On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram fighters entered a girls boarding school in the sleepy town of Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria and left with 276 pupils. On Sunday, the loved ones of the 112 girls still missing commemorated the fifth anniversary of their abduction.
Back then, the outrage was global. Within a month, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls had been tweeted 3.3 million times, including by then US first lady Michelle Obama. A year later, Muhammadu Buhari was elected Nigerian president promising to defeat Boko Haram’s violent insurgency and free the captives.
Fifty-seven of the pupils escaped immediately by leaping from the trucks. And in the past five years, 107 Chibok girls have either escaped, been released in exchange for Boko Haram fighters or been recovered in military operations.
But the 112 still at large are symbols of a decade-long conflict, and a wider environment of chronic violence and insecurity in Nigeria. In January 2018, a terrorist propaganda video emerged, allegedly showing 14 Chibok girls. With some holding infants, they said they had converted and vowed not to return home.
Still, on Falomo roundabout in Lagos, Nigeria’s sprawling metropolis, pictures of some of the schoolgirls are tacked to railings. Above their crude portraits, a placard bears a quote from Nigeria’s 1999 constitution: “The primary responsibility of government is the security and welfare of the people.” Since the weekend, one resident told The National, people have been gathering there to commemorate the anniversary.
So far, just one person has faced justice for the kidnappings, with Haruna Yahaya sentenced to 15 years in prison last February, as part of a mass trial of Boko Haram fighters.
Mr Buhari was handed a second term in presidential elections in February. Yesterday, he tweeted: “We will not rest until all the remaining girls are back and reunited with their families. I made this promise when I became President, and I will keep it.”
But 10 years into a bloody conflict that has killed 27,000 people, caused millions to flee – both internally and into Niger, Chad and Cameroon – and decimated morale in Nigeria’s military, people in the war-scarred north-east will be sceptical.
“This sounds like lip service and nothing more at this stage,” Ini Dele-Adedeji, a teaching fellow at SOAS, University of London, said of Mr Buhari’s comments. “It’s a reflection of the theme of cluelessness that seems to have become the defining trait of this administration when it comes addressing security issues,” he told The National.
In recent years, a Boko Haram splinter group, Islamic State West Africa Province has begun a campaign of attacks on military bases, killing hundreds of Nigerian soldiers. In January, it briefly seized the small northern town of Baga.
The global attention given to the Chibok girls – and the 110 abducted in Dapchi last February, of whom one, Leah Sharibu, remains in the hands of the extremists – distracts from the fact that abductions are rising in Nigeria.
A report by Amnesty International last year claimed at least 4,000 girls, women and boys have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2009. Most are kept as cooks, sex slaves or nurtured as fighters.
Meanwhile, more people live in extreme poverty in Nigeria than anywhere else on earth. (The country recently overtook India, whose 1.3 billion population dwarfs Nigeria’s 190 million.) And as its economy has faltered, petty criminals and bandits have turned to the practice.
In the country’s vast, arid middle belt, violence between mostly Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers is proliferating, leaving 1,300 people dead in the first half of 2018, six times more than Boko Haram’s insurgency.
All of this points to a climate of rampant insecurity in Africa’s wealthiest nation. It is a challenge that, based on his record so far, Mr Buhari will not quickly be able to meet.