CALABAR, Nigeria—When the Nigerian government announced last October that it had secured the release of 21 out of 216 Chibok schoolgirls held by Boko Haram since 2014, it followed up with a promise that it was working to get over 80 more out of captivity.
“These 21 released girls are supposed to be tale bearers to tell the Nigerian government that this faction of Boko Haram has 83 more Chibok girls,” the spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari told Reuters at the time. “The faction said it is ready to negotiate if the government is willing to sit down with them.”
After months trying to reach a deal with Boko Haram, the government announced on Twitter this weekend that 82 of the girls will return home to their families after Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helped secure their release in "lengthy negotiations."
“Our security agencies have taken back these girls, in exchange for some Boko Haram suspects held by the authorities,” a tweet from presidential spokesman Garba Shehu stated. “The released #ChibokGirls are due to arrive in Abuja today Sunday May 7, and will be received by the President.”
The ICRC confirmed on Sunday that it played a major role in the release of the girls who will “soon meet their families and loved ones.”
“Since yesterday, we @ICRC facilitated the safe return of 82 #Chibok girls in #Nigeria,” Patrick Youssef, Deputy Regional Director for Africa said in a series of tweets. “With the agreement of all the parties involved, we @ICRC acted as a neutral intermediary to facilitate their transport back.”
The government, just as it did when it announced the release of the 21 girls in October, was silent on the details of the negotiations. But a highly placed security official told The Daily Beast that the Nigerian government had to release two top Boko Haram commanders held for months by the Department of State Services (DSS), the country’s intelligence agency, in exchange for the girls.
The prisoners were flown from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to Banki town near the Cameroon border where they were handed over to representatives of Boko Haram. In the same location, the militants handed over the 82 girls to a large contingent of Nigerian soldiers.
“The exchange took place without any ugly incident,” said the official, who did not want his name mentioned. “We believe we’ve gotten all the girls this Boko Haram faction has been keeping.”
Online newspaper Sahara Reporters which first broke the news of the release late on Saturday, was informed by military officials that Boko Haram was paid a significant amount of money in foreign currencies in addition to securing two of its fighters.
That of course is no surprise. John Paden, an American scholar who is close to President Buhari, writes in his biography, Muhammadu Buhari: The Challenges of Leadership in Nigeria, unveiled last October that Boko Haram originally demanded €5 billion (about $5.6 billion) in exchange for the release of the schoolgirls. The government’s refusal to pay that much was the reason the deal broke down at the time.
The release of the 82 girls is good news for everyone, especially the families of the returnees who have waited three years for the return of their daughters. But it does raise a lot of questions as to how much strength this gives to Boko Haram, which may now have gotten back its deadly militants.
Although the released prisoners have not been named, and are not likely to be, a senior official told The Daily Beast last October that the jihadists had asked for the release of terrorists linked to the al Qaeda-backed group, Ansaru, that masterminded the bombing of a United Nations building++ [] in Abuja in 2011, and which has murdered a number of foreign nationals.
“The government wasn’t willing to negotiate the release of these persons,” the official said at the time. “Freeing them will put the country greatly at risk.”
But pressure from the families of the abducted girls and civil society groups, particularly the #BringBackOurGirls movement, forced the government to reconsider its stance. Last month, Buhari said his administration was “willing to bend over backwards” to secure the release of the girls.
Ansaru’s leaders now work hand-in-hand with the Boko Haram faction allied to the so-called Islamic State, an indication that discussion for the release of the girls involved Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the leader of the Islamic State West Africa Province (as Boko Haram wants to be known) who has vowed to make war on the West. His men have targeted the Nigerian military in recent spate of attacks in the northeast, and are accused by the DSS of plotting to bomb the U.S. and U.K. embassies in Abuja.
But for those who have labored and waited many years for this news, it doesn’t matter how this deal was reached, all they wanted to hear about was the return of the girls.
“It is real,” Oby Ezekwesili, an organizers of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, tweeted. “We rejoice and praise God with their parents.”