A lot has happened since April 14th. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine; the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized vast swathes of Iraq; and Ebola has killed thousands in Africa, and spread to at least two other continents. In our hyper-speedy news cycle, six months passes in a blink of an eye. But for the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants when they struck the northeastern Nigerian village of Chibok in April, it probably feels like a lifetime. The militants abducted 276 girls; six months on, more than 200 remain in captivity.
Why haven’t they been rescued yet? Largely, observers say, because of Nigeria’s failure to effectively counter Boko Haram, which has claimed thousands of lives over the years in its violent campaign to carve out a hardline religious state in the north of the country. “The problem is that the girls are symbolic,” says Adotei Akwei, managing director for advocacy for Amnesty International USA. “They’re part of a larger human rights catastrophe, a bad situation in Nigeria.”
“Nigeria’s military strategy isn’t working well,” he continues. “We clearly have not been able to get the girls back, or to change the mindset or approach of the Nigerian government in terms of how it responds to Boko Haram or how it protects its citizens”
Carl LeVan, a professor at American University in Washington D.C. who writes about Nigeria, adds that many civilians consider the Nigerian military almost as bad as Boko Haram when it comes to human rights violations, even as the rebels continue their reign of terror in the north.
Akwei says the problems with the Nigerian military also hinder international efforts to lend a hand. “The Nigerian military has got such a bad reputation that even the US military is concerned about how much they can cooperate because of the kind of abuses we’ve documented,” he explains. “There’s no transparency, no accountability whatsoever.”
The military has an embarrassing track record when it comes to fighting the militant group. Earlier this year, they claimed to have rescued the girls the day after the abduction, but then had to retract that claim. In late May, they released a statement saying they knew where the girls were being held, but wouldn’t use force to rescue them. And in a tragic incident early last month, several Nigerian troops were killed by their own airstrikes aimed at Boko Haram.
U.S. planes spotted large groups of girls in early August that might have been the kidnapped students. Time, however, continues to drag on without a rescue—and, says Jennifer Cook, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the longer they stay in captivity, the harder it becomes to bring back the missing girls.
“With hostage situations with this many people, to bring one set back without endangering another set is very difficult,” says Cooke. “In some cases, there’s a pretty good idea of where they are, but extricating them from a group of armed criminals who have so little respect for life is a difficult negotiation process. And the longer they’re there, the greater likelihood they become dispersed, and the more difficult they are to track down.”
According to Cooke, the big-picture strategy for fighting the insurgency would involve capturing key Boko Haram leaders and cutting off funding sources to weaken the militant group. But it’s also important for the government to win the support of communities in that part of the country, where many feel both abandoned by the administration and terrorized by Boko Haram.
“A lot of civilians are feeling pinched between the terror of Boko Haram and the misbehaviors of the Nigerian military,” says LeVan, whose book on Nigeria, Dictators and Democracy in African Development, is set to be released later this month. “They said ‘we’re trapped, we’re fleeing Boko Haram but we also don’t have anywhere to go because our military is suspicious of us.'”
Winning the hearts of northern Nigerians is crucial to stopping the violence and finding the girls, but some communities are reluctant to support the government for fear of violent reprisals from Boko Haram, and because they don’t trust the government to protect them. Cooke says that “fundamental distrust” in the north is one of the government’s biggest impediments to finding the girls, because it makes it much more difficult to get accurate information. In the meantime, the girls are no better off. “These girls are being held under absolutely horrific circumstances, subjected to sexual violence and rape, forced into servitude,” she said. “There are reports that some have become pregnant.”
If those reports are true—and there’s a good chance they are, based on Boko Haram’s history of impregnating abducted women—the pregnant girls could face even greater challenges down the road. Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe runs the Saint Monica Girls’ Tailoring Center in Uganda, where she helps girls who have been victims of sexual violence rebuild their lives with their children, who are often outcasts in their communities. “Because the situation they are taken in, I would not be surprised if a good number of them are pregnant,” she says. “Raising the child of a person who has been maltreating you is always [hard.] That is why there is violence and anger returned on these children. Because they give [the mother] that reminder of the pain they have gone through.”
Sister Rosemary says that if the girls are ever released, they may have trouble re-joining their families and communities. That’s why continuing their education will be crucial for helping them move forward.
“If we leave these kids and say, they cannot catch up, I think we just are going to destroy them more.”
But before anybody can worry about education and rehabilitation, the girls have to come home. “Our world must not forget these adolescent girls,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women and a United Nations Under-Secretary-General. “The world must come together and make every possible effort to rescue these girls and bring their captors to justice. We cannot and must not move on with this humanitarian tragedy still unresolved.”