Nigeria's missing girls: Government hints at prisoner swap deal
Government suggests it could consider demand for release of jailed Boko Haram militants, after video emerges of kidnapped schoolgirls
Published 13/05/2014 | 07:43
Nigeria has hinted it would consider bowing to demands from Boko Haram terrorists to release jailed militants in exchange for the schoolgirls kidnapped by the group last month.
The possibility of a prisoner swap emerged after Boko Haram released a video showing around 130 of the more than 200 girls in captivity, gathered by a tree in a patch of bushland.
The video was the first public evidence that the group has custody of the girls, and was accompanied by a message from Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, saying: “We will never release them until after you release our brethren”.
Initially, the Nigerian government appeared to dismiss any suggestion of a deal, with the interior minister, Abba Moro, saying that it would “of course” refuse to negotiate.
But in a subsequent news conference, a ministry of information official, Mike Omeri, said: “The government of Nigeria is considering all options towards freeing the girls and reuniting them with their parents.”
The mixed signals from the Nigerian authorities appeared to reflect mounting doubts as to the government’s ability to pull off any kind of rescue of the girls.
Western officials helping in the hunt have told The Telegraph that little real progress has been made on the search yet, because it covers such a vast area.
Likewise, even if the girls were located, the Nigerian security forces are unlikely to be able to mount a rescue without the hostages being killed by the group, who are known for their ruthlessness. A raid by British or American special forces might well have a similar outcome, and in any event, both countries are keen not to have their troops involved.
The latest video, thought to have probably been shot in the forests of north-east Nigeria, the shows about 130 girls in black and grey full-length hijabs sitting amid semi-arid scrubland, reciting verses from the Quran and holding their hands aloft in prayer.
In one segment, Shekau claims that the girls, who are mainly Christians, have converted to Islam. In another, a girl in her early teens looks fearful as an unseen interviewer asks her to explain her conversion.
“The reason why I became a Muslim is because the path we are on is not the right path,” she says. “We should enter the right path so that Allah will be happy with us.”
The video was condemned by parents of the kidnapped girls, with one father telling The Telegraph that he would rather his daughter lost her life than see her used in a prisoner exchange or forcibly converted to Islam.
“I am not really interested in what Boko Haram’s demands are,” said the father, whose identity the Telegraph is withholding in order to avoid compromising his daughter’s safety. “My daughter is a Christian, she will never change. I would rather she died as a princess than convert to Islam.
“I don’t want a prisoner exchange either - our daughters are not prisoners, and they should not be exchanged for anyone. Let the government try to rescue them. If they have a prisoner exchange, that will look like the government is giving into Boko Haram, and it will just encourage them to take more hostages. They will never stop.”
The girls, thought to number up around 220 in all, were abducted from a boarding school in the remote town of Chibok in north-east Nigeria on April 14.
On Monday night, parents in the area were trying to turn on a generator, hoping they can watch the video and identify their daughters. As they did so, the father who had earlier said he had no wish for a prisoner swap appeared to have second thoughts. “I have changed my mind,” he said. “Anything to get my daughter back.”
Shehu Sani urged the government to press ahead with a prisoner exchange
Bu Shehu Sani, a Nigerian civil rights activist who carried out face-to-face peace talks with Boko Haram two years ago, urged the government to press ahead with a prisoner exchange “while the window is open”.
“These insurgents fall into three categories. We have the high-ranking ones, their foot soldiers, and then thirdly their families, some of whom have been put in jail by the security forces as a way of exerting emotional pressure,” he said. “The government should release the last category in exchange for these girls.
He said that no prisoner exchanges had ever been done in the past, but pointed out that Boko Haram had freed many of their comrades during attacks on the Nigerian government’s poorly-guarded jails. In March, a number were sprung from Giwa Barracks, a military prison in the north-east city of Maiduguri, after an attack by hundreds of Boko Haram fighters.
US intelligence experts said they were studying the video closely for any clues as to where it had been shot. Botanists, meteorologists and geographers are likely to scrutinise the trees, soil and plants in the clearing where the girls were filmed to establish an idea of possible spots where it could - and could not - have been filmed.
Any prisoner swap would be embarrassing for the British and American authorities assisting the Nigerian government, as they officially oppose any kind of concessions to kidnappers.
Elizabeth Donnelly, of the Africa Programme at the London-based think-tank Chatham House, said that such an exchange was "worth exploring".
"They need to take any opportunity they may have because this is about the lives of more than 200 children," she said.