Nigeria Claimed Victory Over Boko Haram. How Did More Girls Get Kidnapped?

A classroom at the Government Girls Technical College in Dapchi, northern Nigeria, deserted by fleeing students after Boko Haram Islamists kidnapped 110 school girls. (AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Right after the Nigerian government claimed it was winning the war against Boko Haram and that the sect had been all but “technically defeated,” heavily armed members of the group beared down on a state-run school in the town of Dapchi, near the Nigerian border in northeastern Yobe state.

Unlike the mass kidnapping at the Government Secondary School (GSS) in Chibok in April 2014, the militant kidnappers did not happen to stumble upon their captives during a routine supply run. As per the testimonies of local residents, some militants were heard saying “Ina Makarantan da ake kwana,” roughly translated to, “Where is the school students’ sleep over?” When it was located, the militants rounded up 110 female students and left Dapchi as quickly as they came.

As was the case with the Chibok kidnapping, the mass abduction in Dapchi on February 19 provides important insights on the trajectory of Boko Haram’s near decade-long insurgency against the Nigerian state and, more recently, its Lake Chad neighbors. For one, it comes in the wake of a spate of armed attacks by the group which has dispelled claims by the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari that the sect had been defeated. Although the Nigerian government has been successful in liberating militant-held territory, it has failed in stemming militant incursions in rural northeastern Nigeria which has targeted both state and civilian interests with regularity. In many instances, and as was highlighted in Dapchi, vulnerable population settlements have been left poorly protected—if at all—despite an acknowledged militant presence in the area.

The attack in Dapchi may even raise doubts about whether the Nigerian military has indeed liberated all territory held by Islamists, as it has routinely claimed. Like with the Chibok kidnapping, it’s easy to infer that the Dapchi mass abduction means Boko Haram commands camps capable of hosting such a large number of captives which, due to the anticipated high profile of the abductees, would likely be isolated from security forces. The perception that Boko Haram may still hold territory in northeastern Nigeria where it could imprison its captives was also provided credence by a representative of Borno North’s senatorial zone, Abubakar Kyari. During a special meeting between the local representative and the Nigerian Minister of Defence Mansur Dan-Ali, Kyari noted that Boko Haram continues to exert near total control over the Marte local government area and at least two other administrative divisions in northern Borno state. Rumors of Boko Haram exerting a governance presence in certain settlements have also surfaced in the neighboring states of Adamawa and Yobe. Conspicuously, in its latest video release on February 26, Boko Haram released footage showing the group’s execution of accused “drug dealers.” The video signals a resurrection of the sect’s technique of using communiqués to reinforce its capacity to govern.

Of course, there is the potential that Boko Haram may not be holding the girls in Nigeria and—as widely speculated at the time—may have moved the hostages to neighboring Niger. However, the capacity for Boko Haram to smuggle scores of hostages across a shared border would be an indictment against the Multinational Joint Task Force who have pledged greater cooperation and collaboration in the fight against the Islamist extremist movement.

In addition to underlining the paucity of its military strategy, the Dapchi mass kidnapping also highlights how the softer aspects of Nigeria’s counterinsurgency response may be placing communities at risk of ongoing victimization. The kidnapping of the 110 schoolgirls comes mere 10 months after the Nigerian government was able to broker the release of 82 members of the so-called Chibok girls who had endured more than three years in captivity. The release of a group of Chibok hostages was the second of its kind to occur within a six-month period and followed the October 2016 release of an initial group of 21 hostages. Although heralded both within and outside of Nigeria’s borders, the liberation of the hostages came at a significant cost to the Nigerian government.

According to an investigation conducted by the Wall Street Journal, Boko Haram received an estimated ransom of €3 million in exchange for the girls, while a further five of the sect’s detained commanders were also released to the group as part of the deal. An injection of cash and the return of the sect’s skilled commanders came at a time when Boko Haram was suffering significant losses on the battlefield, mass defections and a leadership schism in the movement which pitted its opposing factions against each other.

In terms of Boko Haram factionalism, it remains unclear whether or not the faction loyal to Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has mended ties with an opposing group who has pledged fidelity to Islamic State-appointed leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who is also the son of slain Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf. Given ongoing acts of mass violence against civilian interests such as mosques—which was specifically cited by al-Barnawi as the reason for the Islamic State’s denouncement of Shekau’s leadership—it would appear unlikely that rapprochement would have been sought between the ideologically opposed factions. It is in this context that the Dapchi kidnapping can also be understood.

As the Chibok kidnapping occurred prior to the split in Boko Haram, it is widely understood that the hostages were held by Shekau and his loyalists, given their value. Consequently, the financial and operational concessions derived from their release were likely paid directly to and enjoyed by Shekau and his faction, who are principally thought to operate in southern Borno state into neighboring Adamawa. This may have prompted the al-Barnawi faction—which operates in northern Borno and within the wider state of Yobe—to also adopt mass kidnapping as a concession-generating tactic. Nonetheless, irrespective of which faction was responsible for the abduction, the fact that the Nigerian government has exercised a willingness to offer concessions in exchange for civilian hostages is likely why the Dapchi kidnapping was orchestrated.

Altogether, the Dapchi kidnapping underlines the same deficiencies in Nigeria’s counterterrorism approach, much of which was markedly apparent amid the Chibok kidnapping. The failure of the Nigerian state to not learn from the incident which came to symbolize the government’s mismanagement of the conflict raises questions regarding the trajectory of the insurgency and whether it possesses the capacity to bring a definitive end to the Boko Haram insurgency. For now, any claims suggesting it does will ring hollow to communities who find themselves vulnerable to acts of insurgent violence similar to those that marked the height of Boko Haram’s brutal armed campaign nearly four years ago.