Last Tuesday, Leah Sharibu, the only remaining captive of the 110 girls abducted in February 2018, from their school in Dapchi, Yobe State, turned 16 years old. It was with tears that her family marked her 15th birthday last May, after their Christian daughter’s courageous stand against members of the Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP), an offshoot of the dreaded Boko Haram insurgents. Leah refused to convert to Islam, even after her Muslim schoolmates were released, following some negotiations with the Nigerian government. One year after, Leah and her family find themselves in the same position as her last birthday. But this time, there is even more concern about the commitment of the government towards her release from captivity.
Since the kidnap of about 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno State in 2014, there has been increasing awareness of the activities of the insurgents in the northeast. The global effort to secure the release of those girls saw the leaders of powerful countries like the United States, United Kingdom, France and many others lend their voice to the campaign.
It is thought that the pressure and support of world leaders, and the exceptional commitment of members of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) coalition, moved the government to negotiate the release of some of the kidnapped Chibok girls in May of 2017. The whereabouts of about 112 of the Chibok girls is still unknown to the public, more than 1,500 days after heir abduction. Similar pressure led to the release of the Dapchi girls (and one boy) in March of last year. All except Leah.
Moved by concern for the plight of the teenager, Nigerians and people around the world have not let up on their pressure on the government to secure her release. Last Tuesday, on the occasion of her 16th birthday, there were demonstrations in Lagos, Abuja, Adamawa and other Nigerian states. Organised demonstrations took place in the US and in London, UK, including one involving David Linden, MP, the Member of Parliament for Glasgow, who shares the same birthday with Leah. Protests and demonstrations had earlier been organized on the one-year anniversary of her abduction in February of this year.
The success of negotiations in some of the past cases makes government failure in Leah’s case exceptionally heartbreaking, especially for her family. Added to that, the popularity she has now acquired through her defiance may have also made her case exceptional in the eyes of her captors. ISWAP had issued a final ultimatum for her life in September, 2018. However, even though two aid workers also abducted by the group were executed that month, Leah was spared, and declared as a lifetime slave to the group, alongside Alice Loksha Ngaddah, another aid worker.
The government, on its part, continues to give assurances to Nigerians and Leah’s family that all will be done to secure her release. The reassurances may not be enough, since the group holding Leah is known and there are channels for negotiations between the government and the group. Nigerians cannot imagine why there has been no breakthrough in whatever efforts are being made to secure Leah’s release. Nobody wants to see the teenage girl mark a third birthday in captivity. Leah’s case is a national tragedy, and it has become a focal point for religious bodies of the Christian faith, including the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN. Because of the circumstances of this case, if the government cannot find a way out for Leah soon, her continued captivity may encourage divisive comments, which may have already begun to be expressed.
As we hope for Leah’s freedom, we watch on the news the display of true dedication and commitment to the welfare of citizens, by other countries. Two weeks ago, a French rescue operation was launched in Burkina Faso, to free two French tourists that had been kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda linked group in the West African country. The operation was successful, but at the cost of the lives of two of the French soldiers that took part in the operation. An extra two captives, one American and one South Korean were also freed.
Although the West has always drummed the “no negotiation with terrorists” mantra, it is suspected, and confirmed in some cases, that this has been done in the past. In the case of the French tourists in Burkina Faso, intelligence gathering enabled the French commandos to track the kidnappers for some days before the operation was approved. The hostages were held for only about seven days. Therefore, our response to the attacks and kidnappings in Nigeria needs to be timely. The more days Leah spends in captivity, the harder it becomes to secure her freedom.
The lesson in the French rescue is the commitment to do everything necessary to secure the release of the hostages. If the French authorities had waited for ransom to be demanded and paid, there was a risk that executions may have happened first, to make a statement. And it could have endangered French people around the world, who would become a money-making business in the eyes of terrorists.
Whether or not the Nigerian government has paid ransom for the release of some of the girls that have been freed from captivity in the past couple of years, there is a greater duty to deter the act outright. We should not create a kidnapping business for terrorists within Nigeria’s borders through financial and other concessions to the terrorists. It is worse when the terrorists pick and choose who to release, and under what conditions, as in Leah’s case.
Again, one must return to the question of political will. In the history of this country, the will to effect an outcome has been displayed in the past, even where the country did not have the expertise and training to handle the operation on its own. One recalls the case of Umaru Dikko, a government official that went on exile after the military coup of 1983. Nigeria acquired the services of Isreali Mossad operatives to force Dikko back to the country. He was ‘tagged and bagged’ (labelled “diplomatic baggage” in a sealed crate) and about to be loaded unto a plane before British customs foiled the operation at the airport.
Co-incidentally, the Head-of-State at the time is now president today. He has acquired a reputation for dogged pursuit of objectives he his committed to. All Nigerians now ask is for a display of the same level of commitment the president has shown in the past to be applied to the matter of Leah’s freedom. Success will go beyond securing a young Nigerian girl’s release, which should be enough inspiration. It will also be a statement of intent by the government to put a stop to any form of profiteering with the lives of Nigerians.
As the country continues to keep vigil for Leah, we all must ensure that the focus on her freedom remains paramount, without letting ethnic and religious sentiments move the discourse in other areas that may trigger divisive utterances and actions. No matter what happens, Leah Sharibu has already conquered her captors in the eyes of the world, and this should give the Nigerian government the impetus to conquer the hate and division that her captors wish to spread in their campaign of death and destruction. It can begin with securing Leah’s freedom.
This column joins Nigerians of all faiths in prayers for the safe return of Leah to her family. The smallest and youngest in our midst are capable of great feats and inspiring great causes. Malala Yousafzai is a leading example in this regard, and her story is not so far off from the one now building around Leah. Little David in the Bible achieved his victory against Goliath with a small pebble. These girls have done so with a little belief and courage. Like David, their lives have already become an inspiration. May the God that delivered Malala deliver Leah back to us.
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