruse to embarrass the former President. “It was a strategy to get some political push-ups. That is why you can never find them,” he told a meeting of a women’s organization. Some Nigerians have come to share his perspective. Bring Back Our Girls protesters still stage occasional rallies in Abuja to pressure the government to find the schoolgirls, but their presence and influence have waned considerably.
The Nigerian Army has actually recovered hundreds of other women and children in the past year from Boko Haram camps and hideouts. But its successes are too few compared with the atrocities that persist. The current government, on which Nigerians pinned high hopes that the insurgency would finally be capably handled, is already repeating the sins of its predecessor. For instance, in a single incident last year, Boko Haram abducted four hundred people, including three hundred elementary-school students, from the north-eastern trading town of Damasak, near the border with Niger. Human Rights Watch has expressed doubt about whether the government has “made any serious effort” to free those captives. Residents of the northeast say that some areas are still overrun by Boko Haram militants.
A recent article in the Sunday Times re-stirred speculation about whether American and British intelligence had surveillance evidence of the location of some of the Chibok girls after they were first kidnapped, something those countries never quite denied. It was too dangerous to go in without risking the lives of the girls, observers reasoned, and, anyway, Nigeria had not publicly asked for assistance, beyond requests for military equipment that doesn’t seem to accomplish much. But the relatives of the missing Chibok girls, and of other taken Nigerians, are begging for help. The Nigerian social contract has been broken for a long time, so expectations are low. Yet there are not many things worse than having someone you love stolen suddenly and unexpectedly from you—and then having your leaders behave as if it never happened.
Alexis Okeowo joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. She is working on a book about people standing up to extremism in Africa and is a fellow at the New America Foundation.