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Release of Chibok Girls from Boko Haram Terrorist Group Celebrated as Victory for Negotiation in Nigeria

The other abducted Chibok girls are still alive and were not harmed during bombing raids

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FILE - One of the freed Chibok girls celebrates with family members during a church service in Abuja, Nigeria, Oct. 16, 2016. VOA

October 29, 2016: Comfort Amos is one of the 21 girls released from the grips of militant group Boko Haram last week in Nigeria, after being held hostage for nearly two and a half years.

When her father, known simply as Amos, saw her after the ordeal, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “Oh my daughter, you are still alive! I wasn’t optimistic about the possibility of seeing you again,” he told VOA Hausa Service, recounting his first words to his daughter.

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Amos said he had lots of questions for Comfort about her treatment, and she assured him that she was not abused or forced to marry any of her abductors. She said the girls had adequate food until recently when there were shortages.

She also said, contrary to some published reports, the other abducted Chibok girls are still alive and were not harmed during bombing raids. Those selected to be released were done so practically at random.

FILE - Family members of the Nigerian Chibok kidnapped girls share a moment as they depart to the Nigerian minister of women affairs in Abuja, Nigeria, Oct. 18, 2016. VOA
FILE – Family members of the Nigerian Chibok kidnapped girls share a moment as they depart to the Nigerian minister of women affairs in Abuja, Nigeria, Oct. 18, 2016. VOA

“They were called and asked to form a line, and after a number of them were counted, it was stopped,” Amos said. “Fortunately for her, she was among those released. They were told that the total of girls to be released was 21 and that by the grace of God, the rest would be released later.”

Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 200 girls from Chibok, an area located in the Borno state of northeast Nigeria, garnered global outrage, including a call for action by U.S. first lady Michelle Obama. The inability to rescue the girls became a campaign issue, and helped propel President Muhammadu Buhari to victory over former President Goodluck Jonathan.

Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of Abducted Chibok Girls’ Parents Association, told VOA that he believes the ordeal is finally taking a positive turn after so much frustration. Nkeki’s daughter is still being held captive.

“Even though my daughter was not among those released, I am happy seeing those children,” he said. “As the chairman, even if one girl is released, I will join other parents in celebration for that would mean that God has started answering my prayers for all of them. And so I am optimistic that my daughter will be released if she is alive, as there is no reason why she would not be. The way the government pushes for their release now makes us optimistic.”

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Negotiations with Boko Haram

The government’s negotiations with Boko Haram have been both secretive and controversial. After taking office in 2015, Buhari signaled a willingness to negotiate with the group if a “credible leader” could be identified.

FILE - Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and other officials meet with the 21 Chibok girls released by Boko Haram militants at the DSS Hospital in Abuja, Oct. 13, 2016. VOA
FILE – Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and other officials meet with the 21 Chibok girls released by Boko Haram militants at the DSS Hospital in Abuja, Oct. 13, 2016. VOA

During last month’s U.N. General Assembly in New York, Buhari expressed frustration over not knowing who, in fact, led the terror group and could be counted on to uphold the other end of a bargain.

Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed said he believes the release of the 21 girls is the first step in a deal to release all of the girls, but he declined to give details of the terms of negotiations.

“Already we are on phase two and we are already in discussion,” Mohammed told Reuters. “But of course these are very delicate negotiations. There are some promises that we made also about the confidentiality of the entire exercise, and we intend to keep them.”

Alex Thurston, a scholar of Islam and politics at Georgetown University’s African Studies Program, has followed the ordeal and believes negotiations with the group are appropriate if done correctly.

“There have been at least two major incidents where ransoms were paid before, so there is a precedent for negotiating with Boko Haram in a very limited way,” he said. “But the Nigerian government has tried in the past to open up a broader kind of dialogue and, for me, I think that those attempts — even though they said all of them ended in failure — I think it would be worth it to keep trying [that approach] to see what might happen.”

Details unknown

It is unknown whether the latest captives’ release was part of a prisoner exchange, ransom payment or some other deal.

Thurston acknowledges the moral ambiguity of negotiating with terror groups and the argument that it could offer an incentive for Boko Haram to make future abductions.

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He also believes, however, that if negotiating with the group could bring an end to the insurgency that has decimated the northeast of the country and displaced over two million people, it is worth exploring.

