Nigerian Army steps up efforts to find kidnapped girls. Why now?

Rescuing even some of the Chibok girls seized last year would boost President Goodluck Jonathan's battered legacy before he leaves office this month.

Nigeria Military/AP
A Nigerian soldier stands next to women and children that were allegedly rescued by the Army after being taken by Boko Haram militants in Sambisa Forest.

Each time the Nigerian Army has announced the rescue of women and children this week, the world has held its breath in anticipation of news of the girls from Chibok.

The 260 girls kidnapped last year in the northeastern town of Chibok have become a symbol of Nigeria’s failure to protect its citizens from Boko Haram militants. The kidnappings aroused international outrage and brought the Islamist extremist group to the world's attention with the hashtag campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Officials say 219 of them are still missing.

But despite the steady progress of the Nigerian military (flanked by South African mercenaries) and a multinational force charged with pushing back Boko Haram, evidence that the tides have turned will be measured by whether the Army can rescue the girls.

Outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan vowed on Thursday that he would hand over a terrorist-free Nigeria to his successor, Muhammadu Buhari, when he takes office on May 29.

But rescuing even some of the girls before then would provide a significant boost to President Jonathan's otherwise tumultuous legacy. His inability to do that helped undermine his re-election bid earlier this year. Jonathan's administration ignored Boko Haram's scourge for years and allowed to the group to flourish.

"It's too little, too late. This belated attempt is purely a populist agenda just to curry sympathy for the outgoing president with Nigerians," Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a political analyst, told Reuters of the latest offensive into the Sambisa Forest, a known Boko Haram stronghold. "Whatever meaningful battle against the insurgency will be by the incoming administration."

Many people have started to question why the Chibok girls have received more attention than the estimated 2,000 other women and children kidnapped by Boko Haram. Siobhan O’Grady ofForeign Policy writes:

For many Nigerians, the schoolgirls have become both a symbol of Boko Haram’s depravity and the West’s ignorance of Boko Haram and its many other victims. Since the group launched in 2009 an insurgent movement to establish a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria, it has been responsible thousands of deaths and kidnappings across the Lake Chad region. Only a small group of those victims, however, have received the attention of a viral social media campaign.

On Tuesday, many saw the Nigerian military’s willingness to advertise the unlikely possibility of the Chibok girls’ rescue as a brazen appeal to the West. Some Twitter users even referred to the girls as “supervictims,” who are treated differently in the eyes of the media and the general public because of the wide coverage of their kidnappings, when many others suffered a similar fate but were ignored.

Others argued the Nigerian military clarified that the identities were not yet available in order to control assumptions by the media that any mass rescue was related to Chibok.

Nigeria’s Army rescued about 500 women and children earlier this week in the midst of the recapturing Sambisa Forest. Nigerian counterinsurgency officials say the militant group is still holding at least some of the Chibok girls in the forest.

With more rescues expected, attention now turns to the psychological trauma that these women and children have suffered, The Washington Post reports:

Of all the ways Boko Haram has wreaked chaos across much of Northern Nigeria — the massacres, the beheadings, the bombings — its kidnappings are a particularly insidious form of violence. For many captives, to be held by the militant group is to be used as a sex slave, a suicide bomber, a conscript. And the experience leaves lasting scars.

“The trauma suffered by the women and girls is truly horrific,” Netsanet Belay, Africa director for Amnesty International, said in a statement about the recent rescue. “What they need now is medical and psychological care and support and privacy."

The news of women firing on their rescuers is just the latest evidence of the kidnappings’ psychological toll. In March, advocacy groups reported that children rescued from a Cameroon encampment were so traumatized they’d forgotten their own names.

“There was a blankness in their eyes,” Christopher Fomunyoh, an NGO worker visiting the children, told The Washington Post. When aid workers attempted to extract details of their captivity, the children answered in broken Arabic rather than their native languages.

“Right now, there’s not full comprehension of the damage of this crisis,” he added. “Even if kinetic operations were to end soon and Boko Haram was taken off the battlefield, it would take years to really address consequences in humanitarian terms.”

Meanwhile, Boko Haram is still causing havoc across the region. A governor in southern Niger ordered the evacuation of the Lake Chad islands following a deadly attack there by militants last week.

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