The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram stormed back into the world’s headlines with a renewed offer to swap abducted schoolgirls for detained insurgents. It isn’t a particularly original offer – but it has won the group some fresh publicity and may divert attention away from its infighting.
Boko Haram has lost most of the territory it once controlled in north-east Nigeria and recently split into at least two groups: one faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi and backed by Islamic State (IS), and another led by Abubakar Shekau. This latest proposal comes from Shekau’s faction, which seems to be trying to assert its supremacy despite being cut off from IS. As Shekau himself said in a recently released audio recording: “People should know we are still around.”
To do that, it is using a relatively coherent media strategy. As I have explored in my own research, the insurgents are skilfully using media techniques that sometimes defy modern public relations logic. One such strategy is to mix intimidation with absolute control of the facts: the group’s factions choose precisely which nuggets of information to release to the public, and present them in a deeply intimidating style to simultaneously show off their prowess and terrorise their adversaries.
Their latest video is a perfect example. It shows about 50 of the 276 schoolgirls Boko Haram abducted in April 2014 from Government Secondary School Chibok in the north-eastern Nigerian state of Borno. The girls are shown with a masked gunman who demands the release of captured fellow fighters in return for the girls.
Speaking in Hausa language, the gunman says “the Chibok parents should tell the Federal Government of Nigeria to release our brethren, especially those in custody in Maiduguri, Lagos, Abuja and other parts of the country. It is the only condition for the release of these girls”. He says at least 40 of the girls have been married off, and that many were killed in air strikes by the Nigerian air force.
The video also shows footage of bodies, which the group says were victims of the air strikes. One of the girls is also shown pleading with parents to appeal to the government to agree to the swap proposal. Some of the girls weep as she speaks.
This is the third video showing the girls in the group’s custody. The first was released in May 2014; in that one, Shekau threatened to sell them as slaves or marry them off. (He appears to have made good on the latter threat.) The second video was released in April 2016 during the second anniversary of the abductions, and showed 15 of the girls.
The new video was cleverly designed to shift the blame of the girls’ plight to the government, to show the failure of the military’s bombing campaigns – and more significantly, to accuse them of killing some of the girls with their attacks.
The Nigerian military establishment reacted to the group’s accusations with fury. First it denied that the air strikes caused the girls’ deaths. Defence spokesman Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar said the military was only engaged in precision air strikes: “The equipment has the capacity of registering targets and hitting only those targets.”
Then the army declared three people wanted, including Ahmed Salkida, a journalist who supposedly has close contact with the group. A statement from army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman claimed that the three – Salkida, lawyer Aisha Wakil and activist Ahmed Bolori – “have information on the conditions and the exact location of these girls”.
The civilian authorities too have commented on the video but offered no clues as to their next move. Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the division in Boko Haram’s ranks is complicating the effort to free the girls. “We are on top of the situation. But we are being extremely careful because the situation has been compounded by the split in the leadership of Boko Haram.”
The Bring Back Our Girls campaign dismissed the government’s response as woefully inadequate, demanding “an immediate, transparent action and results-oriented response plan by the government”. Oby Ezekwesili and Aisha Yesufu, the leaders of the campaign, responded to the recent video in downbeat fashion: “We are left with mixed feelings of grief and strengthened hope as the chilling words continue to sink in.”
All the while, many of the schoolgirls' parents will be more traumatised than ever. Those who didn’t see their daughters in the new video and heard about the deaths of some girls were left wondering what happened to them. Those who did see their daughters alive will be relieved on one level, but also worried about the condition in which they saw them – and depressed that their return is no more guaranteed than it was two years ago.