By EHICHIOYA EZOMON
There was a lot of hullabaloo in the past week over payment or non-payment of ransom to free the Dapchi schoolgirls, who were abducted by Boko Haram insurgents on February 19, 2018. The furore signposts Nigerians’ penchant for selective amnesia.
Let’s have a recap. The 110 girls of the Government Science and Technical College, Dapchi, Yobe State, and a boy were seized by elements of the terror group. The abduction led to a spontaneous outcry from Nigerians and the international community, as it came barely four years after the April 14, 2014, kidnap of 276 students of the Government Girls’ Secondary School, Chibok, in neighbouring Borno State.
Considering the Goodluck Jonathan administration’s delay in acknowledging, and tackling the Chibok schoolgirls’ seizure, reportedly affording the insurgents ample time to disperse the students within and across our borders, most Nigerians were concerned about the quick and safe return of the Dapchi schoolgirls rather than dwell on the fine point of how they would regain freedom.
Indeed, in the midst of conflicting official positions on the hostage, Nigerians were wary of a repeat of the belated efforts to rescue the Chibok schoolgirls, with over 100 of them remaining in captivity. That’s why persistent pressure was mounted on the Muhammadu Buhari government “to do whatever it takes to secure immediate release of the Dapchi schoolgirls.”
Consequently, the government announced extension of search for the missing girls to neighbouring countries, and sent in military assets, including deployment of more troops and aircraft for reconnaissance.
In the interim, the administration’s “back-channel efforts” at rescuing the girls paid off in about a month, as the insurgents returned 104 of them to Dapchi. What about the other six girls, distrust parents asked after their daughters not seen among the returnees? They were told that five of the schoolmates died during their three-day journey in the wide, and were buried by the militants.
Besides the five “dead” students, there was another dampener that soured the otherwise heartwarming return of the 104 schoolgirls: one of them, Leah Sharibu, was reportedly held back for failing to renounce her Christian faith. Six months yesterday, August 19, and still in the den of the extremists, Leah turned 15 on May 14.
Her captivity has, nonetheless, added fuel to the religious bent given to the atrocities of the terrorists: Their avowal to Islamize Nigeria, which some uninformed Nigerians have mischievously associated with the Buhari administration. What other analogy do they need to reinforce the bizarre notion than the government alleged “deliberate securing of the release” of 104 of the 110 abducted Dapchi schoolgirls “because they are Muslims.”
As the government sweats over the continued detention of Leah Sharibu and the remaining Chibok schoolgirls, it’s facing a new query: Did the administration pay ransom to Boko Haram, to secure the release of the Dapchi schoolgirls?
The challenge is “new” in the sense that “ransom payment” was a fleeting moment aftermath of the release of some Chibok and Dapchi schoolgirls. The “cheery and hearty” news of the return of the girls, as President Buhari said at the reception of the Dapchi schoolgirls in the Presidential Villa, Abuja, far outweighed the fishing for whether any ransom was paid.
Even in those inquisitive days, the government had denied paying any ransom to free the girls. The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the Dapchi schoolgirls’ kidnap “has become a moral burden on the abductors.” Hence, they chose to free them “out of pity,” residents of Dapchi quoted the insurgents that returned the girls as saying.
So, why has the “ransom payment” suddenly turned into a subject of discourse and recrimination in the polity? The frenzy was triggered by a News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) report, which quoted a UN Security Council report indicating that a “large ransom” was paid to free the Dapchi schoolgirls, and that such payments were helping to fund and sustain the terrorists’ operations.
“In Nigeria, 111 (110) schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi were kidnapped on 18 (19) February 2018 and released by ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) on 21 March 2018 in exchange for a large ransom payment,” the Council report said, adding, “The predominance in the region of the cash economy, without controls, is conducive to terrorist groups funded by extortion, charitable donations, smuggling, remittances and kidnapping.”
The media jumped at the UN Security Council report, to poo-pooh government’s prior denial of payment of any ransom to the Boko Haram elements, to free the Dapchi schoolgirls – a rebuttal Mr. Mohammed maintained on Thursday in a statement.
“It is not enough to say that Nigeria paid a ransom, little or huge. There must be a conclusive evidence to support such claim. Without that, the claim remains what it is: a mere conjecture,” he said.
Whichever, I stand with government (#ISWG) on this matter. Payment or no payment, denial or admittance doesn’t help the matter of life and death for the Chibok and Dapchi schoolgirls, whose bondage engendered global outrage, and birthed the Bring Back Our Girls (#BBOG) movement to free them.
The girls, their parents, communities and state governments, and well-meaning Nigerians would care less whether or how much the Federal Government paid to secure their freedom. And it shouldn’t raise any firestorm unless those querying government’s efforts aim at gaining political mileage in this season of elections. That would be impugning on the sensibility of the families of the rescued schoolgirls, and others yet in captivity!
* Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.