The federal government, Bring Back Our Girls, BBOG group and Nigerians from all walks of life yesterday were in a celebratory mood, following the release of 21 girls who were kidnapped from their secondary school in Chibok, Borno State more than two years ago in a cash-for-girls exchange deal.
Although the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, dismissed initial reports yesterday that the girls were released in a prisoner swap deal, reliable sources in the presidency informed THISDAY that the girls were released yesterday morning after an undisclosed amount of money was paid to the Boko Haram leaders.
When ThisDay confronted Mohammed with the information on the cash that was paid to secure the release of the girls, he also denied it, saying his information was coming from the “very top”.
The 21 girls, who emerged from captivity, were some of the 276 girls abducted by the terror sect on April 14, 2014 from their school dormitory, sparking global outrage and the demand for their release by world leaders including U.S. First Lady, Michele Obama.
Of the 276 girls kidnapped on that fateful night, 57 immediately escaped from captivity while 219 were held captive for two years, until one of the girls, Amina Ali Nkeli, escaped last May with her baby who was conceived and born in captivity and one of her abductors, whom she called her husband.
With the release of 21 girls thursday, 197 remain in captivity with a promise by the Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo thursday that more of the girls would be released in the next few days or months.
The president’s media aide, Garba Shehu, gave the names of the freed girls as: Mary Usman Bulama, Jummai John, Blessing Abana, Lugwa Sanda, Comfort Habila, Maryam Basheer, Comfort Amos, Glory Mainta, Saratu Emannuel, Deborah Ja’afaru and Rahab Ibrahim.
Others included Helen Musa, Maryamu Lawan, Rebecca Ibrahim, Asabe Goni, Deborah Andrawus, Agnes Gapani, Saratu Markus, Glory Dama, Pindah Nuhu and Rebecca Mallam.
One of the 21 girls, who all looked emaciated and grief-stricken in the photographs released by the State House, Abuka, had a baby clinging to her.
Osinbajo, who spoke with State House correspondents after he met with the girls at the Office of the Department of State Services, DSS, said Nigerians should congratulate themselves and thank God for the girls’ release.
He also confirmed the information minister’s assertion that the federal government did not swap the girls for detained members of Boko Haram.
He said: “We should congratulate ourselves and thank the almighty God for the release and subsequent return home of 21 of the Chibok girls who were taken hostage two years ago.
“It is exciting news for the whole country. Everyone is really excited and I believe that we should be very thankful to God.
“I also want to thank the military and all the security services, DSS, intelligence services across the county as well as our friends and partners, locally and internationally who have also helped in bringing to a happy end of the captivity of 21 of the Chibok girls.
“About an hour ago, I met with the 21 Chibok girls who have been brought back and they are in good health, considering the circumstances they have been held in, and they are now being well taken care of in the medical facility.
“They will be staying there for sometime until we are satisfied with their health. Their parents will be coming to join them hopefully by tomorrow.
“There will be therapy, there will be counselling. Of course, we can imagine what they have gone through. So we expect that a lot of psychological therapy and so much needs to be done to get them back in the right condition.”
On whether the girls were released through a swap for suspected members of Boko Haram in government custody, the vice-president said: “There was no exchange of any kind. There was no swap of any kind.
“When we started negotiations, we said we would consider all options available to us. Absolutely, there was no exchange of any kind.”
When asked further if the government will agree to future swaps to secure the release of the remaining girls, he replied: “We must be sensitive to the fact that the government wants these girls back and alive.
“Again, we must balance it against the security and safety of the country. In the process of negotiations, we will look at all options and we will weigh the options carefully and decide on what to do.
“But what has happened and the process we have begun is one which has not involved any type of swap of Boko Haram commanders or any militant in any way.
“That is a very good turn of events. We believe that in the next few days and months, we will be bringing in more of these girls using exactly the same kind of negotiations and the same template that we used.”
‘Red Cross Only Helped Convey Girls’
Providing clarity on the involvement of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which yesterday stated that it was not involved in negotiations for the release of the girls, Osinbajo said: “The Swiss government worked with us in the process of negotiations, but the Red Cross was not involved in the negotiations.
“But in conveying the girls back, of course, we worked with the Red Cross because we were unable to take our own medical team. The Red Cross was not involved at all in the process of negotiations. It was the Swiss government and our own officials comprising the DSS, intelligence and the military that were involved.”
Cash Paid for Girls
However, despite the federal government’s insistence that there was no prisoner swap to secure the release of the girls, an authoritative presidency source informed THISDAY that the government was forced to part with cash to get the 21 girls out.
Although he did not disclose the amount involved, he said: “As you know, the federal government started negotiations for the release of the Chibok girls in July last year.
“However, there were two previous attempts to secure their release which failed because Boko Haram was factionalised.
“Despite this, the government did not give up and continued negotiations through its team led by the DSS, with the support of the Nigerian Army and Air Force.
“The team eventually got the green light recently and delivered the money to the representatives of Boko Haram, following which one of the Augusta Westland helicopters which was transferred by Mr. President early this week from the Presidential Air Fleet to the Nigerian Air Force, was sent to convey the girls early this morning from the Camerounian border.”
The presidency official stated that the handover of the aircraft from the Presidential Air Fleet to the Air Force on Monday had nothing to do with the release of the girls, insisting that it was “sheer coincidence”.
He said once the girls were handed over to the government team, they were verified in collaboration with the Red Cross and flown immediately to Kaduna, where they spent a few hours and underwent a brief medical assessment, before being flow to Abuja.
“The release is the first of many phases that the government has embarked upon. We are very optimistic that more girls will be released in the next few weeks or months,” he said.