THE release of 21 of the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram has been greeted with “delight, relief and optimism” by the Church of Nigeria.
The 21 are a small proportion of the 276 girls originally kidnapped two years ago by the Islamist militant group, although some managed to escape in the hours and days after captivity (News, 2 May 2014). Many of the girls were Christian, and were forced to convert to Islam in captivity and married to Boko Haram fighters. Some girls are believed to have died in captivity.
Nigerian authorities have denied that a ransom was paid, or a prisoner swap was arranged, to bring about the girls’ release, although there are reports of both in local media. The release was effected after discussions with Boko Haram, mediated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government.
The general secretary of the Church of Nigeria, the Ven. Dr Stephen Ayodeji Fagbemi, said in a statement that the Primate of Nigeria, the Most Revd Nicholas Okoh, and “the entire Church received with delight, relief, and optimism the news of the release of 21 of the Chibok girls that we had long been praying for in the last two years.
“This was particularly heartening at a time when hope was almost fading about whether these girls would return again. And while the release of these 21 girls is heart-warming, one hopes that it is an indication that the rest will be released in due course, at which time the joy of the entire nation can be full.”
Talks are still underway for the release of the remaining girls, but reports in Nigerian media suggest that many no longer want to be released, having been either radicalised or being too ashamed to return home.
The chairman of the Chibok Development Association, Pogo Bitrus, told the Associated Press news agency that the released girls would have to be sent abroad, because of the stigma that would be attached to them.
All those who escaped on their own have left Chibok because, even though some were held for only a few hours, they were labelled “Boko Haram wives” and taunted, he said. At least 20 of the girls are being educated in the United States.
“We would prefer that they are taken away from the community and this country because the stigmatisation is going to affect them for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Even someone believed to have been abused by Boko Haram would be seen in a bad light.”