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Month after Boko Haram kidnapping of girls, what’s shocking is what remains unknown

Accounts conflict about how many girls were taken, when, how, why — and what is truly being done about it, adding to Nigerians’ anger.

The story of the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in mid-April continues to horrify the world. Yet for all the urgent headlines and advocacy, what is still missing are basic facts. 

More than three weeks after the shocking incident, it is unclear how many girls were abducted, who they are, who did it, at what time, and exactly how – a dearth of solid information that has deepened the distress and anger in Nigeria and spurred global calls for action. 

For starters, the number of girls taken away by the self-described Islamist radical Boko Haram and later rescued keeps changing.  First it was 129 girls rescued.  Then 121 were rescued and 8 were missing.  The next day, none had been rescued at all. No collective set of photos of the girls appears to exist, or even all their names (some websites with photos of the girls have used photos lifted from elsewhere).

A week ago, police stated that 276 girls remain missing and 53 escaped on their own accord.  This number could change again, according to the police commissioner of Borno State in the northeast, which is the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency.

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“It is really difficult to say the actual number of girls that were abducted,” said Commissioner Tanko Lawan. He says the numbers are hard to compile since  students from many schools were taking their exams at the Chibok school “due to the peculiar security challenges in Borno State,” he said.

Nor is much known about how hundreds of girls were taken and when. One newspaper quoted escaped girls that said the attack took place at dawn. In others, girls said it was at 11 p.m.  Amnesty International says the attack took place at “in the small hours of 15 April,” after a gun battle with local security forces. That report only came yesterday, May 9. 

“I think there’s a bit of insincerity in the system,” said Ade Ogundeyin, the CEO of Proforce, a Nigerian security company.  “You can’t tell me that 200 and something girls got move to a particular location and nobody [from the military] saw them?  It’s a confusing situation.”

Which leads to the next unknown: Why was this school opened for exams, given the deep insecurity in the area? 

Again, government and local officials and newspapers have given conflicting accounts. The slaughter of many school children in the northeast, reported for nearly a year, had prompted most schools in the northeast to close.  Mausi Segun of Human Rights Watch suggests that education authorities may have decided to open this one school so that girls from a number of schools in the area could take their final exams and later have a better chance at “employment … in cities like Lagos.” Yet such an opening would have been a widely known event, making the school a potential target.

Perhaps most frustrating for Nigerians is the absence of information on rescue efforts. Few facts are forthcoming, and the Nigerian military maintains it would compromise their efforts if they reported details to the public. 

But Nigerians want an explanation, for example, as to why local people say they have seen the girls traveling in the countryside — and this under the extreme crackdown known as emergency rule — but that the military has not given details nor staged a rescue.

It is widely believed that Boko Haram is responsible for the kidnapping because no other group in Nigeria has the capacity or the motivation to carry out such an attack. The group has killed thousands of adults and children and has previously abducted women to work as porters, spies, cooks, or sex slaves. 

Boko Haram has also taken responsibility for the kidnapping, saying the girls are being held as slaves and will be sold as wives. In a video distributed to reporters on Monday, a maniacal-appearing Boko Harm leader, Abubakar Shekau, rails against the government and threatens to force girls as young as nine years old to marry. 

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In the video, however, there are no girls. That in itself is somewhat unorthodox: In the past, terrorists showed images of hostages to prove the truth of their claims. 

Why Mr. Shekau waited three weeks to claim the act is unclear, though some speculate that Boko Haram is so unstructured and diffuse that he may not have known which faction was responsible. And the only hard evidence that Abubakar Shekau is even the leader of Boko Haram is that he says so.  This is a man who threatened to kill former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from his hideout in northeastern Nigeria more than six months after she died.

But one further fact is not in dispute: With every day that passes without the return of the girls, the fear for their lives becomes greater, and the despair in Nigeria is palpable. Frustration was deepened by a report that the military did not respond to warnings that Boko Haram was about to attack Chibok.

At a protest this week in the capital, Abubakar Sani, a civil servant and a father, sat quietly on the sidelines while the crowd sang: “All we are saying is ‘Bring back our girls. Alive. Now.’” 

“It’s something that can happen to anybody,” said Sani. “It’s necessary that we come out and demonstrate so the government will know how we feel.”