Families of kidnapped Chibok school girls desperately pray for their loved ones return. Photo: Reuters

By Charles Mgbolu

Like a nightmare that never fades, Yakubu Alomsom wakes up each morning to the dreadful thought of not knowing what happened to his sister and two nieces.

All he has are painful recollections of the prelude to the darkest night of their lives — and that of scores of other families torn asunder by the happenings of April 14, 2014.

Alomsom hears the rat-a-tat of AK-47 gunfire ring in his ears like it happened yesterday. He pictures himself pacing his room in between making frantic calls for help to whoever he knew in Abuja, Nigeria's capital.

Exactly ten years ago, at Chibok in Borno State of northeast Nigeria, hundreds of armed marauders from the terror outfit Boko Haram stormed the boarding house of a girls' secondary school and unleashed a reign of terror that haunts the country to this day.

The school authorities were aware of deteriorating law and order in the region and had shut the campus for four weeks before the attack. This coincided with the final senior secondary certificate examination of students from multiple schools in the surrounding villages.

The students were promised adequate security, but the marauding insurgents overwhelmed a military squad stationed in the town before storming the school.

 276 Chibok girls were forcibly taken away Boko Haram insurgents. Photo: Reuters

Alomsom, who is visually impaired, was in Chibok on the night when the Boko Haram militants barged into the school and forcibly took away 276 girls, including his sister and two nieces.

As the trucks ferrying the hostages rolled away in the darkness and vanished into the forests, 57 of the schoolgirls made the drastic decision to escape.

"I told my friend I was going to jump. I felt it was better to die, and for my parents to find my body and bury me than to be held hostage by the terrorists," Saa (not her real name), one of the survivors, told the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in 2015.

The siege, which lasted about five hours, became the face of Nigeria's escalating security crisis.

For the next several years, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls trended online and offline, with protest marches held within and outside Nigeria.

On the 10th anniversary of the attack, parents and relatives of victims who remain in captivity describe a feeling of helplessness and utter despair.

"We are frustrated, we are helpless, and we are living in pain," Alomsom, now a spokesperson for the parents of the missing girls, tells TRT Afrika.

In the years following the mass kidnapping, another 100-odd hostages would become free after either fleeing their captors, being rescued by the military, or after prisoner swap deals between the Nigerian government and the militants.

But Alomsom and 90-odd families are still in the dark about the whereabouts of their loved ones. "The pain doesn't go away. It eats us alive. About 30 parents in our association have died, never knowing what became of their daughters," he says.

Recurrent horror

Boko Haram is one of the most dangerous terror groups operating in the larger Sahel and Lake Chad basin.

Protests were held every year following the incident. Photo: Getty Images

The group's mass kidnapping of schoolgirls, which seemed like an aberration a decade ago, is now a recurring horror hijacked by other non-state armed groups, mainly gangs seeking ransoms.

Since 2014, more than 1,400 students have reportedly been kidnapped for ransom by armed gangs targeting schools.

The most recent mass kidnapping took place on March 7 this year when motorcycle-borne gunmen abducted 287 students from a government-run secondary school at Kuriga in Kaduna State.

So, what's fuelling the hydra-headed growth of armed outfits?

"We should look at the economic drivers of terrorism. We need to look at the root causes of radicalisation and why these groups keep growing," Mubarak Aliyu, a political and security risk analyst, tells TRT Afrika.

Kabir Adamu, another security analyst, echoes this view. "What we are dealing with is not only ideological; it is criminality driven by economic incentives. The government must learn to adapt and use different approaches when dealing with security challenges stemming from religious extremism and outright criminality."

Policy and pragmatism

Since the Chibok school attack, the Nigerian government has introduced three significant policies to try and stem the tide — the National Safe School Plan, the Safe Schools Declaration, and the National Policy on Safety, Security and Violence-Free Schools.

However, experts are at a loss as to why these policies, some with strong international and even Western leanings, are unable to stop the string of attacks.

Many families still do not know the state of the daughters. Photo: Reuters

Aliyu says the answers are not far to seek. "We must tackle the economic challenges that make people sympathetic to armed terrorist groups like Boko Haram. If we can bring people out of poverty, then we reduce the influence of bandits and terrorists in the regions where they operate," he explains.

Another concern is that fear of social stigma could be preventing some of the girls abducted by Boko Haram from returning home.

Pogu Bitrus, the chairman of the Chibok Development Association, was quoted by the Associated Press in 2016 as saying that more than 100 girls — all of whom are now adults — appeared unwilling to return home either because they had been radicalised or feared being ostracised.

"We would prefer that they are taken away from the community and this country because the stigmatisation is going to affect them for the rest of their lives," Bitrus said.

Security analyst Adamu, who has personally interacted with some of the rescued Chibok girls, says some among the rest would willingly return if certain conditions were met.

"It would only require a process of rehabilitation. Their mindset has already changed, and the notion of normality is probably not there anymore. So, they will require psychosocial support. There is also a clear need to get society ready to accept them," he tells TRT Afrika.

The risk of death is high, with some of the girls already presumed dead because of poor living conditions in the forest, as narrated by the rescued victims.

There are also those still living with their families in terrorist enclaves that constantly witness fierce offensives by the Nigerian military, increasing the risk of death.

Nonetheless, their waiting families haven't lost hope.

"We refuse to accept that they are lost forever. They may be gone for ten years, but we aren't giving up. We have prepared ourselves to see our daughters either alive or dead. It will help us find closure," says Alomsom.

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TRT Afrika