Where is Leah Sharibu?
When about 111 girls of Government Girls Science and Technology College were kidnapped from their hostels in Dapchi, Yobe State on February 19, their parents prayed that they return safe, healthy and quick.
When the girls were released a little over a month after, their parents were relieved that the dark phase of their lives ended fast enough. Five of them died en route Dapchi. One of them was never freed. For her family, the pain lingers.
Leah Sharibu, the lone girl who refused to pledge allegiance to Islam, was denied her freedom based on that fact. Her insistence to stick to her Christian faith irked her captors who drove triumphantly into Dapchi town to drop off the other girls.
The Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari promised then to do “everything in our power” to reunite her with her distraught parents. Almost eight months after, the promise remains just that – a promise. The parents are holding on to hope that their daughter will one day return.
But the Nigerian government has given little of thread to hold on to. Apart from the fact that Leah is being held by her abductors because she refused to renounce her religion, the government has provided no excuse why her release was not secured along with that of other girls and why she could not be freed using the same “back channel” it explored for the other girls.
One thing is clear, however, the kidnapping mirrored what happened in Chibok four years earlier when 276 girls were abducted from the school hostel in Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State.
57 of the girls escaped from their abductors. And between then and now, 107 girls have been found, released or escaped as part of a government deal with Boko Haram. Meanwhile, the administration has said back-channel talks are ongoing for further releases and a possible end to the wider conflict.
With the acute lack of information, save for the occasional glimpse got from Boko Haram videos or audios releases, not much has been heard about the remaining Chibok girls. But Leah Sharibu’s parents hope that her fate will be different.
“It’s very sad and frustrating, each time we hear something from the media about our daughter. Recently, the government said that negotiation for my daughter’s release is complicated,” Leah’s mother Rebecca Sharibu said in May.
When contacted earlier in the week, Leah’s father, Nathan Sharibu, said he has been barred from speaking to the media. He won’t say by whom.
In both Chibok and Dapchi episodes, the insurgents deliberately targeted female students. This action, although blatantly criminal, has both sociological and ideological undercurrents.
Boko Haram, loosely meaning western education is forbidden, has been waging a nine-year-old war against the Nigerian government, at a point declaring a large swathe of land in Nigeria’s northeast as its caliphate. With its members drawn from its immediate locality and then radicalised, the girl child who wants to escape the grip of poverty in the region becomes an easy target.
Access to education in northern Nigeria is still alarmingly low. According to a report by Africacheck.org, only 4 per cent of females complete secondary school in northern Nigeria, while two-thirds of girls in the region “are unable to read a sentence compared to less than 10 per cent in the South.”
In Yobe state, where Leah comes from, 77.4 per cent of girls are not in secondary school. That figure is the third highest in the Northeast region and the fifth highest among the 10 northern states covered in the report.
“The abductions illustrate that Boko Haram remains a menace to swathes of northeast Nigeria,” the International Crisis Group said in a report published in April.
“The kidnappings cast a pall over education, particularly of girls, and thus the prospects for socio-economic development of the region.”
A government spokesman said in August that President Buhari was concerned about Leah’s plight and that he was working to ensure she is freed. “For President Buhari, nothing will be spared in bringing all our girls home. He will not rest until all of them are free,” Garba Shehu, a special assistant to President Buhari on media and publicity said.
Buhari’s office said early this month that he spoke with Leah’s mother to express his government’s “commitment” to rescuing her daughter.
“I convey my emotion, the strong commitment of my administration and the solidarity of all Nigerians to you and your family as we will do our best to bring your daughter home in peace and safety,” Buhari’s office quoted him as telling Rebecca Sharibu.
While such words could have been gratifying, it, however, formed a part of the usual government’s reactionary rhetorics. In fact, Leah’s parents said in May the government hardly provided them with any updates. Like many other Nigerians, they depend on the media for any information about their daughter.
“As parents, we should be informed of any development before going to press. The government’s way of relaying the information is making meangrier, and more frightened by the day.”
Both Shehu’s comment and Buhari’s call to Rebecca came after the insurgents released an audio clip in which the girl pleaded with the government to secure her release from her abductors.
“I plead with… the government and the president to have pity for me and save me from my situation,” Sharibu said in Hausa.
Last month, Rebecca told journalists at a meeting organised by Rev. Gideon Para-Mallam, founder of the Citizen Monitoring Group (CMG) that her daughter may be killed in the second week of October. She said the insurgents issued a threat to that effect.
“A threat has been sent out that with effect from October, Leah will be the next in line to be killed. They said she pleaded with Federal Government to do whatever is required to ensure her release before that time,” she said.
Regardless of that sceptre of threat dangling over Leah’s head and the government’s inability to solve the complications in the negotiation for her release, her parents are hoping she will return home soon.
As the world marks the International Day of the Girl-Child this week, they can only ask questions: Where is Leah? When will she return?
*Guardian Life’s editor Njideka Agbo contributed to this report.