82 Chibok girls are free of kidnappers but still not home

After three years of captivity by Boko Haram, 82 Nigerian girls have been freed. But the Nigerian government is still not allowing them to go home.

One girl's refusal to leave reveals Boko Haram's control as Nigerian government counsels freed girls

Chibok girls recently freed from Boko Haram captivity gather Monday in Abuja, Nigeria. One who was kidnapped in 2014 chose to stay with her husband, a government spokesman said. (Sunday Alamba/Associated Press)

It took three years, three weeks and one day for 82 Chibok schoolgirls to regain their freedom after a kidnapping at the hands of Boko Haram that stunned the world.

But it should have been 83 girls.

According to Garba Shehu, the Nigerian president's spokesman, one girl refused to leave.

"One said, 'No, I have a husband, I'm happy where I am,'" Shehu told local television after the release on Saturday.

It's among the first real indications of the level of control Boko Haram has exerted on these girls and young women.

​"It is not at all surprising," Mausi Segun, a senior Nigerian researcher with Human Rights Watch, told CBC News.

"People in long-term captivity, as these girls, will develop some sympathy for their captors — Stockholm Syndrome."

Segun says the trauma the mainly Christian girls have witnessed, "including constantly dealing with deaths, deliberate killings and other crimes," along with their exposure to Boko Haram's Islamic ideology, "could leave them confused about issues of faith."

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, left, meets recently released captives in Abuja on Sunday. The government carefully stage-managed their release. (Nigeria State House via Associated Press)

On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls, mostly aged between 16 and 18. Since then, 57 have escaped, three were found over the course of the last year, 21 released last October and 82 released on Saturday. That leaves 113 missing. 

For the latest group to be released, a transition back to normalcy will not be easy.

Many questions are being raised in Nigeria about the way in which the government is handling the released hostages. 

Those released in October have not been able to return to their homes and families. Instead, they have been kept in government-run facilities in the capital Abuja, where they have taken lessons and have received counselling.

The newly released 82 have also yet to be reunited with their families. The government says it is still verifying their identities.

Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International's Nigeria director, has called for the government to "respect their privacy and ensure they are reunited with their families … and not be kept in lengthy detention and security screening."

With some released hostages being held for months on end, such processes can "only add to their suffering and plight."

Freed captives sit in a hall as they are welcomed by officials in Abuja on Sunday. A Nigerian researcher says they suffered trauma, 'including constantly dealing with deaths, deliberate killings and other crimes.' (Reuters)

The Chibok schoolgirls spawned a global Twitter hashtag #bringbackourgirls, which shed light on the horrors of the Nigerian conflict, which began in 2009 and has killed at least 20,000.

Thousands of women and young girls like these have suffered a similar fate, forced to become Boko Haram wives, raped, trained to fight or become suicide bombers.

They are probably different people, due to their experiences.— Elizabeth Pearson, specialist on Boko Haram

"They are probably different people, due to their experiences, than the young women preparing for their exams in 2014," says Elizabeth Pearson, a Boko Haram specialist who studies woman and conflict.

The world might never know the story of why at least one schoolgirl converted to being an apparently "happy" Boko Haram wife.

The release of the 82 was carefully stage-managed. The actual handover happened in a forest near the Cameroon border — the girls in exchange for an undisclosed number of Chadian prisoners, believed to be senior Boko Haram commanders.

Was money involved? What else was in the deal?

Yan St. Pierre, a counterterrorism specialist and head of Modern Security Consulting Group based in Berlin, says we might never know.

"Boko Haram will always try to get the best deal. And the reality is that most of what went down and was agreed upon will never be made public."

But he says the deal was done because "both sides felt they were maximizing the opportunity."

Campaigners observe a minute of silence for the remaining hostages during a daily meeting in Abuja on Tuesday. On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls, mostly between 16 and 18, and 113 are still missing. (Associated Press)

The first pictures of the girls came from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was not involved in negotiations but facilitated the release. 

The girls, dressed in ICRC bibs, were walking toward a military plane. This was probably their first flight anywhere, and it took them directly to meet Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari speaks in Abuja in 2016. Buhari, 74, is in ill health and being treated in London. It's not clear when he'll return. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Images emerged of them having blood pressure checks and then it was all smiles, as they were greeted by the president.

An unrealistic transition maybe, but one the Nigerian authorities were ready to present to the world.

"The government's practice of parading the young women in front of the cameras doesn't appear to put their psychological needs first," says Pearson.

The government has promised that all will be done to provide the girls with an education and the counselling they need. 

"Without a doubt," says Segun, "Nigerian authorities need support in scaling up and improving the quality services."

The group released last October has also been kept in Abuja, in a government-run centre where they are attending lessons and having counselling.

Some parents have been angered, particularly at Christmas when the girls were taken to Chibok to meet family, but only allowed to do so in a local politician's house, before being returned to Abuja.

The 82 captives wait to be released in exchange for several militant commanders, near Kumshe, Nigeria, on Saturday. (Zanah Mustapha/Reuters)

There remain, of course, continued security risks for the girls.

Buhari was elected president in 2015 on a promise to end the Boko Haram insurgency. The release or discovery of 106 girls is a major political triumph for his government.

But Buhari, 74, is in ill health and being treated in London.

Within seconds of the release of the photo of his meeting the girls, the government issued a statement saying the president was flying to London.

In January he went on 10 days' leave for routine medical checks, but his stay turned into nearly two months.

Now it's not clear when he'll return, raising questions about whether he's well enough to lead.

But experts say talks for the release of the remaining Chibok girls will carry on regardless.


Anna Cunningham is a senior freelance multimedia journalist. She has reported for the CBC since 2009, based in Mumbai, Paris and Lagos, Nigeria. She is now London-based. Anna was previously staff at the BBC for 10 years. @journo_anna