“I think that at some point, there’s going to need to be some kind of a political settlement to this conflict,” Thurston said. “Maybe the diehards in Boko Haram are so far beyond whatever the Nigerian government might say that it wouldn’t be possible, but I do believe there must be elements and segments of Boko Haram that might be persuaded to lay down arms under some kind of political settlement.” (VOA)

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Nigerian Elections : Debates All About Economy, Insecurity and Corruption

Buhari’s supporters call him “the incorruptible man.” But critics accuse Nigerian military officials of corruption and say Buhari's administration has looked the other way.

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Nigeria
Demonstrators appeal for peaceful elections in Nigeria during an event in Abuja, Feb. 6, 2019. Presidential and legislative elections are set for Saturday, Feb. 16. (G. Alheri/VOA)

Nigerians go to the polls Saturday to choose a president and legislature for Africa’s most populous country, returning two weeks later to pick state governors and local representatives.

Voters in the West African nation must decide whether to grant a second term to President Muhammadu Buhari.

The 76-year-old former military leader won office in 2015 on promises to improve Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy, fight rampant corruption and quell insecurity — especially in the northeast plagued by Islamist extremists.

Buhari’s main challenger — in a field of at least 60 contenders — is Atiku Abubakar, a 72-year-old businessman and former vice president campaigning on a similar platform.

But another issue looms over the vote: election-related violence. Last Sunday alone, five people were fatally shot near the southeastern city of Warri in what local police attributed to political divides, the AFP news agency reported. The shootings had followed clashes between young supporters of Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition People’s Democratic Party fronted by Abubakar.

“Violence is the major problem of every election,” said Patricia Onoja, a 60-year-old retired nurse in Abuja, the capital. She told VOA she counsels young people to resist any thuggery – a mission undertaken by other Nigerian parent groups, too.

Human Rights Watch says that more than 800 people died in 2011 election-related violence. But voting in 2015 brought the comparatively peaceful handover of power from Goodluck Jonathan to Buhari.

Now, the country will be tested on whether it “can successfully conduct two consecutive, credible elections,” says Oge Onubogu, a Nigerian-born Africa program officer with the United States Institute of Peace who closely follows the elections.

Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) says it’s prepared for Saturday’s vote, despite troubles such as a suspected arson fire at its annex in the Middle Belt city of Jos.

Clement Nwankwo, a lawyer and convener of the Nigeria Civil Society Situation Room, said that umbrella group has built “a good relationship” with the INEC. Nwankwo said the Situation Room has trained monitors and will relay any concerns – from missing elections materials to allegations of abuse – so INEC can address problems quickly. “We’re able to intervene,” he said.

Here’s a closer look at the campaign issues:

Security

Buhari, in a late-December interview with VOA at the presidential villa in Abuja, said Nigerian security troops had reduced the amount of territory controlled by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the country’s northeast.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, at right, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Rivers State on Feb. 12, 2019. He seeks a second term in the election Saturday.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, at right, greets supporters during a campaign rally in Rivers State on Feb. 12, 2019. He seeks a second term in the election Saturday. VOA

 

“Now you can check in the northeast that Boko Haram is not holding any local government, per se,” he said.

FILE – A still image taken from video shows a group of girls, released by Boko Haram jihadists after kidnapping them in 2014 in the north Nigerian town of Chibok, sitting in a hall as they are welcomed by officials in Abuja, Nigeria, May 7, 2017.
FILE – A still image taken from video shows a group of girls, released by Boko Haram jihadists after kidnapping them in 2014 in the north Nigerian town of Chibok, sitting in a hall as they are welcomed by officials in Abuja, Nigeria, May 7, 2017.
But a decade after their emergence, the Boko Haram militants have kidnapped hundreds of people – most notably girls from a school in Chibok, many of whom still are missing. They’ve also killed tens of thousands and displaced millions. And now an offshoot group, the Islamic State West Africa Province, has added to the destabilization.

Another threat comes from increased conflicts between herdsmen and farmers over land use in the so-called Middle Belt. The International Crisis Group reports more than 1,300 related deaths since January 2018.

Abubakar blames the Buhari administration for what he calls Nigeria’s “worst insecurity. … It was confined to the northeast” when Buhari took office but now has spread.

John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, edits the CRF Nigeria Security Tracker. It maps reported violence around the country.

He said he sees “no new ideas from either candidate about how to deal with Boko Haram, no real discussion about the much more broad-based security issues which now cover the entire country.”

Economy

Though oil-rich Nigeria has one of Africa’s leading economies, it’s still recovering from the 2014 plunge in crude prices. Poverty is rife in the country of nearly 200 million, with an estimated 87 million (44 percent) who are desperately poor, according to the World Poverty Clock.

