Five years is too long: the Nigerian government must deliver on its promises to secure the release of Leah Sharibu

Leah Sharibu has been the hostage of terrorists for five years now.

She was just 14 years old when she was taken – the sole Christian among a group of 110 schoolgirls abducted from their school in Dapchi, Nigeria, by members of the Islamic State West Africa Province in February 2018.

Those familiar with her case will recall that just one month later all of Leah’s surviving classmates – five died in transit – were loaded onto trucks and returned to their families following negotiations by the government. But Leah was not among them.

The terrorists told her they would only release her if she renounced her faith and converted to Islam in exchange for her freedom. At just 14 years of age, Leah refused to give in to their pressure.

She has remained their captive ever since, and was declared a ‘slave for life’ following the execution of one of her fellow hostages in October 2018. She is now a 19-year-old woman, and while many of her peers may now be close to completing their studies at university, she remains in captivity because the Nigerian authorities which negotiated the release of her colleagues have repeatedly failed to deliver on the promises they have made to her family that they would do everything in their power to secure her release.

News of Leah’s situation and well-being has been frustratingly limited. In January 2020 a released hostage told Nigerian media that Leah was alive and well; in January 2022 Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Lucky Irabor, told Good Morning Nigeria that he was “aware of plans” to secure Leah’s release, but even over a year later these plans have not yielded any fruit. There are also disturbing but essentially unconfirmed reports that she may now have given birth to two children after enduring sexual and gender-based violence.

Leah’s continuing imprisonment by a deadly terrorist faction is emblematic of the Nigerian government’s resolute failure to combat the threats posed by multiple insurgencies. As well as ISWAP, terrorists affiliated with the notorious Boko Haram, a militia comprising members primarily of Fulani ethnicity, and fighters from the al Qaeda affiliate, Ansaru, have wrought untold devastation on vulnerable communities in Nigeria’s northern and central states.

These groups are increasingly well-armed and organised, and there are credible reports that they are working together in some regions. And yet the Nigerian government is at best unwilling to respond to the ongoing violence, and at worst, there is an element of complicity.

Reports have emerged over the years of military forces leaving vulnerable areas moments before attacks took place, a military vehicle pulling up to a village as an attack was underway and leaving without offering assistance, security forces consistently arriving after terrorists have left, as well as of military helicopters assisting with attacks, and of army supplies recovered from sites of terrorist violence.

If the government cannot address these threats, or if elements within its military are indeed assisting those responsible for heinous acts of terrorism, how can it be trusted to secure Leah’s release? Or that of any of the hundreds of others who have been abducted by terrorists for ransom, or enslavement in recent years?

Beyond that, even if it could negotiate freedom for Leah and others in captivity, how can they be considered free if they must return to live in constant fear of further abduction, violence and the destruction of their homes and villages?

Five years is far too long. The current Nigerian government is approaching the end of its final tenure, and it may be too late for it to make good on its promises to secure Leah’s freedom. The international community, which has indulged the current government’s failure to address insecurity and religion-related violence effectively, must hold it to these promises by continuing to raise her case with the government at every remaining opportunity.

But it must not stop there. The government must also be prompted to do far more to combat the terrorist groups who kill indiscriminately and who view the lives of innocent civilians and even children as means through which to extract exorbitant ransoms. It must root out anybody who is complicit in the violence from the military, and it must redouble protections for vulnerable communities like the one from which Leah was taken. And if it is unable to do this, again the international community must step in, assisting where possible, holding it to account for its failures where necessary, and insisting that the next administration prioritises the tackling of insecurity and the release of every captive.

Leah’s captivity cannot be allowed to continue, and we must not allow ourselves to become inured to the appallingly relentless suffering of Nigerian citizens. Every day that both of these issues remain unaddressed should be a blight on the conscience not just of members of the Nigerian government who still have the capacity for honest introspection, but of all those who have the power to act and do not.

By CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas CMG