President Muhammadu Buhari has declared Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group, defeated time and again. But the militants’ attack on the Dapchi school has left anguished parents and community members asking how such a kidnapping could happen again, not even four years after another mass abduction of schoolgirls shocked the world.
But even as the president says he intends to negotiate for their release, the kidnappings are threatening to become a major issue in next year’s presidential election.
In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 girls from another northern secondary school, in Chibok. Dozens were released last year through government negotiations, and a few have escaped. But nearly four years later, more than 100 are still being held.
Goodluck Jonathan, who was president at the time of the Chibok kidnapping, was widely criticized for not immediately acting to find the students, and government officials had vowed nothing like that would ever happen again.
Nigeria’s war with the Islamist militants is entering its ninth year, having swept up scores of victims who lost their homes, their children and their lives to brutal violence that spilled across the nation’s borders. Villages have been burned, children have been kidnapped and conscripted into fighting, women and girls have been raped, and teenagers have been forcibly strapped with explosives to carry out suicide bombings.
Not long ago, it seemed as if the Nigerian military was making progress against the extremists, who want to create a religious state of their own. Soldiers regained territory controlled by Boko Haram and captured or killed fighters whose capabilities became so weak that they could no longer pull off complicated operations. The group splintered amid infighting.
But in the past few months, Boko Haram has raged back, attacking military convoys and outposts and dispatching a steady stream of suicide bombers to attack checkpoints and crowds. In December, a faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State engaged in a firefight with the American military carrying out training exercises in neighboring Niger. Eleven militants were killed, including two wearing suicide vests.
President Buhari, who pledged to crush the militants, visited Dapchi on Wednesday to set up a committee to look into the kidnappings in an attempt to soothe outraged critics who accuse federal officials of being slow to respond.
“There will be no rest till the last girl, whether from Chibok and Dapchi, is released,” Mr. Buhari said in a statement. “The girls, like all our citizens, must enjoy unhindered freedom and pursue their legitimate aspirations.”
This past week, the president had also assured Rex W. Tillerson, then the United States secretary of state before he was fired, that the government was “trying to be careful” by pursuing negotiations with militants to bring back the Dapchi girls and the rest of the Chibok students.
Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, head of the United States Africa Command, told a congressional committee earlier this month that Nigeria had asked for intelligence and other support to help find all the missing girls. He said the Dapchi students were most likely taken by a faction of militants that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and he called Boko Haram “one of the most deplorable organizations on the planet.”
In recent months, President Buhari has suffered embarrassing setbacks.
This month, a Boko Haram attack killed security forces and humanitarian workers at a camp for displaced workers in Rann that Nigerian military jets accidentally bombed last year, killing dozens. A few months ago, militants kidnapped a group of policewomen and a team of university professors who were on an oil exploration trip. The government recently negotiated for their release.
Last year, officials bargained to free dozens of students taken from the Chibok school, paying millions of dollars in ransom to free them and exchanging several Boko Haram commanders as part of a hostage swap, according to negotiators. Many Nigerians are questioning the wisdom of paying ransom to militants who may view abductions as a reliable revenue source.
In Dapchi, parents, teachers, students and residents recalled the night that Boko Haram arrived, the first major security incident there since the war began. Aliyu Musa Mabu, the school’s vice principal, had just finished serving meals to students and was heading to the mosque when he heard the first gunshot. It must be nothing, he said he thought to himself, and settled in to pray. Then he heard another shot.
He raced outside and saw two military trucks and a pickup armed with an antiaircraft gun. Men were crammed inside, wearing turbans and military fatigues. They were heading toward the school.
By the time Mr. Mabu caught up with them, chaos had unfolded. According to witness accounts, girls were running everywhere, some scaling the fence to get free. Militants pulled some down and told others they were soldiers, guiding the girls into their vehicles saying they would protect them. In the confusion, many of the girls believed them and scrambled over one another to get inside the men’s trucks.
Militants who saw one student, Hafsat Lawan, 17, and her friends hurrying over the fence beckoned them to come for safety. The girls started toward the fighters but, Ms. Lawan later said, became suspicious of their turbans and sandals and their use of the local language, which is often unfamiliar to soldiers recruited from across the country. She fled.
