Are The Chibok Women Really Free?

Controversy exists around the twenty-one Chibok school girls who, in October 2016, were released from Boko Haram’s control into the care of the Nigerian government. Brokered by Red Cross negotiators, the “lucky” twenty-one are now adults and are kept apart from their parents by government officials who appear to be curtailing their freedom. Such behaviour has the potential to revictimize those kidnapped and hinder their reunification and reintegration into daily Nigerian life. Television cameras and journalists are encouraged to record the released captives being presented to their parents as the Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima, officiates. At the conclusion of this ceremony, further separation from parents continues under the guise of continued trauma counseling, medical treatment, and rehabilitation support.

Although freed from the Boko Haram insurgency, these young women appear to be under Nigerian government custody with little freedom, which is a human rights issue. Over Christmas 2016 there was an expectation these young women would return home. According to Reuters News Agency, one young woman, a Christian, noted she expected to attend church on Christmas Day. Family members told the BBC, the young women were kept in a politician’s house and were prevented from going to their family homes or attending church. One father commented “There’s no point bringing them to Chibok only to be locked in another prison. They couldn’t even go to church on Christmas Day.” A statement from the office of the Borno governor acknowledged “armed soldiers….escorted the twenty-one girls to Chibok and remain their strict guards throughout the Christmas.” The official stance asserts safety and security reasons for the restrictive movements imposed upon the young women. A spokesperson from the Chibok association of parents of kidnapped girls corroborates this stance and asserts safety issues were of concern in outlying villages. This fails to explain why those young women, who lived in the town of Chibok, were also denied access to their parents and family homes. Human Rights groups and lawyers have condemned the Nigerian government’s treatment of these young women, especially their lack of regular contact with families. Emmanuel Ogede, a human rights lawyer, views this treatment as a form of politicization by the Nigerian government.

Lack of regular reunification with parents is a missing segment of the Nigerian government’s assertion that it is reintegrating the released young women. For long-term well-being, regular parental contact is crucial if these young women are to lead productive lives in the future. Denial of this crucial point could revictimize these young women and could alienate them from kinship ties, which are necessary for everyday life. Trauma counseling, medical care, and rehabilitation support provided by the government will not ensure successful reintegration without regular family contact. If, as the official stance claims, there are safety issues in the outlying villages, where is their plan to remedy this? What resources will be used to put this plan into practice?

Humans Rights groups and lawyers speaking out ensures the Nigerian government’s treatment of these young women is highlighted globally and will not be forgotten. These young women need to be active participants in the formulation of their own plans for reintegration and rehabilitation as they will have clear ideas of what they need. The simplistic solutions initiated by officials to keep these young women safe have made them prisoners in their own country, and such action are not a long-term solution.

These twenty-one women were part of a group of 276 school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. Failure to respond quickly to this crisis earned the Nigerian government international criticism and a global movement “Bring Back Our Girls” formed. Violent attacks on innocent civilians in the north-east of Nigeria started in 2009 as Boko Haram’s aim was to create an Islamic caliphate in Africa to oppose western ways. Mass attacks on villages, abduction of females, and burning crops ready for harvest, as well as looting were tactics that were favoured by the insurgents. Food deprivation and homelessness has been the result for those who remain alive. In seven years of conflict, the United Nations estimates that 2.6 million people have been made homeless. Nigerian troops with assistance from neighbouring countries retaliate with violence to these attacks. Yan St. Pierre, Director of Media Security Consulting Group, is calling on the Nigerian government to change strategy to prevent further destruction of lives.

Having observed that the Nigerian government and Boko Haram successfully negotiated the release of twenty-one kidnapped Chibok women, the world sees a glimmer of hope. Further negotiations to release the remaining young women that are still in Boko Haram’s captivity is essential. When released, these young women, like former captives, must be allowed the freedom to be in charge of their own destiny to ensure a successful future. The Nigerian government needs to understand this and act accordingly.

Louisa Slack