Kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls remain captives, despite international help

The kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian school girls in April has produced a flurry of condemnation and a pledge from the world community to provide assistance for their safe return, but the girls remain prisoners.

Boko Haram seeks to trade some girls for the release of its fighters

Some of the Nigerian school girls managed to escape, but of the 395 students who were at the school during the siege, 219 remain unaccounted for. (Jossy Ola/Associated Press)

The kidnapping of hundreds of Nigerian school girls in April  has produced a flurry of condemnation and a pledge from the world community to provide assistance for their safe return, but the girls remain prisoners. 

On May 21, U.S. President Barack Obama informed the House Speaker that the U.S. would be sending around 80 armed forces members to Chad to help search for the girls, who had been captured just over a month earlier. The military personnel would help with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area. Other countries, including Canada, Britain, France and China said they too would also provide assistance.

But so far, nothing. Of the 395 students who were at the secondary school in the village of Chibok, near the Cameroon border, on April 14 during the siege, 219 remain unaccounted for. Meanwhile, witnesses say, Islamic extremists have abducted 60 more girls and women and 31 boys from villages in northeast Nigeria.

"The inability of the Nigerian government to locate the girls "continues despite outside assistance," wrote John Campbell, a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council for Foreign Relations, in his recent blog. "If the story of the latest round of kidnapping has legs, it is likely to re-energize domestic and international concern about the [Goodluck] Jonathan administration’s response to the Boko Haram challenge."

Darren Kew, a professor of conflict resolution at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and executive director of the schools' Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development, said the girls are essentially part of a negotiation between the government and Boko Haram, the jihadist Islamist organization behind the kidnappings.

Boko Haram wants to trade girls for prisoners

"Boko Haram wants to trade at least a chunk of them in exchange for the release of some Boko Haram fighters who are in jail," he said.

There has been cause for some optimism over the girls' fate. Weeks ago, it appeared that Boko Haram and the Nigerian government had reached a deal where at least 150 of the girls would be released for some prisoners, Kew said. But at the last minute, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan seemed to have squelched the deal, possibly loath to create an incentive for the extremist group to kidnap others in exchange for prisoners.

"Jonathan has continued to look weak throughout this crisis, and I think they're probably very worried that a negotiated deal might make him look that way as well," Kew said.

The Nigerian military has said on several occasions that it knows the whereabouts of the girls, but fears if it moves in, the girls will be killed.

"They may have in fact gotten close at one point, but I don’t think they’re any closer to liberating them at this point and time," Kew said.

Local officials are optimistic that a deal will be struck soon, Kew noted, but added that doesn't seem to be based on hard evidence, but rather on hopeful speculation.

World support helping 'at the margins'

"The force will remain in Chad until its support in resolving the kidnapping situation is no longer required," said Vanessa Hillman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Defence Department.

"We're still working closely with the government of Nigeria to provide the informational aid to the search for the kidnapped girls."

The aid provided by some countries has helped "at the margins," Kew said, but much of it, like training assistance, will have a longer-term effect, while intelligence support could have more immediate results.

But so far, there has been no sign the Nigerian military has undertaken any major offensive action in the area.

"Some is fear that when the military comes in with a big push, it’s a very blunt instrument," Kew said. "I'm sure they’re worried about the collateral damage that comes from a push like that, especially with so much global scrutiny right now."

While the government and military have been heavily criticized for their response to the kidnapping, legitimate challenges to finding the girls do seem to persist.

"A lot of the efforts are being hampered with just the terrain they're dealing with," Hillman said. "You're dealing with a two-tier forest, two levels of forest to try and look through. [The surveillance drones] have difficulty with that," Hillman said.

As well, the girls may have been separated, with one large group taken over the border while others may have been broken into smaller clusters of two and three, some used as human shields, interspersed among pockets of Nigeria.

"Technically [Boko Haram] are very adept at blending back into their population, and I expect they’ve done the same with the girls," Kew said.

With files from The Associated Press