Dapchi Schoolgirls: Not Yet Celebration Time 

After one month of a heartrending experience in Boko Haram captivity, which seemed like an eternity to their parents, most of the latest victims of the terror group’s pastime of mass abduction of schoolgirls are back in the warm embrace of their loved ones. In a dramatic turn of events, no fewer than 105 of the 110 schoolgirls stolen from the premises of the Government Girls Science and Technical College, Dapchi, in Yobe State, on February 19, have now regained their freedom.

But while this might have come as a huge relief to a thoroughly embarrassed government and its security agencies, it cannot in any way mitigate the serious security breach that resulted in the mass abduction of over 100 innocent schoolgirls, in the first place, by some deranged bandits, especially after a similar incident in Chibok in neighbouring Borno State almost four years ago. In an event of uncanny similarity, some 276 schoolgirls of the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok preparing for their final examination were carted away in trucks on the night of April 14, 2014. Unfortunately, close to four years after, over 100 of them are yet to return home.

After the Chibok disaster, however, it is still baffling how the Dapchi debacle was allowed to happen. Every account of how the girls were taken away unchallenged reinforces the belief by a good number of people that it was an incident that should not have happened at all. In a place where Boko Haram still wields enormous influence — despite the claim of its having been “technically defeated” — it is difficult to explain why an all-girls school, with more than 900 students, was allowed to operate without an adequate security presence.

According to the account of acclaimed rights group, Amnesty International, which has, however, been vehemently disputed by the Nigerian Army, at least five calls were made to the military and the police, alerting them to the impending arrival of the notorious terror group’s members, but no action was taken to stop them. Although the military describes AI’s claims as “outright falsehood and a calculated attempt to whip up sentiments,” the rights group insists both the military and the police had up to four hours to mobilise and repel the invading insurgents.

Whether the AI account is true or not, many things happening within the North-East region, the epicentre of the counter-insurgency operations, suggest a high level of loose security. Apparently driven by the false belief that Boko Haram has been largely subjugated because it no longer occupies territory, a lot has been left undone in the area of holding down captured areas. This has allowed Boko Haram the freedom to roam the whole space unchallenged. The released girls’ account of how they were transported long distances and even stopped at some places to prepare food did not depict a group that was under much pressure.

Besides, the cavalier manner in which the girls were reportedly dropped off by Boko Haram at different spots in Dapchi, although the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, said it was agreed for them to have free passage, was hardly different from how they came in on the night of the February 19 abduction. The child abductors were said to have cruised into town in a motorcade and dropped off the girls and even had time enough to warn the parents against allowing the girls to return to school.

While it is true that the counter-insurgency efforts have achieved a measure of success over the years, it is obvious that much more would have been achieved if clear and well-defined targets were set and people were held responsible for failure to meet such targets. If, for instance, people had been held responsible for the Chibok girls’ abduction, perhaps the Dapchi incident would have been avoided.

The government should not fail to overhaul its security; it is a strategic imperative in warfare for generals to be changed or reassigned if the expected results are not achieved. Recently, Saudi Arabia had cause to rejig its security following the failure to achieve the desired result in its current military campaign in Yemen. Besides, the war against Boko Haram is not expected to be fought for ever; it has been going on for nine years and efforts should be made to end it swiftly.

While the government should be commended for trying to acquire sophisticated weapons to fight Boko Haram, it should not be forgotten that, more than anything else, effective intelligence holds the key to winning the war. The Nigerian authorities should not fail to invest in intelligence, both human and electronic, that could help to sway victory their way.

Sadly, the return of the Dapchi girls has not been like the classic tale of an adventure that had a purely happy ending, as five of the girls did not survive the trauma of the Boko Haram captivity. Their mates, whose jubilation for regaining freedom was slightly tempered by the thought of their dead colleagues, said the five died of suffocation in the congested condition in which they made their forced and unprepared trip. There is also the sad story of Leah Sharibu, who is yet to be released on account of her religion. She is being held back because she rebuffed attempts to force her conversion from Christianity to Islam. Never again should the authorities allow the mass kidnap of girls. Boarding schools should be shut and effective security personnel placed in all schools.

But there cannot be any celebration by the government in this matter until all the girls captured by Boko Haram are liberated. They include the remaining Chibok girls, Leah and all the other women whose kidnap has not been making the headlines. The Minister has said that no ransom was paid and no prisoner swap took place in the Dapchi girls release deal. While it is difficult to contradict him, it is only reasonable to urge the government to use whatever means that led to the successful release of these girls to free those still in captivity.

(The Punch Editorial)

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