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“The sad thing is some of the students ran to them — including my younger sister,” said Ms. Lawan, whose 14-year-old sister is presumed to be among the hostages.
Fatima Bukar, 14, was in her dorm near to the school fence when she heard gunshots. “We weren’t sure where it was coming from,” she said. “We were confused.”
One girl ran toward Fatima and her friends, telling them to flee for their lives because Boko Haram had arrived. Fatima said she saw girls being led outside the school gate and into militants’ trucks; she recognized many friends among them.
“They were saying if you run we will shoot you,” she said. “They were shooting into the air.”
Fatima bolted over the fence and ran through the bush, thinking that because the area had no road, the militants would be less likely to chase her. She fled with about 30 girls and a teacher who led them to a farm, where the group spent the night, too terrified to fall asleep.
At her home not far from the school, Fatima’s father, Auwal Bukar, was panicking. He had crouched in his house when he heard gunshots. He peeked outside later and saw trucks packed with girls. It was dark, but their sobs were unmistakable.
“We could hear them crying very clearly,” he said.
As the trucks headed outside town, witnesses said, some of the girls appeared to be tied up with their own clothing. They heard the screams as the vehicles sped away.
Afterward, an eerie silence fell over the area. Not long after, many of the girls who had been hiding in the bush started to trickle back to the school. But tallying the missing was complicated. Some girls, like Fatima, spent the entire night in the countryside, too terrified to return. Some fled straight to their family farms, far from the reach of cellular networks. Hours after the kidnapping, school officials found girls still hiding in toilets, classrooms and other buildings on the campus.
Wakil Zanna, 55, a retired civil servant, arrived at the school at 7 the morning after the attack to search for his two missing daughters, Aisha Wakil, 13, and Falmata Wakil, 14. Other parents were there, too, demanding answers about their daughters’ whereabouts. No one seemed to have any clarity about anything: Federal officials were silent.
In the days immediately after the attack, the police denied an abduction had taken place, while a state official announced that the girls had been rescued. Elated parents rushed to the school as the governor’s convoy rolled into town with vehicles they presumed were carrying their daughters. Instead, the governor announced he had been mistaken; the girls were still missing. He apologized. Parents rioted.
Residents have since learned that a military checkpoint at the entrance to town had been dismantled not long before the kidnapping when soldiers left to pursue Boko Haram near the Nigerien border. Dapchi employs a police force, but on the night of the attack, the commander was out of town.
“They came and did their operation uninterrupted and left,” said Hadiza Jibo, the school matron. “This is something that would have been averted if military presence was visible in the town. It’s really traumatic, honestly.”
The military and the president have sought to reassure Nigerians that they are looking for the girls. But Mr. Buhari recently angered residents by traveling to a lavish wedding before heading to Dapchi to sympathize with the missing girls’ families.
Alhaji Baba Shehu, who has several nieces and other relatives attending the school, said he feared many parents in a region where education for girls is already lagging would now be reluctant to send their daughters to school. His relatives managed to escape the Boko Haram attack, but he has a friend who had enrolled his daughter at the Dapchi school for the first time, on the very day militants attacked. The child was kidnapped.
Even the girls who escaped unharmed are traumatized, he said, and some are afraid to return to school. Several public figures in Nigeria have said the kidnapping reflects poorly on the government.
“We are spending billions trying to encourage girls to go to school, only to allow them be abducted by terrorists,” said Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president who is likely to run for president in 2019. “I condemn these abductions, and I urge the federal government to take firm action to ensure that it would never reoccur in Nigeria.”
As the election approaches, calls are growing from both the president’s critics and one-time supporters for him not to seek a second term in office. Some rivals are using the Dapchi kidnapping to build their case, and a fringe element has even accused the president of orchestrating the kidnappings so that he could emerge heroic by negotiating the girls’ release.
Bashir Manzo’s daughter, Aisha, is among the missing students. He has joined an association of parents who are pushing the government not to give up looking. Some of them rallied over the weekend in the nation’s capital, Abuja.
Mr. Manzo said he could not stop thinking about his daughter in the hands of militants. He would rather she be dead.
“It’s far better for me because the corpse would have long been claimed and buried by now,” Mr. Manzo said. “But for my daughter to be alive under forceful restriction in the name of abduction and with nothing being done tangibly to rescue her is enough trauma for me.”