Relatives Of Kidnapped Girls: Bring Them Back — But Alive

May 21, 2014
Originally published on May 21, 2014 9:30 am

Nigerians are asking themselves how far their government should go to bring almost 300 abducted schoolgirls back to their families.

The militants of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping last month, have offered to swap the girls for some prisoners held by the government.

That offer was immediately rejected by the Nigerian government, but relatives of the girls say that firepower alone wont save them. They want the government to reconsider.

The hashtag "Bring back our girls" has more than 4 million tweets. At a daily vigil in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, activists and relatives have added two important words to their chant: "and alive."

After the rally, Peter Iliya, a local pharmacist says that two of his nieces were abducted, driven off by militants into the forest. One niece, named Mundi, age 18, managed to escape off the truck.

"The vehicle was moving and it passed under a fairly big tree," Iliya says. "She clung onto the branch and she hung there until the vehicle zoomed off and she jumped down."

She hung in the tree while trucks full of her classmates passed beneath her. Then she jumped down and walked back through the dark forest to her village. But Iliya's other niece was not so bold or so lucky. She disappeared with the others.

The government says it has dispatched 20,000 soldiers to rescue the girls. Iliya has very mixed feelings about that firepower.

"Because I will tell you, categorically, that no military action will bring back these girls," he says. "If you go on a military action, you are losing all the girls, absolutely. These people, they are erratic people. They are drug addicts. They should be handled with the utmost caution. And I think if I am to say, if I were to advise the government, negotiation is the way out."

He wants the government to negotiate. The U.S. offered to send hostage negotiators, but Nigeria refused.

Aliyu Gebi, an elected member of parliament, says it's because of the word "terrorist."

"Government will not negotiate with terrorists," Gebi says. "It is enshrined in the anti-terrorist act, just like your government will not negotiate with terrorists! And if you're branded a terrorist, tough luck for you. Nobody will negotiate well with you!"

Gebi represents Bauchi state, in northeast Nigeria. Like Borno state, home of the abducted girls, Bauchi is also frequently attacked by Boko Haram.

Boko Haram's purported leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said in a Youtube video that he would trade the girls for prisoners held by the government.

Chinedu Nwagu, a Nigerian security analyst who now works in police reform, is skeptical.

"Give us back your people we'll give you your girls — the state could weigh the cost of that. After that, then what next?" Nwagu says. "Negotiation is not a solution. It's not a long-term, permanent fix to the problem."

But Nwagu says in this particular case, the Nigerian army doesn't have the capacity to make a surgical strike and rescue the girls alive. He says the prisoners that Boko Haram wants to trade the girls for are not even clearly militants. They were rounded up in brutal and arbitrary military operations — mass sweeps highly criticized by human rights groups.

Also not clear is whether Nigeria's holding onto those so-called militants is preventing war or fueling it.

"How long can we hold out like this?" Nwagu says. "What are we willing to concede in this situation? And if we don't concede anything, how much damage does that do to our psyche and our well-being as a people.

Government officials have told NPR that some inside government are trying to open a dialogue.

Chinedu says he hasn't heard about any secret talks, and he doesn't want to know if there are. He just wants to hear one day soon that some prisoners have been released, and some girls have been returned to their families, alive.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's report on the latest attack in Nigeria. Two car bombs in the central city of Jos struck a busy market in a bus terminal. The second bomb went off about a half-hour after the first, apparently targeting rescue workers. The bombs killed at least 118 people. No one's claimed responsibility, but this attack follows the playbook of Boko Haram, an Islamist group that is holding hundreds of schoolgirls that were kidnapped lat month.

Boko Haram is the subject of a hearing on Capitol Hill today. The question here, as well as in Nigeria, is how far the government should go to rescue the girls.

NPR's Gregory Warner reports.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: It's the simplicity of the hash tag that's made it so tweetable: Bring Back Our Girls. But at a daily vigil in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, activists and relatives have added two important words.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What are you saying?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Bring back our girls, now and alive.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What are you demanding, women?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: Bring back our girls, now and alive.

WARNER: After the rally, I talk with Peter Iliya, a local pharmacist. Two of his nieces were abducted, driven off by militants into the forest. One niece managed to escape the truck by grabbing a tree branch.

PETER ILIYA: The vehicle was moving and it passed under a fairly big tree, and then she clung onto the branch and then she hung there until the vehicle zoomed off, and then she jumped down.

WARNER: She jumped down and walked back home through the dark forest. But Iliya's other niece was not so bold or so lucky, she disappeared with the others. Now the government says it's dispatched 20,000 soldiers to rescue the girls. All that firepower only makes Iliya worried.

ILIYA: Because I will tell you categorically that no military action will bring back these girls. If you go on a military action you are losing all the girls - absolutely. These people, they are erratic people. They are drug addicts. They should be handled with the utmost caution. And I think if I am to say, if I were to advise the government: Negotiation is the way out.

WARNER: He wants the government to negotiate. In fact, the initial offer by the United States to help Nigeria was to send in hostage negotiators - Nigeria refused.

Aliyu Gebi, an elected Member of Parliament, says it's because of that word: terrorist.

ALIYU GEBI: We will not negotiate with terrorists. It is enshrined in the Anti-Terrorist Act, just like your government will not negotiate with terrorists. And if you're branded a terrorist, tough luck for you, nobody will negotiate well with you.

WARNER: Boko Haram has made an offer. The purported leader Abubakar Shekau posted a YouTube video, saying he would trade the girls for prisoners held by the government.

CHINEDU NWAGU: Give us back our people, we'll give you your girls. After that, then what next?

WARNER: Chinedu Nwagu is a Nigerian security analyst. He now works for a group called the Cleen Foundation, doing police reform.

NWAGU: Negotiation is not a solution. It's not a long-term permanent fix to the problem.

WARNER: But Nwagu says this time the government may have no choice. The Nigerian Army doesn't have the capacity to make a surgical strike and rescue the girls alive. And those prisoners that Boko Haram wants to trade the girls for may not be dangerous militants. They were rounded up in fairly arbitrary mass arrests that were highly criticized by human rights groups. Nwagu says it's not clear if holding onto those prisoners is stalling violence or fueling it.

NWAGU: How long can we hold out like this? What are we willing to concede in this situation? And how - if we don't concede anything, how much damage does that do to our psyche and our sense of well-being as a people.

WARNER: For five years of this insurgency, the Nigerian government has insisted on a solely military solution, though other government officials have now said that, quote, "All options are on the table."

Nwagu says he hopes to wake up one morning soon to hear that some prisoners have been released, and the girls have been returned to their families - alive.

Gregory Warner, NPR News, Abuja.

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