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It is hard to forget the global social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls that erupted in 2014 following the abduction of 276 school girls by militant Islamist group Boko Haram. The raid was part of Boko Haram’s on-going insurgency, seeking to establish an unyielding Islamic state in northeast Nigeria for the past nine years.
Many have questioned whether Boko Haram would ever face justice, after the freeing of Boko Haram prisoners in exchange for the safe release of 21 girls back in October 2016. Fast forward to May 2017 and with further help from the ICRC, a further 82 girls were released in exchange for five Boko Haram leaders. After subsequent releases, 113 girls still remain unaccounted for and are believed to still be under the control of Boko Haram or worse, dead.
Where are the girls now?
It is believed that most of the girls have been subjected to forced marriage, coversion, rape and other abuses at the hands of their militant captors. Additionally, a source from UNICEF Australia has claimed that Boko Haram forces the girls to commit suicide attacks, with many of the girls willingly committing. The girls desperately believe that their only chance of escaping is through strapping on a suicide belt and walking towards the army, hoping that the military will then remove the belt and lead them to safety.
The bigger picture
The Chibok schoolgirls are a mere fraction of thousands of mostly women and children abducted by Boko Haram since 2009. Whilst news of the Chibok girls attracted international media attention after Michelle Obama and other celebrities endorsed the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, further abductions by the militant groups have gone unspoken about.
For example, in November 2014, Boko Haram conducted their largest kidnapping to date when they abducted 300 local children in the ancient town of Damasak in northern Nigeria.
With stories of the lost Damasak children going untold, one can wonder how many other such attacks have taken place across the region. Amnesty International estimated in 2016 that Boko Haram has abducted more than 2,000 children and displaced roughly 2 million civilians since it began its insurgence in 2009.
How have Nigeria’s government responded?
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both independently blamed Nigerian security forces for failing to take appropriate and necessary precautions to protect civilians from Boko Haram, claiming that the security forces are making a bad situation much worse.
The Nigerian Government have never acknowledged the kidnapping in Damasak and families of the abducted children claim they are too scared of the government to speak out.
Such fear has stemmed from military actions including those of the night of December 6th, 2014. Upon receipt of information that Boko Haram was living in the neighbouring forest, hundreds of Nigerian soldiers opened fire on the village of Mundu in Bauchi State, burning most of it down. Local residents claim that the militants had never lived in the village but occasionally came in to buy supplies. After Human Rights Watch presented its findings of 5 killings and extensive fire damage, against a backdrop of minimal evidence to warrant the attack, army authorities claimed to be unaware of the incident.
It wasn’t until October 2017 that Nigeria began to prosecute some of the 1,669 Boko Haram suspects in custody for their heartless crimes.
Nigeria’s government decision to ban the media and public from attending trials has sparked growing concerns amongst activists over the lack of transparency surrounding the issue.
Further concerns are mounting over Nigeria’s methods of combatting Boko Haram. Seeking to look strong under the watchful eye of the world; it is said that Nigeria is collecting suspects at random, often without reasonable suspicion and housing them in overcrowded and hostile facilities where malnutrition and even death is rife.
However, in October 2017 -after almost a decade of merciless terror- a Nigerian court convicted 45 Boko Haram militants, released 468 suspects (ordered to undergo de-radicalisation programs) and transferred over 1,000 suspect cases to be tried in early 2018.
Abba Umar is one of more than 50 suspects convicted since court resumed on Monday 12th February 2018. Describing himself as an ‘Islamic warrior’ and a ‘commander of the Islamic army’, Abba Umar was found guilty and jailed for 60 years for crimes including a failed suicide attack at a school in Gombe state and involvement in terror attacks in Borno state.
Most crucially, having admitted his involvement in the abduction of 276 school girls from Chibok in April 2014, Haruna Yahaya has become the first Boko Haram member to be sentenced for the mass abduction; after the judge dismissed his argument of being made to act under duress and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.
Despite the imminent trials of over 1,000 Boko Haram suspects, the militant group continues to be at large throughout Northern Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. Today, 113 Chibok girls are still missing and the lack of international clarity on the extent of Boko Haram’s destruction suggests a long way to go before the militant group faces justice.
The United Nations has said more than $1billion in funding is needed to assist some 6.1 million people affected by Boko Haram’s insurgency. These emergency funds are desperately needed by local aid organisations on the ground to enable their continued support in both emergency and long-term contexts. As a matter of urgency, the UN has claimed that any slight disruption of the aid process could lead to an emergency situation across Northern Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, where the effects of Boko Haram’s violence continue to be felt.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.