LONDON – They lie about 150 miles apart in the vast brushlands of northern Nigeria, but the towns of Chibok and Dapchi have a tragic bond: both have been targets of large-scale kidnappings of schoolgirls by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. Following a three-year global campaign to free the 276 girls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 – an event that brought Boko Haram’s sadistic agenda to the world’s attention – 110 girls in Dapchi vanished last month under identical circumstances.
In both cases, members of Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language translates roughly to “Western education is a sin,” sprayed a school with bullets as they invaded the grounds to steal food and other supplies. The group’s quest to establish a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria has already left at least 20,000 dead and made more than 2.6 million homeless since 2009.
Another commonality between the two attacks is that the fate of the schoolgirls was a source of confusion for days. In Chibok, it was eventually learned that the 276 girls had been herded into trucks and taken away. A grainy black-and-white photo of the group after their abduction, taken by one of the terrorists, incited global outrage, sparking the movement Bring Back Our Girls.
In Dapchi, it was initially reported that 50 girls were unaccounted for after terrorists stormed the Government Science and Technical College. A follow-up statement by the Yobe state government announced that the Nigerian army had rescued the girls. But cheers turned into tears when a retraction was released, declaring that the girls not been found. Worse, according to an aide to the state governor, the “government has no credible information yet as to whether any of the schoolgirls were taken hostage by the terrorists.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has called the incident a “national disaster,” and promised the deployment of troops and surveillance aircraft to search for the missing girls, as well as a full review of the circumstances of the raid. The children’s parents – such as the father of Fatima Manzo, who is just 16 years old – have formed their own association to track them.
Four years ago, I was part of the campaign to free the Chibok girls. In a petition that secured one million signatures almost immediately, we called on Western governments to support surveillance and reconnaissance missions, in order to locate and rescue the victims, who were being hidden in Nigeria and neighboring countries.
At that time, the Global Business Coalition for Education published a report on safe schools in Nigeria. The coalition also created a partnership among Nigerian business leaders, the Nigerian government, and international donors, in cooperation with UNICEF, to establish programs aimed at making schools safe for Nigerian children. As part of the coalition’s Safe Schools Initiative, community groups were formed; infrastructure reforms were implemented; and girls were provided with safe school options. Last May, 82 Chibok girls were released, in exchange for five Boko Haram commanders.
After years of being too afraid even to cross a school playground, girls had started to return to the classroom. The doctrine of safe schools – a rare new idea in a region beleaguered by the confrontation with Boko Haram – seemed to be gradually taking hold. Fences and other physical security were built to keep raiders out, and mobile telecommunications were used as early warning systems.
But the reality was that more than 100 Chibok girls remained in captivity, their whereabouts unknown. Moreover, six million of Nigeria’s school-age girls still don’t go to school. The abduction of yet another 110 schoolgirls is likely only to make matters worse, not just for them and their families, but for all whose fears about the safety of schools have now been reawakened.
As for the new abductees, we know their likely fate if they are not rescued quickly. Chibok girls who escaped or were released have said in interviews that abductees were whipped to persuade them to marry. Some were taken as concubines by group members. Many who were married off may never escape captivity.
The international community must do everything possible to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to save the Dapchi girls, including by providing aerial surveillance to help locate them and their captors. It has said that it will redouble its efforts to prevent the recurrence of such abductions. That must mean more international support to defeat Boko Haram and its destructive ideology, and a revamped Safe Schools Initiative, with an eye to ensuring that it is sustainable in the long term. Schoolchildren deserve nothing less.
Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom, is United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and Chair of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. He chairs the Advisory Board of the Catalyst Foundation.
By Gordon Brown