Analysis

Another suspected Boko Haram kidnapping in Nigeria: The cycle continues

Government leaders in Nigeria claim to have defeated Boko Haram, but the group continues to conduct raids, launch suicide attacks, and kidnap schoolgirls, with more than 100 disappearing this week. With an election in the offing, security analysts fear the trend will continue.

Government leaders long ago declared Boko Haram's defeat, but more than 100 schoolgirls disappeared this week

Unidentified girls who say they fled during the attack by Boko Haram on their school are pictured in Dapchi in the northeastern state of Yobe, Nigeria on Feb. 23, 2018. More than 100 girls disappeared. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

"It's like we have been thrown back to the abysmal darkness of April 2014 all over again," says Aisha Yesufu, one of the founders of the #bringbackourgirls movement in Nigeria.

"Unbelievably the Nigerian government did not learn anything from the Chibok girls' abduction," she tells the CBC from the Nigerian capital Abuja.

"The April 2014 scenario is being played out again." 

It is a sentiment shared by many watching and waiting for information on a group of girls missing since Monday from their school in the remote town of Dapchi in the northeastern state of Yobe. They did not return after suspected Boko Haram militants raided their school. 

There has been misinformation and a muddle of conflicting figures from various authorities with estimates on the number of missing girls ranging between 46 and 111; parents say they have a list of 105 names. There was false hope when the local government issued a statement saying a group had been rescued by the military — but that was later retracted and denied.

It's not the first time there has been confusion on such basic facts, the same happened in 2014 when the Chibok school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, there were denials, claims and counter claims before details started to emerge. It is often difficult to establish exact and accurate numbers on a Boko Haram attack. The locations are often remote, difficult or dangerous to access, communications poor and various military or government agencies offer differing accounts. 

'A national disaster'

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Friday described the situation as "a national disaster," promising in a statement to "find and safely return all the missing girls."

Nigeria is due to hold general and presidential elections in February 2019. It's not yet known if Buhari will stand again for re-election. But given that he came to power in 2015 promising to end the Boko Haram crisis once and for all, this latest attack will not play well for him into any political agenda. 

Slippers are pictured at the school compound in Dapchi where the girls disappeared. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari described the situation as 'a national disaster.' (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

And, as in 2014 when 200 Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped, many are in disbelief.

"Families are distraught and heartbroken," said activist R. Evon Benson-Idahosa. 

Speaking from Abuja, the founder and human rights lawyer at Pathfinders Justice Initiative, a non-governmental organization campaigning against the exploitation of women and girls, said many feel personally devastated. 

"Those that were supposed to protect their children have failed them and are now in the process of utilizing them as political pawns."

Boko Haram persists

Nigerian politics plays deep into the Boko Haram story. The Islamist militant group has waged a bloody and violent insurgency in Nigeria since 2009, saying it is fighting for its own caliphate in the northeast.  

Its leader, Abubakar Shekau — a man the Nigerian military has declared dead several times, but who continues to appear in Boko Haram's propaganda videos — pledged their allegiance to the so-called Islamic state group in 2015. 

Despite the Nigerian government claiming to have defeated Boko Haram, the kidnappings continue. The movement has its own hashtag, #bringbackourgirls. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

At least 20,000 people have died during the conflict. It has also left two million people homeless.

Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF's regional director for West and Central Africa, has expressed concern about what she described as "brutal acts of violence."

In a statement, she said "attacks on schools are a violation of children's rights and international humanitarian law and that "schools should be safe spaces and protected at all times."

But just like Chibok, it would seem that the students of Dapchi were vulnerable to attack and had little, if any, real protection. 

Since 2009, more than 2,295 teachers have been killed and almost 1,400 schools destroyed as a result of the conflict, according to UNICEF.

'Still thriving and not desperate'

"Boko Haram is still thriving and not desperate," said Yan St. Pierre, CEO and counter terrorism advisor of the Berlin-based security firm MOSECON.

"It is in a position to kidnap people on a near-daily basis if we include the attacks in Cameroon's extreme north and those in Niger's Diffa region" he said. 

Boko Haram has been blamed for attacks on the porous borders of neighbouring Niger and Cameroon.

St. Pierre does not believe this latest school attack in Dapchi was just luck. "Boko Haram still has enough resources and personnel to carry significant attacks at will."

Government forces claimed to have killed the leader of one of the Boko Haram group's factions, Abubakar Shekau. But he still regularly appears in the group's propaganda videos. (Reuters)

During the past nine years, the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping may well have become Boko Haram's most high-profile attack, but the group has, analysts believe, abducted thousands more, although there are no official figures. 

In November 2014, Boko Haram seized at least 300 elementary school children in the town of Damasak. 

Human Rights Watch described it as "the largest documented school attack by Boko Haram militants." As the military moved in some months later to retake the town, Boko Haram took the children and they have not been seen since. 

Kidnapping has become a tactic that Boko Haram has successfully deployed.

"The goal is to integrate them into the 'workforce,' either as fighters (male) or wives and caretakers (women)," St. Pierre said by email. "Both genders are also used as suicide bombers for the organization."

Buhari came to power on a promise to defeat Boko Haram once and for all, but that has yet to happen.

Raids, kidnappings and suicide attacks

In December 2015, President Buhari — a former military ruler — declared that Boko Haram was "technically defeated."

Earlier this year,  senior military commanders in the northeast said Boko Haram was "completely defeated."

Interior minister Abdulrahman Dambazzau this month said they were "completely decimated"."

Yet, on the ground, the raids, kidnappings, and suicide attacks — which often use young girls — have persisted.

In 2017, Buhari met with Chibok schoolgirls who had been freed by Boko Haram in exchange for five commanders being released from prison. (Bayo Omoboriowo/Nigeria State House/ Associated Press)

In Dapchi, with retractions, contradictions and confusion, the frustration has already boiled over into anger. Youths threw missiles at the visiting Yobe state governor's convoy, smashing windscreens and setting tires alight. 

This latest Boko Haram attack raises questions about the government's grip on security in the northeast, similar to those following the Chibok girls kidnappings in 2014.

More than 100 girls originally kidnapped in the famous incident in 2014 are still not home. (Reuters)

More than 100 of the girls kidnapped four years ago are still missing.

"Boko Haram is still a threat," St Pierre said. "They can still attack at will and are now easily attacking areas that the Nigerian government declared 'secured.'"

"This is a war," he said, "that will continue for a very long time."