by Segun Odeleye
A UK publication, The Mail on Sunday, reported yesterday that some of the 219 Chibok schoolgirls abducted recently by Boko Haram have taken ill. The paper quoted a prominent Australian cleric, Dr. Stephen Davis, who is a hostage negotiator reportedly hired by President Goodluck Jonathan to broker the release of the girls.
According to the newspaper, the clergyman who was once the Canon Emeritus at the Coventry Cathedral in London and a friend of The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, has been in Nigeria working secretly on the release of the girls for almost a month now.
As an aide of Archbishop Welby, even before Welby became Archbishop of Canterbury, the two men helped broker a truce between the Federal Government and Niger Delta militants in 2004. Along with Welby, he was frequently blindfolded and held at gunpoint during his peace work in the Niger Delta.
Davis told The Mail on Sunday in an email that he had had ‘‘ongoing contacts’’ with the groups involved in the kidnapping in the North-East for seven years. He attributed his success in hostage negotiations in Nigeria to “a long process of building trust on both sides.”
According to a report:
The Perth-born Australian described how fraught the negotiation process had been but expressed optimism that the girls would be freed. He said, ‘One of that small group of girls is ill and we had hoped we might convince the commander of the group holding her that she should be released so we could give her medical treatment.
“There are other girls who are not well and we have come close to having them released but their captors fear a trap in which they will be captured in the handover process. One girl has what I assume is a broken wrist as they demonstrate to me how she holds her hand. I have been told that others are sick and in need of medical attention.
“But I am encouraged by the progress. Every day there is the possibility of the release of the girls. This is painful for the parents and the nation. The well-being of the girls is constantly on our minds and we want to see their release as soon as possible.”
The secret negotiator however ruled out the possibility of a rescue since the girls were not being held in one location. He said, “There are several groups to deal with as the girls are held in several camps across the Nigerian border in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. This makes any thought of a rescue highly improbable. To attempt to rescue one group would only endanger the others. We must not endanger their lives any further.
“The vast majority of the Chibok girls are not being held in Nigeria. I say the ‘vast majority’as I know a small group was confirmed to me to be in Nigeria last week when we sought to have them released.”
Explaining that he had been to military positions in the North-East in recent days, he said, ‘the troops and their field commanders are doing all that can be done at this point.”
Last week, the Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh, said the military knew the location of the girls and claimed that security agencies had been ‘following them’ since the abduction. Badeh did not divulge details, saying doing so would put the girls in further danger.
Sources said Badeh’s claim might have been the result of government officials seeing a new, unpublished video allegedly sent by the sect to President Goodluck Jonathan.
The Sunday Mail also quoted a military source on Sunday as saying that with most of the girls outside the shores of Nigeria, ‘any sort of attempt to get to them would have to be cleared by the governments of the other nations.’
The source added, ‘This has been a race against time from the minute they were captured. As soon as the girls left Nigerian soil it was always going to be more difficult. ‘The government made no attempt at a rescue until a month after they were taken. Now the situation gets more serious by the day.”
The Mail on Sunday also claimed that the new recorded video by Boko Haram showed the girls bravely speaking out about their ordeal for the first time. The footage, not released publicly but seen by the newspaper, was taken in a jungle clearing a month after the girls were abducted on April 14. It also confirmed David’s claim that a few of the girls were ill. In the video, eight girls, dressed in their school uniforms of pale blue gingham, plead for release as they stand in front of a camera. The newspaper said they were clearly scared, upset and trying to be brave as they walked in turn to a spot in front of a white sheet fixed to a frame between trees. According to the publication, four of the girls could be heard in Hausa Language, stating that they were taken by force and that they were hungry.
One of them aged about 18 said tearfully, “My family will be so worried.” Another, speaking softly, said, “I never expected to suffer like this in my life.’ A third said, ‘They have taken us away by force” and the fourth complained that, “We are not getting enough food.” The video, allegedly taken by an intermediary on May 19, said the newspaper, was intended to serve as ‘proof of life’ for the girls and to Jonathan to accede to the terrorists’ demands.
Two earlier videos showed the girls seated on the ground, dressed in hijabs, reciting the Koran. In the videos, Boko Haram Leader, Abubakar Shekau, declared he would sell the girls into slavery or marry them off to their kidnappers if members of the sect in detention were not released.
Pressure from the international community and criticism of the Jonathan’s slow response to the kidnapping had led to a series of contradictory pronouncements from his government. Some ministers have declared that government would not negotiate with Boko Haram or consider the release of prisoners, while official spokesmen said “the window is always open for dialogue.”