There needs to be a limit to negotiations with terrorists and this government has displayed inferiority in its powers of negotiation that may signal weakness in other important areas in this fight.
Over a month ago, the media was awash with news of the mass abduction of another set of school girls in the North-East. This time, the horror played out in Dapchi, a town in Yobe State about 75 kilometres south of the border with Niger Republic. The reaction to the news was that of horror and outrage, especially after rumours emerged about the likely complicity of security agents in the abductions. With the country still in the trenches about the Chibok affair, it was very unwelcome news indeed.
After the anger about Boko Haram terror was revived with this new set of abductions, the blame game became fierce and theories of unimaginable complexities made the rounds on social media platforms. However, last Wednesday, the situation took an unexpected turn with the dramatic return of the Dapchi girls to their town in Yobe State. This development did little to quiet down the rumour mills, with the conspiracy theories only becoming more rife as the situation developed. With the persisting disquiet about the attacks, there are many genuine talking points that merit some thought.
Perhaps, the starting point should be on the important distinction in the Dapchi episode. The in-fighting within the ranks of Boko Haram has led to the factionalisation of the sect into at least two identifiable groups. One appears to be headed by Abubakar Shekau, long-time leader and frontman of the group, while the other is controlled by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the son of the late Mohammed Yusuf, founder of the radical group. Al-Barnawi’s faction, which reportedly enjoys Islamic State backing, was allegedly behind the Dapchi abductions.
The previous release of some of the Chibok girls generated some controversy about covert deals made with the Shekau faction to secure the release of those girls. Shekau and his men are said to have made about $3.7 million in ransom, according to a Wall Street Journal report on the deals. Many warned then, as did this column, about the dangers of pecuniary deal-making with such a group, and indeed any deal making at all. Then the Dapchi girls’ abduction occurred, unsurprisingly. For the parents of the girls who are understandably happy, one shares in their joy, but with great foreboding.
If there were any doubts about the Islamic State backing of the al-Barnawi faction, the happenings in the past couple of months leave little doubt about that unholy partnership. The imprint of Islamic State tactics are written all over the group. First, the faction has demonstrated tact in negotiations and the relative speed with which they are concluded is a testament to the fact that these are no mindless fanatics. Mr. al-Barnawi’s splinter group is in fact now known as the Islamic State in West Africa and had previously carried out kidnappings of staff of the United Nations and some oil workers prospecting in the North-East.
Dreadfully worse still, the well-oiled machine of Islamic State propaganda is already evident. There were videos and pictures of Dapchi residents and parents of the girls cheering the fighters on as they returned the girls, unhindered by security forces who were keeping faith with a condition of the deal with the government.
The Islamic State is regarded as the wealthiest terrorist group in the world, and is known to be very skilled in kidnappings, with an entire department known as the “intelligence apparatus” dedicated to kidnappings, as revealed by a BBC report in 2015. While Shekau can be described as a mad man, the Islamic State is calculated and methodical in its approach, with an underlying objective of winning the hearts of muslim faithful to their cause. The Dapchi incident is not only a funding opportunity, but also a publicity stunt, like the Chibok abductions turned out to be. This time, it was managed expertly and that is why the foray of al-Barnawi’s group into the schoolgirls kidnap ‘market’ is a sign of worse things to come.
Dreadfully worse still, the well-oiled machine of Islamic State propaganda is already evident. There were videos and pictures of Dapchi residents and parents of the girls cheering the fighters on as they returned the girls, unhindered by security forces who were keeping faith with a condition of the deal with the government. Witnesses report that the fighters were civil, even shaking hands and reassuring the people there would be no further attacks of the like if the girl’s stayed away from “western education”. The returned girls also report that they were treated in as civil a manner as possible under the circumstances, and were even provided food to break their fast and say their prayers.
The professionalism shown by the group in this kidnap equals its propensity for terror. Islamic State targets Westerners and generally subjects non-muslims to great indignities to demonstrate their disregard for the life of so called “infidels”. This is why the refusal of the group to release one Christian girl, Leah Sharibu, is a matter of grave concern, especially as she has refused to convert to Islam.
Leah emerges as the heroine in this unsavoury tale. Like Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who stood up to the Taliban in Pakistan, Leah has become a symbol of hope and defiance in the most unlikely way. The consequences of the move to withhold the lone Christian student are far-reaching for the fragile ethno-religious set up of the country. Leah has now become another important chip in this multi-layered mess that the government finds itself in.
Whether the girl was held as an opportunity to push a better bargain or for more sinister reasons, the entry of Islamic State backed players into the North-East has happened at the worst time. The Islamic State, which controlled a considerable territory some years back, has now lost most of it and may be looking to reassert itself. With the encouraging signs here and the relative ease in dealing with the Muhammadu Buhari government, Nigeria and West Africa in general may now become the new front for recouping losses.
Al-Barnawi’s faction may not only be winning the praise of the people, it may also be gaining government confidence as a “preferred trading partner”. The offensive on Shekau’s faction had increased, even while deals for the release of more Chibok girls were on-going.
President Buhari has all but announced that the official policy of his government is to negotiate with terrorists. With the way the Dapchi girls affair went, it is possible that the government has now been further encouraged to adopt deal-making as its primary method in tackling abductions. The reality however is that the door is being held open for the ravenous beast of Islamic State and its sophisticated machinery.
Al-Barnawi’s faction may not only be winning the praise of the people, it may also be gaining government confidence as a “preferred trading partner”. The offensive on Shekau’s faction had increased, even while deals for the release of more Chibok girls were on-going. In the converse, the government allegedly does not even know what the mysterious al-Barnawi looks like now.
Allowing terrorists to roam freely on the streets and issue subtle threats to people in broad daylight will definitely come back to sting this administration. There needs to be a limit to negotiations with terrorists and this government has displayed inferiority in its powers of negotiation that may signal weakness in other important areas in this fight. Allowing the only Christian girl to remain is one glaring mistake. It is as if the government did not know there was a Christian girl amongst the people abducted.
The death of some girls has also been an issue, alongside the confusion about the actual number of girls abducted. The inconsistency in figures and records may be a trademark of the Nigerian government machinery, but when dealing with the lives of school-going girls, the figures need to be right. The government made no mention of a little boy who was also abducted and probably only found out about this, like the rest of us, when the girls were returned.
All the inconsistency and secrecy only adds more suspicion to the commitment of the government to find a lasting solution and not tolerate a new market for schoolgirls that the terrorists clearly want to establish within our borders. It is unspeakable for any serious country to plan to continue paying ransom for the lives of its citizens within its own borders. As with all things Nigerian at the moment, it is hardly surprising. Surely, Leah Sharubi’s life has now become a priority. It is in the interest of the government and the terrorists who hold the trump card to set the poor girl free as quickly as possible.
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