Despite last week’s announcement of a ceasefire deal between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram extremists that includes the safe release of 219 kidnapped girls, local activists say they’ll continue their protests until the girls come back home alive and well.
Six months ago, members of the Boko Haram sect attacked a school dormitory in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok, taking more than 200 girls captive. Since then, Nigerians have taken to the streets and social media, criticizing the government’s response to the situation and urging officials to rescue the girls. Their Twitter campaign’s hashtag, “#BringBackOurGirls,” eventually evolved into the name for their nationwide movement as a whole. Meanwhile, Boko Haram has continued to violently attempt to enforce its version of Sharia law throughout northern Nigeria.
After announcing a ceasefire between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram on Friday, Chief of Defense Staff Air Marshal Alex Badeh confirmed that the freedom of the abducted girls will be part of the agreement. Many media outlets cautiously celebrated; the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaigners, however, are still hesitant to join in the exaltation.
“It will be wonderful if it’s for real that negotiations have come to this point where the girls will be released,” said Yemisi Ransome-Kuti, a Lagos-based leader of Bring Back Our Girls. “But we are not holding our breath, because our government has come out with statements before that have not proven to be correct.”
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In addition to her involvement with the wider campaign, Ransome-Kuti leads a local advocacy group, Women for Peace and Justice, which holds weekly “Speak Out Saturday” meetings in Lagos to discuss issues around the girls’ release. Over the weekend, dozens of Nigerians gathered in the wake of the ceasefire news to confirm their resolve to keep up the pressure on the government.
“We want to emphasize that the promise of the release is not the performance of the release,” Ayo Obe, a legal practitioner and the former head of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization, told Rewire.
“When we meet here, we don’t say, ‘We will stop when they promise us that the girls will be returned,'” continued Obe, who attended Speak Out Saturday. “We say, ‘We will stop when the girls are brought back well and alive.’ So until that time, we have no reason to stop.”
The Nigerian military has formerly claimed it rescued some or all of the girls, only to later backpedal on its statements. As Obe pointed out, “There are hopeful signs, but there have been hopeful signs before.”
In addition to the government’s spotty history concerning the kidnappings, the campaigners have another reason to be skeptical this time around: Boko Haram has not made any public commitment to the ceasefire. Although the terrorists have, in the past, released videos to the media to announce their own demands, they have thus far refused to confirm or deny their participation in the current deal.
With this in mind, Obe condemned what she saw as the haste with which the government announced the ceasefire without “something concrete.”
“It is difficult to understand why the government always rushes to press before they actually have something concrete to say,” she said. “We can’t dine on promises. The parents cannot cherish promises. They can only cherish their returned daughters.”
Indeed, barely a day after the government announced the progress, attacks blamed on suspected members of Boko Haram killed more than a dozen people in villages in Borno and Adamawa. Then, on Sunday, Nigerian soldiers repelled another attack in Borno that reportedly left more than 25 terrorists dead. These developments have raised further concerns over the effectiveness of the supposed ceasefire.
But Dr. Umar Aminu, a political analyst who teaches international relations and diplomacy in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna State Polytechnic, says attacks like those shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Boko Haram’s apparently disjointed nature.
”Going by [my] very critical appraisal of the Boko Haram insurgency, it is a very uncoordinated group,” he said. “And I doubt much if they are as united as people thought.”
Aminu says no one should expect a ceasefire agreement to immediately put an end to the widespread insurgency, which left more than 1,500 northeast Nigerians dead in the first three months of this year alone. Even so, he emphasizes, concentrating on quelling the larger factions of the sect may prove to be effective.
“The insurgency cannot easily die off the way we are thinking,” he said. “But if the main group … [is] brought under control, then the other smaller groups have no other option than to submit.” Aminu, for his part, believes the girls will be released.
Although the Bring Back Our Girls activists certainly want the attacks to stop, at this point, they say, their priority is maintaining pressure on the government until the kidnapped young women return. Still, they are somewhat optimistic: Unlike Nigeria’s leaders’ previous, public resolutions to retrieve the girls, this round of negotiations involved an independent party. Chad President Idriss Déby, who also reportedly facilitated Boko Haram’s release of kidnapped Chinese nationals and the Cameroon deputy prime minister’s wife, has been the one hosting the ceasefire talks between Nigeria and the terrorist group. Given that Chad shares borders with Nigeria, an end to the insurgency will save the country from the burden of shielding tens of thousands of fleeing refugees.
Because of this, campaigners acknowledge that Chad has an incentive to broker successful peace deals.
“Maybe because of these unique factors we will be a bit optimistic,” said Lagos-based Yaya Chiwa, whose nieces are among the kidnapped girls. “We still remain hopeful ’til we see the return of the girls.”
And, as Obe promised, “Nobody is standing down until those girls are back and alive.”