Since coming into power in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has claimed Boko Haram is “technically” defeated and “terribly degraded”.
But in February, almost four years after the audacious kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 111 schoolgirls from Dapchi, embarrassing the Nigerian military who failed to repel the militants and locate the girls.
The response from the authorities — denials then contradictions — was eerily similar to the confusion when the Chibok girls were kidnapped.
Though Buhari eventually declared the kidnapping a “national disaster”, Nigerians wondered why it had taken so long for the government to get its story straight.
In a bizarre twist, the government struck a temporary ceasefire agreement with Boko Haram who dropped off 105 of the Dapchi girls to cheering parents in March, an act described by experts as a “propoganda coup” for the jihadists.
Five other Dapchi girls are believed to have been killed in the initial stages of the kidnapping, while one other, Leah Sharibu, is still being held for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.
“It was a very good ending compared to what happened in Chibok,” Jacob Zenn, a researcher at The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research institute, told AFP.
The Dapchi attack, perpetrated by a faction of Boko Haram aligned with the Islamic State group, showed an evolution in the jihadists strategy, said Zenn.
“To see the Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) being openly received with welcome in the village is a first in the insurgency.”
The Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) wants to “win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim population,” said Zenn.
“It’s more dangerous in the long run.”
– Still in captivity –
For those following Boko Haram, the Dapchi kidnapping wasn’t entirely a surprise.
Over the past year, the jihadists have ramped up attacks, killing soldiers, kidnapping government workers and terrorising the northeastern city of Maiduguri with relentless suicide bombings.
Under pressure to live up to his election promise of beating Boko Haram, this month Buhari reiterated his support for the release of $1 billion in emergency funds to fight the Islamists.
Today over 100 of the Chibok girls remain in Boko Haram captivity.
Abubakar Shekau, the mercurial Boko Haram leader responsible for using girls as suicide bombers, has claimed in videos that the girls have converted to Islam and have been “married off”.
Still, Buhari has promised to bring them back along with Sharibu, the Christian schoolgirl from Dapchi.
“I am very optimistic that all others, including the Chibok girls who are still in captivity will be safely released unconditionally to their families,” said Buhari in his Easter address, “I urge you to continue to pray for their safe return.”
Though Buhari’s government has recovered scores of the girls, the negotiations with the jihadists — which reportedly involved ransom payments and the release of high-ranking commanders — rankled critics who questioned the wisdom of funding and rejuvenating the ranks of the extremists.
– Less criticism –
Even though some Chibok girls are still held in custody, Buhari is unlikely to face serious repercussions at the polls as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, said Amaka Anku, Africa analyst at Eurasia Group, a Washington-based political risk consultancy.
The Bring Back Our Girls movement, once a fierce critic of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has lost its bite, explained Anku.
“Even though they are speaking out, it’s not with the same vitriol as they did against the PDP,” she said.
The escalating clashes between pastoralists and farmers across the country has, for now, eclipsed Boko Haram in the national debate, Anku said.
“Security is going to be a big question in the election but I think the bigger security focus will be on the middle belt,” she added.