25 Apr 2014

‘World must wake up’ to Nigerian schoolgirl kidnap

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Foreign Secretary William Hague offers help in the hunt for more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls as ex-PM Gordon Brown, now UN education envoy, tells Channel 4 News the world must wake up.

Amid mounting public fury and an international outcry over the fate of 230 kidnapped Nigerian teenaged girls – now missing for nearly two weeks – the mother of one of the girls has warned that unless they are rescued urgently, she and other parents would likely be collecting their children’s dead bodies.

Speaking by telephone from Chibok, the town in north-eastern Borno state where the girls were kidnapped from their school in the middle of the night, a distressed Mrs Rahila Bitrus told Channel 4 News of her family’s anguish and accused the Nigerian government of failing to act fast enough.

“They’d assured us they would rescue our children but today, it’s 11 days since the abductions and we still haven’t seen our daughters,” she said. “We are going through the very worst moment of our lives.

They assured us they would rescue our children, but it’s 11 days since the abductions and we still haven’t seen our daughters. Mrs Rahila Bitrus

“The kidnapping has caused us great pain and sorrow,” said Mrs Bitrus. “We are praying and fasting for the safe return of our daughters.”

Her 17-year-old daughter, Ruth, an art student at Chibok Government Girls’ Secondary School, was about to sit exams. Insurgents suspected of belonging to the jihadi group Boko Haram – whose name means “western education is forbidden” – abducted the girls from their dormitories, loading them onto trucks, before setting the boarding school ablaze.

The girls, who are all aged between 16 and 18 and mostly come from Christian families, are thought to be held captive in a notorious region of difficult, rough terrain called the Sembisa Forest, a known jungle hideout of Boko Haram in Borno State. Around 40 girls escaped early on. Their accounts appeared to confirm that the kidnappers were from Boko Haram.

But the military’s “intensifying” search and rescue operation for the 230 remaining captive teenagers has yielded zero results, and to mounting public frustration, has also been shrouded in secrecy.

(Picture apparently showing the Nigerian army searching for the missing schoolgirls, in the Premium Times).

Public outrage over the Nigerian military’s failure to rescue the girls is reflected in national newspaper coverage.

It has triggered a campaign on Twitter, using hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #WhereAreOurDaughters.

Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka has called on President Goodluck Jonathan to convene an emergency security meeting over what he described as this “ugly development.” On Tuesday, the White House branded the abductions “an abomination.”

‘Appalled’ by the abductions

British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said he is “appalled” by the abductions. In a statement on Friday to Channel 4 News, he said he had discussed the kidnappings with the Nigerian foreign minister and was talking to the authorities about “how best to assist in their efforts to secure the girls’ release.”

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking as the United Nations special envoy for global education, said he too was in contact with the Nigerian authorities and had offered assistance. He told Channel 4 News: “The world must wake up to the escalating tragedy now engulfing Nigeria. Today the lives of 230 teenage schoolgirls hang in the balance.”

The Islamist militant sect’s escalating campaign of terror has killed more than 4,000 civilians in just four years. It claims to be fighting for an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, with strict adherence to Sharia law.

The International Crisis Group says nearly half-a-million people have already been displaced, neighbour has been pitted against neighbour and hundreds of schools and government buildings have been destroyed across northern Nigeria.

Last Monday, Boko Haram killed at least 75 people in a car bombing in the capital, Abuja. In February, they killed at least 50 pupils in a college in Yobe State, where more than 40 students were murdered in another school the previous year.

Read more: The west ignores Boko Haram 'at its peril'

Wole Soyinka, Gordon Brown and human rights activists have expressed the widely-held fear that the girls could already be imprisoned in unreachable bush camps and held for years to be used as sex slaves. There is also speculation in Borno State that the girls are being used as human shields to deter military action against Boko Haram camps.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is spearheading a global campaign against sexual violence in conflict zones, told Channel 4 News: “The appalling abduction in northern Nigeria on 14 April is a stark reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict-zone areas. I am very concerned that the majority of the girls are still missing.”

The Nigerian military’s search and rescue operation has itself been the target of growing public alarm. State of emergency legislation in three northern states, including Borno, means that the security forces cannot readily be held to account.

(One of the pictures being used on Twitter to petition for more efforts to find the missing schoolgirls).

The military did itself no favours when, last week, it erroneously announced that most of the missing girls had been freed in an army operation. When this turned out to be wrong the army was forced to issue an embarrassing retraction.

Further confusion resulted from huge discrepancies between the numbers reported abducted: last weekend, the parents of the missing girls insisted that government estimates were wildly inaccurate and that more than double the government’s stated number were actually missing.

Nigeria’s information minister, Labaran Maku, yesterday described the abductions as “a national tragedy” and insisted that state security forces are “on the heels of these kidnappers.” President Jonathan has been under fire for what is widely seen as lacklustre leadership in this crisis.

‘We are very angry’

Women’s rights activists – whose number include some of the missing girls’ mothers – have condemned the government’s rescue efforts as incompetent. They say they are ready to risk their own lives by storming the insurgents’ hideout themselves to persuade Boko Haram to release the girls.

“We are very angry,” women’s rights lawyer Hauwa Shekarau told Channel 4 News. “We are not happy with efforts so far and we are demanding the government do more.”

Ms Shekarau, who is President of the International Federation of Women Lawyers Nigeria, said civil society groups felt powerless in the face of deep-seated public mistrust of the federal government’s rescue efforts.

“Eleven days have gone by and we still have no information about the whereabouts of these girls,” she said.

Channel 4 News has sought an interview with the Governor of Borno State Kashim Shettima, who visited the Chibok school for the first time on Monday, a week after the kidnappings took place. He was not available to speak to, but we contacted State Education Commissioner Imuwa Kubo in the regional capital, Maiduguri.

“The governor has had many sleepless nights since the abductions,” he said. “He is trying to meet all contacts available, including the military and the girls’ parents in an effort to resolve this crisis.”

He spoke as further rumours swept Maiduguri that some more girls had been freed. We were unable to verify these reports.

Gbenga Celestine contributed to this article, from Maiduguri, Nigeria.