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Published On: Sun, Apr 20th, 2014

Chibok school abductions: How did the military get it all mixed up?

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Chief-of-Army-Staff-General-Kenneth-MinimahTwo terror attacks took place, 24 hours apart, last week. One was the bombing of Nyanya bus station in Abuja during an early morning rush hour in which over 70 people were killed and close 200 inured. The other was the abduction of 129 schoolgirls from Government Girls Secondary School at Chibok, Borno state, the following day, April 15. While the nation’s military acquitted themselves well on the former, they did not on the latter. Their handling of the abductions at Chibok was a colossal national embarrassment.

A statement by Defence Headquarters spokesman, Major General Chris Olukolade, on April 16, providing “updates” on the Chibok abductions and the sectarian violence in Wukari, Taraba state, said: “More of the abducted students of Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok in Borno state have this afternoon been freed as troops pursuing the terrorists closed in on the den of those believed to have carried out the attack. A total of 129 students had earlier been abducted by a group of terrorists.”

Few hours later, a further update was provided in a statement by the same officer. Titled “Update on Abducted Students, it related that “More students of the Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, have been freed this evening in the ongoing Search& Rescue operations to free the abducted students. With this development, the Principal of the school has confirmed that only 8 of the students are still missing. One of the terrorists who carried out the attack on the school has also been captured. The military intervention and search and rescue operation to ensure the safety of the remaining students is ongoing in the suspected areas.”

However, the principal of the school, Mrs. Asabe Kwambura, whom the military quoted as one of their sources, would later that day issue a strong denial. And she was backed by Borno state government officials. Her denial statement read thus: “There is nothing in the military statement that is true about our abducted girls. Up till now we are still waiting and praying for the safe return of the students; all I know is that we have only 14 of them, and the security people especially the vigilante and the well-meaning volunteers of Gwoza are still out searching for them.

“The military people too are in the bush searching. So we have not received any information that they have gotten the students yet. So let it be clear that all the information passed on to the media by the military concerning 107 girls is not true. I, as the principal, did not tell anybody any figure on released students other than what our governor, His Excellency Kashim Shettima had informed the media”.

Defence Headquarters’ reaction was to issue a retraction and an indirect apology in its third press release on the Chibok abductions. Again, signed by Gen. Olukolade, who surprisingly has experience in handling such issues, the statement read thus: “The controversy that has been generated around the efforts at securing the lives of the abducted students of Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, is unfortunate. The ongoing frantic efforts of security forces along with vigilante groups including hunters working to locate and free the abducted students have continued to be keenly monitored at the Operation Centre of the Defence and Army Headquarters as regular progress reports are being received from troops on the ground.

“In this regard, a report was filed in from the field indicating that a major breakthrough had been recorded in the search. There was no reason to doubt this official channel, hence the information was released to the public immediately. Surprisingly, however, the school principal, one of the sources quoted in the report has denied all that was attributed to her for whatever reasons. This is an unfortunate development indeed, yet the Defence Headquarters would not want to join issues with anyone…”

However, issues have been joined in the Chibok matter already. For example, Mrs. Kwambura said vigilantes, not the military, have been more visible in the search for the abducted girls. Was the military, therefore, in a hurry to claim credit that should go elsewhere? Why were parents of the “freed” girls not mentioned in the Defence HQrs “updates” as confirming the principal’s alleged disclosures”? And not a group picture of the “released” schoolgirls either.

The military said their “report forwarded to the public on this issue was in good faith and not intended to deceive the public”. Unfortunately, that is the impression that has stuck with many Nigerians. We, however, commend the military authorities for being humble enough to accept they made a huge gaffe.

 

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