ABUJA, Nigeria — Ever since Muhammadu Buhari took office last May as Nigeria’s fifth democratically elected president, he has made the war against insurgency in the country’s northeast region his top priority, working hard to keep his pre-election promise to defeat Boko Haram and rescue the 219 schoolgirls abducted from their dormitories in Chibok last year.
For the moment it appears government troops backed by regional forces from neighboring Chad, Niger, and Cameroon are gaining the upper hand over the jihadists. Boko Haram’s control of territory is more and more limited limited to the large Sambisa forest, where at least some of the Chibok girls are believed to be kept. But a major worry for the Buhari administration is how to get the girls out of there alive and in one piece.
There have been various assertions in the media concerning the plight of the Chibok girls. One report by the BBC claimed that the girls have been brainwashed and forced to begin fighting for Boko Haram, with many carrying out public beatings and even killings on the group’s behalf.
Women who claim they lived in the same camps as some of the abducted schoolgirls told BBC Panorama for a program televised in June that many are now administering punishments on behalf of the jihadists, including flogging young girls who were unable to recite from the Quran, and slitting the throats of captured men. One witness even said she had seen the Chibok girls carrying guns.
While these specific claims have not been verified independently, Buhari clearly believes the condition of the girls is precarious. The Boko Haram insurgents “have scattered them,” he said in an interview with the BBC Hausa service last month, and they “are being guarded at dispersed locations.”
“Most of the girls are Christians and were forced to embrace Islam,” Buhari said. “The sect’s cruel leaders have married some of the girls, obviously against their wish. Others have been left to practice their religion but their condition could hardly be ascertained.”
To be sure of getting the girls alive, the government has been forced to negotiate with Boko Haram, and talks with a faction claiming to be in custody of the abducted girls have been on since July. But demands from both sides appear to be too large for either party to afford.
“They wanted us to release one of their leaders who is a strategic person in developing and making improvised IEDs that is causing a lot of havoc in the country by blowing people in churches, mosques, market places, motor parks and other places,” Buhari said last month in Paris while responding to questions from members of the Nigerian community in France. “Let them bring all the girls and then we will be prepared to negotiate. I will allow them to come back to Nigeria or to be absorbed in the community.”
The bomb maker Boko Haram wants to free is most likely to be Ahmed Mohammed, also known as Abubakar, according to a Nigerian defense official who talked privately to The Daily Beast.
Abubakar is a frontline member of the group, and is the most notable Boko Haram bomb maker in government custody. He is believed to be behind the manufacture of explosives used in a number of deadly Boko Haram suicide attacks.
The notorious bomb expert was arrested on July 8 in Nigeria’s northeastern Gombe State by officials of the Department of State Services (DSS), Nigeria’s secret police. Abubakar allegedly provided the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) used for a number of attacks in the northeast, notably those at Gwoza Divisional Police Station in 2014.
Abubakar is also believed to have been involved in the coordination and execution of the suicide attacks in the northern cities of Potiskum, Kano, Zaria, and Jos that led to the deaths of hundreds of people.
DSS spokesman Tony Opuiyo said in a statement released by the agency in August that Abubakar “confessed to the preparation of the IEDs” used for the attacks in northern Nigeria. “He also averred that he was the one who strapped the suicide bombers, notably Sule (one of the suicide bombers) and his wives with IED vests, which they used in the attacks in Jos,” the statement added.
Boko Haram has carried out many attacks in rural northern Nigeria, but Abubakar’s bombs have been used, notably, in the cities. Potiskum is the commercial capital of Yobe State in the northeast. Kano is Nigeria’s most populous city after Lagos. Zaria is the second-most important city in northwest Kaduna State. And Jos is the heartbeat of Nigeria’s north-central region.
The carefully planned and executed bomb attacks in these cities are the deadliest executed by Boko Haram, with tolls sometimes exceeding 100 dead and many more wounded, all of which underscores the importance of bomb-maker Abubakar to the jihadists. Officials have noted that releasing him would by like the government putting a hand in the fire.
“The request by Boko Haram for the release of the bomb maker has been outrightly rejected by the president, owing to the risk involved,” a security official told The Daily Beast. “The government is now exploring other options that will make [the girls’] release possible.”
One such option is the granting of amnesty to Boko Haram members, which the official said was intended to assure the jihadists that the government was sincere about its promise to release the sect’s prisoners (but not the bomb maker).
He said the military is holding more than 300 Boko Haram prisoners, who would all be granted amnesty in exchange for the abducted girls, an assertion Buhari himself had confirmed.
“The few we are holding, we are trying to see whether we can negotiate with them for the release of the Chibok girls,” he told AFP in an interview in Paris last month. “If the Boko Haram leadership eventually agrees to turn over the Chibok girls to us—the complete number—then we may decide to give them [the prisoners] amnesty.”
To set that process rolling, on directives of Buhari the military last month inaugurated a national committee to oversee the creation of a safe passage into mainstream Nigerian society for members of the sect.
Officials said that Boko Haram members penciled for reintegration are those forcefully conscripted into the group, those who have already surrendered and given up their membership of the sect, and those willing to renounce their membership.
As of now, very few Boko Haram members have shown themselves willing to renounce their allegiance to the group and accept the government’s amnesty offer. So, talks between the jihadists and the government have remained deadlocked as neither side is able to meet each other’s demand.
“One issue hindering the discussion is the fact that the Boko Haram group that came out to negotiate hasn’t shown concrete evidence pertaining to the whereabouts of the Chibok girls,” a senior military officer told The Daily Beast. “They have said they have the Chibok girls, and that they are well, but the government wants to be extra sure before making commitments.”
But as the negotiations appear to have slowed, and the government’s other strategies to free the abducted girls appear unfeasible, the wait for the return of the 219 missing schoolgirls is becoming more frustrating by the day, especially for their traumatized parents.
Since their daughters were kidnapped from their school 16 months ago, 14 parents of the abducted girls reportedly have died, many of them from stress-related diseases.
“Parents are eager to know that their daughters have been rescued,” Reverend Enoch Mark, spokesperson for parents of the abducted schoolgirls told The Punch, a national newspaper. “We are eager to hear that news.”
But with Boko Haram said to be dividing up into factions, there is fear everywhere that the less powerful camp, which is less able to deliver, may be the one in talks with the government. For Mark, whose biological daughter, Monica Enoch, and adopted child, Sarah Samuel, were abducted by the militants on that day, there are still many questions he wants the negotiators with Boko Haram to answer.
“Do they know these people? Do they know where they are?” Mark asked. “Why can’t they act as military men and arrest them? Who are they and can the government trust them enough to discuss and negotiate with them? This is my own fear.”