‘Ran­som’ in Nige­ria raises fears of vi­cious cir­cle

The Sunday Telegraph - - World news - By Colin Free­man in Maiduguri

Adamu Mo­hammed had braced him­self for the worst. Five weeks ago, Boko Haram gun­men staged a mass ab­duc­tion in the north­ern Nige­rian town of Dapchi. Maryam, his 15-yearold daugh­ter, was among the 110 girls dragged off in broad day­light.

He knew all too well she could be forced into sex slav­ery, con­scripted as a sui­cide bomber, or sim­ply never seen again.

Last Wed­nes­day, he did not bother at­tend­ing a planned “sol­i­dar­ity” meet­ing with par­ents of the miss­ing Chi­bok girls, con­vened by Dapchi el­ders in a vain at­tempt to raise morale. After all, if their chil­dren were still miss­ing nearly four years later, de­spite the global #bring­back­our­girls cam­paign, what chance did his own daugh­ter stand? In­stead he went on er­rands out­side town, only for his phone to ring just after 8am. “Your daugh­ter and the oth­ers have been re­leased,” a neigh­bour told him. “A Boko Haram con­voy came back into town and dropped them off.”

Maryam’s voice then came on the line. “We are OK, father,” she said. “It was fright­en­ing, but they did not beat or touch us.”

“I wasn’t ex­pect­ing it to hap­pen so quickly,” Mr Mo­hammed told The Sun­day Tele­graph. “I wanted to thank our pres­i­dent for mak­ing this hap­pen.”

Across the rest of Nige­ria, how­ever, what was billed as a tri­umph for Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari raised more ques­tions than an­swers.

Why were the hostages freed so quickly? Why were the gun­men able to roll back into town un­chal­lenged by the se­cu­rity forces? And why was the press pack cov­er­ing the Chi­bok meet­ing hus­tled out of town by state se­cu­rity agents, just be­fore the con­voy’s ar­rival?

“It’s all very fishy,” said one for­mer in­ter­me­di­ary to Boko Haram. “Nor­mally, Boko Haram rapes and abuses any girls as soon as they kid­nap them. Yet this group were brought back after just three weeks, mostly un­harmed. It looks like a set-up.”

The Dapchi kid­nap­ping is un­likely to be the last of its kind. After years of ab­duct­ing girls mainly to pro­vide its fight­ers with “bush wives”, Boko Haram now ap­pears to have wo­ken up to the lu­cra­tive po­ten­tial of kid­nap­ping for ran­som as well.

Mr Buhari’s gov­ern­ment has made a se­ries of ran­som pay­ments in the last year, and also au­tho­rised pris­oner ex­changes. The first ma­jor deal took place last May, when 82 of the 276 Chi­bok girls were freed for £2.6mil­lion and the re­lease of five se­nior mil­i­tants.

Last month, a fur­ther pris­oner re­lease bought the free­dom of 11 women taken hostage last June en route to a funeral, along with a sep­a­rate group of kid­napped aca­demics.

Iron­i­cally, it may have been the well-in­ten­tioned tweets of celebri­ties that forced Mr Buhari’s hand. Un­able to free the Chi­bok girls by force, yet still fac­ing huge in­ter­na­tional pres­sure, Mr Buhari told the UN 18 months ago that he was now “ready to ne­go­ti­ate” and was seek­ing in­ter­na­tional part­ners to act as me­di­a­tors.

Mr Buhari found an un­ex­pected part­ner in the neu­tral Swiss gov­ern­ment, which hap­pened to have an ex­pe­ri­enced in­tel­li­gence agent at its em­bassy in Nige­ria.

The agent worked with Zan­nah Mustapha, a Nige­rian school­teacher, whose work with or­phans of Boko Haram fight­ers had earned him the mil­i­tants’ re­spect. He was sent to Switzer­land for train­ing in ne­go­ti­a­tion tech­niques, then he and the agent over­saw the han­dover of the 82 girls in a se­cret deal in the bush last May.

The Tele­graph has learned that be­hind the scenes, many diplo­mats and ad­vis­ers to Mr Buhari bit­terly op­posed the de­ci­sion to make con­ces­sions. One Western source in­volved in the talks said: “Buhari was in­flu­enced by the Swiss, who were keen to get the glory. Com­plaints were made re­peat­edly to the Swiss that if you paid for hostages once, you’d have to do it again. But they got quite bel­liger­ent. And now look – they got 82 girls back from Chi­bok, then an­other 110 get taken in Dapchi.”

Mr Mustapha in­sisted the ex­changes were “the only way to get the girls freed”. But he ad­mits there is a risk of cre­at­ing a “vi­cious cir­cle”, while oth­ers now warn of a kid­nap­ping boom.

Grant T Har­ris, who was Barack Obama’s en­voy to Africa dur­ing the Chi­bok ab­duc­tion, points out that Boko Haram may now fol­low the model of its Sa­hel af­fil­i­ate, al-Qaeda in the Is­lamic Maghreb, which has made £64mil­lion kid­nap­ping Euro­peans for ran­som in the past decade.

“Kid­nap­ping groups of young women mo­bilises a strong in­ter­na­tional re­ac­tion that pres­sures the gov­ern­ment to re­spond, which is help­ful,” he said. “But if the gov­ern­ment goes the route of pay­ing ran­soms, it will only en­cour­age more kid­nap­pings.” The Nige­rian gov­ern­ment claimed that talks with Boko Haram had led to the group re­leas­ing the Dapchi girls “un­con­di­tion­ally”. That does not chime with ac­counts given by hostages freed in ear­lier deals.

Janada Amos, 44, who was among the 11 women re­leased last month after be­ing kid­napped en route to a funeral in June, told The Tele­graph: “Boko Haram said to me: ‘If we are to sell you back to Buhari, we want money and pris­on­ers in ex­change’.”

To make mat­ters worse, some of the mil­i­tants freed in last May’s Chi­bok deal have shown lit­tle in­ter­est in rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. One com­man­der, Shuibo Moni, resur­faced in a video re­leased ear­lier this month, fir­ing weapons in Boko Haram’s strongholds in the vast Sam­bisa For­est.

The prospect of such men be­ing freed to kill again has made even some ex-hostages un­com­fort­able about the price paid for their lives.

“When I was hostage, I was an in­no­cent,” said Ms Amos. “But these fight­ers are in prison be­cause they have done bad things. It’s hard to think of them be­ing free again.”

‘Boko Haram said to me: “If we are to sell you back to Buhari, we want money and pris­on­ers in ex­change”’

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