The next time international do-gooders decide to lend their hashtag support to a cause in Africa, it would be wise to remember the fallout of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign.
In April 2014, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram abducted more than 270 schoolgirls from their dorm in Chibok, in northeast Nigeria. The global Bring Back Our Girls campaign began about two weeks later. The Chibok students were hardly the first victims; thousands had already been kidnapped, an atrocity that went mostly unpublicized for almost two years. But the campaign pressured the government into prioritizing the Chibok abductees, leading to 21 of them being freed last October.
The girls now seem to have exchanged one form of captivity for another. The campaign made them famous and, as a result, precious to the jihadists. The military says it can’t guarantee their safety if they go home, so they remain essentially prisoners of the state.
As soon as the campaign began, the jihadists understood they were in possession of valuable merchandise. Asabe Goni, one of the released girls, told me that Boko Haram had them examined by doctors who attended to their ailments. They were treated differently from the other abductees.
Aisha Yerima, who was married to a Boko Haram commander, said, “They were kept in a separate and well-secured camp.” Such was her husband’s love for her, Ms. Yerima boasted, that he allowed her to choose two of the Chibok girls as slaves. “But after a while he asked me to return them so that they can go and get married,” she added.
There is no confirmation of what Boko Haram received in exchange for releasing the 21 girls, in a deal brokered by the Swiss government and the International Red Cross. But the amounts rumored to have been paid would have been enough, under sound management, to ameliorate the impending famine among the millions displaced by Boko Haram.
Now that the government has expended so much to save them, it cannot risk losing them again.
Days after the 21 girls were released, their parents were invited to Abuja, the capital, to meet with their daughters and with President Muhammadu Buhari. Then the girls were tucked away in a safe house, its location unknown. (Three other Chibok girls, who married and had babies before they were rescued, are undergoing a deradicalization program elsewhere.) Ms. Goni, who is in the safe house, told me the girls are now learning better English, to prepare them to return to school someday. Twice a week, their families are allowed to speak with them by phone.
The first and only time they have been able to go home was for Christmas. A day before they arrived in Chibok, I watched the excitement as their families prepared for the girls they had not seen for two years and eight months. “This is where she is going to sleep, on the same bed with me,” said Kyellu, the grandmother of Rahab Ibrahim. “This is her favorite soup,” said Rahab’s sister, Rose, as she stirred a boiling pot.
Kyellu never got the opportunity to sleep in the same bed with the girl she had raised. Neither did Rahab get to taste her sister’s yakuwa soup. When they arrived, the girls were taken to the house of a top politician, where they stayed for the duration of their visit. “We cannot guarantee their safety if they go home with you,” a military officer informed the parents.
After waiting for hours in the blazing heat and going through security checks, family members were finally allowed inside the politician’s crowded house, where they sat, like visitors to a prison. Around 6 p.m., soldiers instructed the families to leave.
“Rahab was crying, holding me; she didn’t want me to go,” Rose told me. “I wanted to fight the soldiers.”
The families were allowed to visit again the next day. But on Christmas Day, they were denied entry. They saw the girls on Boxing Day only after the state governor dropped by to visit. “The mood in Chibok is sad,” one of the parents said to me. “Everyone is unhappy.”
On Jan. 8, the girls returned to the safe house. Neither the public nor their parents have been able to see them since.
I can understand the government’s problem: The military rescued hundreds of kidnapped girls, but no one was impressed. Everyone wanted the Chibok girls or nothing. Even after Nigeria went to such lengths to satisfy us all by bringing some of them back, the pressure hasn’t abated.
The re-abduction of any other rescued girl would probably go unnoticed, but, thanks to the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, the kidnapping of a Chibok girl would, as a top government official put it to me when I complained about what had happened at Christmas, “be like winning the World Cup” for Boko Haram.
Perhaps the strangest part of this story took place not in Nigeria but in the United States. Some abducted Chibok girls managed to escape soon after they were kidnapped. In late 2014, 10 of them were taken to America and supported by a Nigerian nonprofit group called the Education Must Continue Initiative. The idea was for them to focus on their education and forget their trauma.
But they were not allowed to forget. While they weren’t in danger, their fame kept them prisoner. They were booked to speak at churches and to reporters, “telling and retelling their stories,” said Somiari Demm, a mental health counselor in the United States who talked with some of the girls.
Ms. Demm became concerned and tried to get them to leave the nonprofit. I spoke to five of them on the phone. They said they wanted to be free of the charity. So why didn’t they go? They were over 18, some as old as 21. But they had been yanked from a rural community in Nigeria to the great America and didn’t know how to survive on their own.
I helped connect Ms. Demm to the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, a nonprofit group that has been supporting the parents of the abducted girls, which then helped the Nigerian ministry of women’s affairs and the Nigerian Embassy in Washington relocate seven of them last May.
“The girls were being used as tools for making money,” the minister for women’s affairs, Aisha Alhassan, told the press. Paul Ali, the father of one of the girls, also expressed his concerns: “We understand that they are being used for show business, where they would be taken to places for them to narrate how they escaped Boko Haram captivity and afterward they would be given money. That is not what we wanted for our children.” (The head of the Education Must Continue Initiative has denied all claims and is suing the Nigerian government for defamation.) Most of the girls are now at a good community college in the United States, where they are being kept away from the news media.
As someone who has been following this story since the girls were kidnapped, I am happy that the world still cares. “Without the media, everyone would have forgotten,” Rebecca Joseph told me in Chibok, grateful even though her own daughter is still missing. But sometimes I wonder if we have not made things even more difficult for the girls.
Other victims may be better off. Last week I spoke to 17-year-old Zara John, who was kidnapped from a town east of Chibok by Boko Haram when she was 14 and freed by the military a year later. She has had her share of tragedy: At first she missed the fighter she had been wed to, the father of her son; the child later died of a snakebite. But now she at least has a chance to return to a normal life. She is back in school, living with her mother. “I am now preparing to take final exams,” she told me. “I want to be a doctor.”
Zannah Mustapha, the lawyer who is mediating between the government and Boko Haram, thinks we need to focus less on the Chibok girls and more on resolving the conflict itself. “What is the essence of the whole negotiations if you can get 21 girls and then 100 others are killed in suicide bombings?” he asked. “The only success is for those who have been advocating for the release of these Chibok girls, but as for those in the areas where the insurgency is taking place, I think for them there is nothing happening.”
The Nigerian government has announced that it is negotiating with Boko Haram to release more Chibok girls. If it is successful, the Bring Back Our Girls campaigners will no doubt rejoice. But after the cameras are turned off, Nigeria will be left with a fierce insurgency and the problem the campaign created: What can it do with girls who are too famous to be free?
- The article was first published in the New York Times as ‘Prisoners of Boko Haram, Then Prisoners of Fame’