Months of negotiations involving participants across two continents has resulted in a deal in which 82 Chibok schoolgirls – who were seized from their dormitories in April 2014 and held captive for more than three years by the Islamist group Boko Haram – have been released in exchange for five militant leaders.
But joy at their freedom was quickly followed by concern for their privacy and fears that the thousands of other less high-profile prisoners still held captive by the extremists would be forgotten.
The deal was negotiated by Mustapha Zanna, a barrister who is currently the proprietor of an orphanage in Maiduguri, but who was once the lawyer of the late founder of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf. It also involved the Swiss government and the Red Cross.
Picked up in Red Cross vehicles and given the agency’s branded T-shirts to wear, the young women boarded military helicopters and were flown to the capital, Abuja, to meet the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, as anxious families awaited an official list of the names of those released. Information was given out gradually: by mid-afternoon, only 20 names had been published.
Buhari, who has not been seen in public for several weeks because of illness, later flew to London for medical checkups. His departure had been delayed so he could meet the Chibok women, according to his office.
It is unclear what will happen to the 82 young women. 21 others who were released after previous negotiations last year are being kept in Abuja, ostensibly for counselling and have not been allowed to go back and live with their families, who live 500 miles away in Chibok.
Over 100 of the former schoolgirls, who are now around 20 years old, remain in Boko Haram’s hands, along with many others, male and female, including very young children. In recent years, many of these have been forced by the militant group to carry bombs to busy areas and explode them, killing themselves and hundreds of other civilians.
The young women released on Sunday were among 276 mostly Christian schoolgirls whose abduction by Boko Haram caused an international outcry in April 2014.
Amnesty International said that the former prisoners did not “deserve to be put through a publicity stunt … The government should respect their privacy and ensure that the released girls are reunited with their families and not kept in lengthy detention and security screening which can only add to their suffering and plight,” said Amnesty’s Nigeria director, Osai Ojigho.
“Boko Haram members have executed and tortured thousands of civilians and raped and forced into marriage girls and women. They have been indoctrinated and even forced to fight for Boko Haram. The Nigerian authorities must now do more to ensure the safe return of the thousands of women and girls, as well as men and boys abducted by Boko Haram.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the Guardian that it had acted as a neutral intermediary and organised the transportation of the girls and young women to freedom. “We were not involved in the negotiations for their release, as negotiations often imply a political process which is contrary to the apolitical-neutral nature of the ICRC’s work,” said a spokeswoman. “Therefore we cannot make comments on the conditions agreed by the parties for their release [or] whether there are more so-called Chibok girls in the hands of the armed opposition.”
The freed captives were expected to be reunited with their families on Sunday, she added.
Lengthy negotiations took place in Switzerland and Sudan, according to Shehu Sani, a Nigerian senator, though he added that the Boko Haram representatives did not attend those in Bern. Sani told the Guardian that it was he who introduced Zanna, the chief negotiator, to the government and came up with a road map for the talks.
Two of the 82 girls were physically injured, Sani said. One had a wrist injury and the other was on crutches.
Asked whether the five commanders could strengthen Boko Haram, analyst Ryan Cummings thought not. “I doubt it very much. Boko Haram is massively decentralised and is more an umbrella movement than a monolithic movement. Commanders could have a localised impact in areas that they return to but it will have no wider impact,” he said.
Since the Chibok abduction, Boko Haram has splintered into different factions, one of which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
Many captives are forced to “marry” militants and initially Abubakar Shekau, the feared leader of one faction, vowed to sell the Chibok girls “in the market”.
An unnamed Nigerian military official with direct knowledge of the rescue operation told Associated Press (AP) the women were found near Banki, a town close to the border with Cameroon. Boko Haram remains active in the area, despite claims by Buhari that the militant group has been crushed and forced from its last forest hideout.
An international taskforce, including specialists from the British and US military, began a hunt for the students but this faced significant obstacles, including a huge search area, difficult terrain and the fact the girls were likely to have been split up shortly after their capture. A retired diplomat told the Sunday Times last year a large group had been spotted months after the abduction but no action was taken, partly because of the difficulty of military action without putting the captives at risk.
But there were signs of their survival, including several of the captives who escaped shortly after their abduction, a girl who was found pregnant, wandering in the forest and videos released by Boko Haram. In one video, released in August 2016, a girl told the camera some of her fellow captives had been killed in airstrikes and relayed a message demanding the release of Boko Haram prisoners in exchange for their freedom.
Boko Haram released 21 girls and young women in October 2016 in a similar deal. The Red Cross was also involved in the transfer of those released captives. At the time, it was announced 83 more would be released soon. According to a tally by AP 113 of the Chibok girls remain unaccounted for.