Nigeria’s “defeat” of Boko Haram is hollow rhetoric for the abducted Dapchi schoolgirls’ parents

“No one told us anything. They had not even began seriously searching for them.”

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

At around the time of evening prayers in a boarding school in Dapchi, a small town in northeast Nigeria, over 900 girls and faculty staff fled for safety after hearing militants fire bullets into the sky from the school compound.

According to accounts from those at the school who escaped, the suspected Boko Haram militants were dressed in military uniforms, arriving in a convoy of trucks and vehicles with machine-guns on the roofs.

One hundred and ten girls were abducted, driven away two days before the Yobe State would officially acknowledge that it had happened: a pivotal window when perhaps a meaningful rescue attempt could have taken place.

The abductions are chillingly reminiscent of the kidnappings of over 300 school girls in Chibok four years ago – where over 100 girls remain missing. The parallels are poignant both for the nature of the abductions and a litany of government and security failings that have left the community of grieving parents in Dapchi reeling and searching for answers.

Aisha Bukar, 14, was one of the girls kidnapped in Dapchi. Her father, Kuchalla Bukar, has barely eaten or slept since he first learned of the attacks on the school.

“Everytime I go to my house there is crying for Aisha. My wife wakes up and is calling for her and then crying because she is not here. We are trying but it is a struggle.”

According to Kachalla, many of Aisha’s fellow pupils who escaped from the militants have recounted how the abducted girls rushed into the trucks willingly, deceived by militants who pretended to be from the Nigerian military. “The girls were even struggling to get in to the trucks before they were taken away.”

In the two days after the abductions, the authorities’ confused response only compounded the parents’ distress. The commissioner of police in Yobe State, Abdulmaliki Sumonu, claimed that no abductions had taken place, while a state government official then falsely claimed the girls had been rescued by the Nigerian military, in statements told to the local media.

“We were seeing these reports and were confused”, says Kachalla. “No one had told us anything or that they had been rescued. Why would they say that when they had not even began seriously searching for them?”

A further grievance from the parents has been the ease with which the militants abducted the girls, with several accounts suggesting the plan for the abduction was almost cavalier. The militants reportedly didn’t know where the school was.

Many of the residents in Dapchi have given accounts of how the militants asked for directions to the school, abducting and threatening locals along the way before releasing them when they knew where the school was.

According to Alhaji Shehu, a community worker in Dapchi, after a military checkpoint in Dapchi had closed in the month before the attacks, residents had begun to believe that the insecurity in the region was ending. “When the soldiers were moved people were even happy, but after this people are now asking why they were moved when the insurgents were able to access the school so easily.”

In Dapchi, the toll of the ordeal on the parents has, for some, been too much to bear. At least eight parents and close relatives were admitted into hospital in the week of the abductions, while two remain in care.

According to Kachalla, a mother whose daughter was among those kidnapped died last Thursday. “She was admitted into hospital, she already had high blood pressure that became worse after the abductions. I learned she then developed heart complications and died.”

Within a week of the abductions, the parents had formed into a Dapchi Parents Group, with an appointed chairperson and secretary. Their recognition of a need to mobilise in order to put pressure on the government fits into a stencil created by the Bring Back Our Girls campaign, which caught the world’s attention.

Following the initial alarm and disbelief in Nigeria, the abductions have receded from a dominant story, becoming another among several flashpoints in an insurgency that is showing renewed life. President Buhari's government has spent the last two years claiming to have defeated Boko Haram

The terrorist group is no longer the occupying force it was at its height in 2014, where sweeps of rural and urban towns in the northeast were under their control.

Less than a year to the election, the government is keen to list progress in defeating Boko Haram as an achievement, long before it is remotely the case. Significant gains against the group’s capability have been spun into a narrative wildly detached from reality.

Since 2016, attacks by Boko Haram have increased year on year. Over 100 people have died in attacks by the group this year. Many of the towns no longer occupied by the group are still vulnerable to them. The kidnappings offer Boko Haram an opportunity for ransom, to prolong and further fund its terror.

Nine years into the insurgency, there is a weariness in Nigeria around Boko Haram’s permanence as a national issue, ahead of an election where security challenges will again be a key focus.

In Dapchi, parents who a month ago felt closer than ever to life beyond insurgency, are now locked in the depths of it, praying for their daughters to come home.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.