As the Year Ends, Where Are Nigeria’s Kidnapped Girls?
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As the Year Ends, Where Are Nigeria’s Kidnapped Girls?

Comfort Ayuba, who is eighteen years old and has an open, eager face, remembers seeing a group of Boko Haram militants realize, one day this past April, that there was not enough space in their trucks for all the girls they wanted to kidnap from the boarding school that Ayuba attended, in northeastern Nigeria. They forced a Christian girl to lie flat on the ground and pointed a gun at her. Ayuba recalls hearing them ask her about her faith, which the girl insisted she would not give up. The men told her and two other girls to run away and not look back. Ayuba’s friend Rejoice Yaga is fourteen. “The first thing I saw when we reached their camp was a refrigerator under a tree,” Yaga told me. The group’s large supply of weapons and vehicles was kept in open sight.

Ayuba and Yaga managed to escape; they were the lucky ones. They live in a remote village called Jajel, which is situated amid scrubland and rock formations covered in golden weeds just outside the town of Chibok, where their former school was located before Boko Haram burned it down. Ten girls from Jajel were kidnapped in the Chibok school attack; all but one had escaped and returned home when I visited the village over the summer.
Counts vary, but it is widely estimated that forty-odd other girls have also escaped, which would leave more than two hundred girls still missing. As the year draws to a close, one thing has become clear: the girls are not coming back, at least not as a group. Every now and then, a girl might find an opportunity to run away, but Boko Haram has been kidnapping girls and young women for a long time; we know from those who have escaped (sometimes pregnant or with a small child) that they are often handed off to militants as sex slaves or forced to perform tasks for the terrorist group. A mass rescue is no longer a real possibility; it probably never was. It is reasonable to wonder why the Nigerian government and military, despite help from the United States and the added motivation of an upcoming election to determine if the country’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, should get another term, have failed so miserably at retrieving the girls and protecting its own people. This fall, Boko Haram has been on a murderous tear, occupying much of northeastern Nigeria in its quest for a modern-day caliphate. In November alone, almost eight hundred people were killed in close to thirty attacks. The Nigerian military says that it has pushed Boko Haram out of some of its strongholds, but the terrorists still control at least a dozen towns.

Nigerian officials complained last month about receiving insufficient American aid, blaming Washington for not sharing enough intelligence and guns to help with its war against the militants. Nigeria would have “brought down the terrorists within a short time” if it had received more assistance, the country’s Ambassador to the U.S. claimed in November. Then, this month, Nigeria cancelled plans for a U.S.-led training program for a Nigerian military battalion that observers hoped would be better equipped to deal with Boko Haram. But we never heard those officials speak seriously about why the country was not getting the information and weaponry it wanted: namely, the Nigerian military’s horrific record of human-rights abuses and corruption. Its forces have been utterly compromised; soldiers without decent weapons and armor flee battles, or even collaborate with the terrorists. By now, the witness accounts of the military’s actions, the documented killings, and the number of refugees ought to have persuaded the Nigerian government that it needs to overhaul an institution that is badly losing its war with Boko Haram.

The country’s northeast is a humanitarian disaster. A million six hundred thousand people are homeless, waiting on handouts and unable to farm their land. A famine is possible. Refugee camps are overcrowded and woefully bare of services. The region has collapsed in on itself. President Jonathan, who has presided over the conflict with a mixture of indifference and annoyance, is trying to convince Nigerians that he deserves another chance to bring prosperity to Nigeria, which will have to mean ending Boko Haram’s reign. But his administration’s incompetency in the war may be the biggest selling point for his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, who, despite having already ruled Nigeria as a military dictator in the nineteen-eighties, has somehow ended up as the man some Nigerians see as one of their country’s last hopes.

A happy ending for the Chibok girls never materialized. Nigeria, and the United States, too, seems to have lost its wherewithal at a crucial, frightening point of this war. It’s difficult not to wish that the Nigerian government simply had the moral compass to stop Boko Haram.

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