Men stand near displayed merchandise for sale around the informal sector at the Wuse market in Abuja, Nigeria, Jan. 30, 2018.
Men stand near displayed merchandise for sale around the informal sector at the Wuse market in Abuja, Nigeria, Jan. 30, 2018.
In interviewing Nigerians late last spring, the Gallup World Poll found the highest level of food insecurity in 13 years. Three out of five respondents — 71 percent — said they lacked enough money for food at times during the previous 12 months.

“In terms of having money for food and shelter, things are as bad as they’ve ever been for Nigerians,” said Jay Loschky, the poll’s regional director for English-speaking Africa.

Buhari has said that, if granted a second term, he would focus on boosting job creation and completing infrastructure projects.

Abubakar — who worked in customs and the oil sector,and founded the private American University of Nigeria — says he has the business acumen to help guide the economy and encourage job creation.

In an interview with VOA last month in Washington, Abubakar derided the Buhari administration for Nigeria’s jobless rate, which officially rose to 23 percent in 2018’s third quarter, up from 19 percent the previous year. That translates to more than 20 million unemployed. “Twenty million is no joke,” he said. “It is a time bomb.”

Job creation is critical, especially given Nigeria’s huge and underemployed youth population.

John Sunday, 23-year-old student and first-time voter, poses for a picture in the Makoko shanty town built on stilts in a lagoon in Lagos, Feb. 4 , 2019.
John Sunday, 23-year-old student and first-time voter, poses for a picture in the Makoko shanty town built on stilts in a lagoon in Lagos, Feb. 4 , 2019.
Obadiah Tohomdet, a 63-year-old communications consultant in Abuja, said his son graduated from university five years ago and still has not found work except for odd jobs.

“The private sector is not expanding. … I think that’s the greatest problem we have in Nigeria,” Tohomdet told VOA. “And the youth, of course, are frustrated.” And vulnerable, he added. “They can be subject to manipulation and they could be used for antisocial activity. … It’s not that they are not ready to work. The atmosphere is very tough.”

Corruption

Buhari’s supporters call him “the incorruptible man.” But critics accuse Nigerian military officials of corruption and say Buhari’s administration has looked the other way.

Last month, the president also drew condemnation — domestically and from abroad — when he suspended Nigeria’s chief justice from the position where he would have a key say in resolving any election disputes.

FILE – People protest at the secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association following the suspension of Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, in Abuja Nigeria, Jan. 28, 2019.
FILE – People protest at the secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association following the suspension of Nigeria’s Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, in Abuja Nigeria, Jan. 28, 2019.
The trial for Walter Onnoghen — who allegedly made false claims about his assets — is pending.

Abubakar has encountered clouds of suspicion over time. As the BBC pointed out in a candidate profile last week, he was accused in 2006 of diverting public money toward “his business interests” while serving as vice president. A 2010 report from the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations also alleged that Abubakar was involved in bringing “suspect funds into the United States” through the bank account of his American wife.

He was linked to another case: the bribery conviction of a U.S. congressman, William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana. Identified by the U.S. government as a corrupt foreign official, Abubakar was barred entry to the country.

Supporters of the People's Democratic Party (PDP) attend a campaign rally in Lagos, Feb. 12, 2019.

Supporters of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) attend a campaign rally in Lagos, Feb. 12, 2019.

But he never faced any charges.

“Nobody has brought any evidence of corruption against me,” Abubakar said during his interview at VOA’s Washington headquarters.

His two-day January visit to the United States — his first in more than 12 years — dispelled the Nigerian rumor that he would be arrested upon arrival. Instead, the candidate met with some members of Congress, the State Department and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Abubakar was able to obtain a U.S. visa through the intervention of American lobbyists, Bloomberg news reported last week.

He also has said he would consider an amnesty program to encourage looters of public funds to voluntarily return the money.

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Improved confidence in voting

Nigerians view the approaching elections with modest but improved confidence in the process, according to a Gallup poll released Based on polling conducted in mid-2018, it found that roughly a third of respondents — 34 percent, up from 13 percent in 2014 — have faith in “the honesty of elections.”

By comparison, 49 percent of respondents in sub-Saharan African countries polled last year expressed confidence in their respective elections, said Gallup’s Loschky. He also said 37 percent of Americans voiced confidence in U.S. elections. (VOA)