Boko Haram is willing to free the Chibok girls…if Nigeria releases its imprisoned leaders.
The girls were famously kidnapped in April 2014 from a school in the town of Chibok, located in the northern Borno State. They were between 16 and 18 years old, and they were taken while preparing to take final exams at their school. The kidnapping sparked the #bringbackourgirls social media campaign. Dozens were able to escape, but over 200 remain within the folds of the terrorist group. Other women who were captured by Boko Haram and saw the girls have claimed that many were indoctrinated by their captors and now carry out killings on behalf of the group.
In May 2014, Boko Haram released a video featuring its leader Abubakar Shekau holding an assault rifle, officially claiming the organization’s responsibility for the kidnapping, and threatening to sell the girls into slavery. Addressing the Nigerian government, he said, “If you want us to release your girls we kidnapped, those of them that have not accepted Islam, they are now gathered in numbers. And we treat them well the way the prophet would treat any infidel he seized. They are staying (with us). We will never release them until our brethren are released.”
Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan faced fierce criticism for his failure to bring about their rescue last year. At the time, the Nigerian government did not appear to have a cohesive stance on how to best defeat Boko Haram. While Jonathan said that the Nigerian government does not negotiate with terrorists, at least one of his government ministers said that all options were being considered to secure the girls’ freedom. The new prisoner-exchange offer is meant to be similar to the one refused by Jonathan last year, in which Boko Haram would have traded the 219 girls still held by the group for 16 of its jailed members.
The number of Boko Haram suspects being detained by the Nigerian government is unclear, and thousands have died in prisons. Some of the detainees who the terrorist organization is currently trying to free may be among those dead, presenting a potential problem for negotiations.
Fred Eno, who assisted the Jonathan government with Boko Haram negotiations and is now helping the new President Buhari, said that the recent increase in violence perpetrated by the group is normal and expected when it prepares to enter negotiations. It has killed hundreds of people in the past few weeks as it wants to both be seen as a more dangerous threat and make the government more receptive to its demands.
If the Nigerian government agrees to a prisoner exchange, dangerous Boko Haram leaders will be freed at a time when the group is facing significant loss of territory, a move that would motivate its fighters and perhaps put them back on the offensive. However, if the government is able to secure the release of the girls, their freedom would be a huge political victory for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who only recently assumed power on a campaign promise to do a better job dealing with Boko Haram than Jonathan. If Boko Haram does not free them, the government will not be fulfilling its word to the people. Unfortunately, no matter which path the Nigerian government chooses to follow, it can only lose in its current situation.