/ 22 August 2021

#BringBackOurGirls: A story of the Nigerian girls’ rescue

Parents and relatives hold portraits of the Chibok schoolgirls that are still missing after they were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants on April 14, 2014. (Audu Ali Marte, AFP/ File picture)

The plan was simple: steal a brickmaking machine and grab some food, cooking oil and grains while you’re at it. It was April 2014 and Boko Haram was fighting the Nigerian army for the fifth year since its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed. The group was growing in numbers, with young men volunteering or conscripted at gunpoint to join the fight. 

But the new recruits were overwhelming Boko Haram’s forest encampment and new houses were needed, as was food to keep the fighters well-fed.

A looting crew was tasked with finding supplies. An informant told them they could find a brickmaker at a girls’ school in Chibok, a small isolated town in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno. 

It would be dark when they hit and nobody was expected to be on the premises.

But there were 276 girls at the Chibok Government Secondary School for Girls that night. They were writing their final examinations, just weeks shy of graduation. Boko Haram members found what they came for and then some. They loaded the young girls on their trucks and sped into the night, assuming that Abubakar Shekau, their leader, would know what to do with the girls.

And so a looting operation morphed into a mass abduction. The crime in one of Nigeria’s most remote areas became global news and lit up Twitter. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls took on a life of its own.

But soon enough the hysteria on Twitter died down, the baying crowd moved on to a different topic, and the girls were still not home. 

A new book, Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing School Girls, takes us on an unvarnished look at the behind-the-scenes operations of the cast of characters involved in this high-stakes saga. Written by Wall Street Journal reporters Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, the book draws on numerous interviews over six years across four continents, and a diary of three notebooks, smuggled out by Naomi Adamu, one of the Chibok girls who spent 1 118 days in captivity before gaining her freedom.

In all, 164 girls have been freed. 

After the girls’ kidnapping, foreign allies raced to help. The United States sent about 40 personnel, intelligence officers, aid workers and law enforcement. Its drones scanned the sprawling Sambisa Forest for the abducted girls. The British sent a spy plane; French intelligence officers scoured the former French colonies looking for leads; Canada sent special forces as did Israeli; and China, Russia and Germany also pitched in.

Yet most of the girls were brought home mainly by a crack team led by a Swiss diplomat and a Nigerian barrister. This unit worked away from the limelight. In Bring Back Our Girls, the authors explain why Swiss diplomacy worked where American might did not. The Swiss, famed for neutrality, put moral judgments aside to have discussions with Boko Haram members.

The book explores many themes missing from coverage of the kidnapping. For example, why did the girls become the human face of the insurgency when more than 30 000 people have been killed and more than two million displaced? Did the West feel affronted because the girls were kidnapped from a school, getting a Western education that Boko Haram opposes? And what role did Twitter play? Was it a force for good? How culpable are Twitter and YouTube, where propaganda spreads unchecked? 

The book explores how the fame that Twitter brought the girls meant they became invaluable to Shekau, scoring him a key partnership with the Islamic State. On more than one occasion, the girls’ fame prevented them from being released sooner. 

Seven years after the kidnapping, more than 100 girls remain in captivity. 

The failures of Nigeria’s security services are especially relevant now, a time when the country is facing multiple security crises. The Boko Haram conflict has raged into its second decade and armed bandits in the northwest kidnap students with alarming ease in exchange for ransom.

Many books, documentaries and podcasts promise to tell the “untold story” of a well-known event. It is by now a genre on its own, parodied to within an inch of its life, a navel-gazing exercise marked by podcast hosts speaking in hushed tones. Too often that promise falls flat, and it quickly becomes a rehashing of publicly available information.

Bring Back Our Girls succeeds in telling the untold story. 

In this tour de force of original reporting, Parkinson and Hinshaw back up their promise with insightful new details that paint a picture of a complicated conflict. The book is detailed to the point of almost being extraneous: we learn that former president Goodluck Jonathan’s doctoral thesis was a 215-page exercise on six species of amphibious crustaceans and that Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey was at the dentist when the hashtag took off. But the authors know when to pull back, writing in clear, lucid language as they let the story lead the way, making it essential reading.

This article first appeared in The Continent