What Happens to Nigeria’s Freed Chibok Girls Now?

Chibok girl in Abuja
Some of the 82 girls from Chibok, who were released in a prisoner swap by the Nigerian government and Boko Haram, wait in Abuja, Nigeria, on May 7. The girls face a long process of rehabilitation and reintegration after more than three years in captivity. STRINGER/AFP/Getty

Three years’ of captivity came to an end at the weekend for 82 of the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in April 2014 from their school in Chibok, northeast Nigeria.

But for the young women who have regained their freedom in the glare of the international media, a long road of rehabilitation and reintegration lies ahead. The 82 women freed in a reported exchange may be able to provide invaluable intelligence for the Nigerian military in its ongoing battle against Boko Haram, and they will also likely face screening for potential radicalization after more than 1,000 days in captivity.

The girls arrived in Abuja on Sunday, a result of the Nigerian government’s ongoing negotiations with the militant group, that reportedly sent five Boko Haram commanders the other way in exchange. The release was the biggest development so far in the three-year saga that spawned a hashtag— #BringBackOurGirls —and received countless celebrity endorsements, yet has frustrated two successive Nigerian administrations.

The worldwide attention foisted upon the Chibok girls may prove beneficial to those released: 10 of the 57 girls who escaped in the immediate aftermath of the abduction in 2014 were sponsored to study in the United States. However, after much longer in captivity, reintegration may be more difficult and many will be watching as they re-enter a society that has previously shunned Boko Haram escapees.

“If they stumble and fall, that’s going to be with the full glare of the international spotlight on them,” says Fatima Akilu, a psychologist who ran the Nigerian government’s counter-extremism program for Boko Haram members and victims from 2012 until 2015. “From now on, [in] everything they do, they will be labeled as one of the Chibok girls. That brings a lot of pressure and added anxiety, which is not what they need at this time.”

For the immediate future, the girls are in the care of the Nigerian women’s affairs ministry. Suleiman Dantsoho, a spokesman for the ministry, tells Newsweek that the girls are in a hospital in Abuja undergoing medical tests. Dantsoho says that none of the 82 girls released over the weekend were pregnant or had children with them.

He adds that some of the girls have already been reunited with their families. “Four or five of them [the families] are already in Abuja and they met with the girls on Monday,” says Dantsoho, adding that the government will organize a reunification event for all the families in several weeks once the girls have undergone health checkups.

But the wait for those families to have the girls back permanently will likely go on for some months yet. From May 2016 to January 2017, 24 girls escaped or were rescued from Boko Haram, including 21 who were released in October as part of the same negotiation process, assisted by the Swiss government and the Red Cross, that saw the 82 go free.

Since January, those 24 girls have been based permanently in Abuja, where they are undertaking a nine-month remedial education course, according to a Nigerian government-endorsed video shared with Newsweek by officials in the president’s office. The girls are taken on trips to Chibok every three months as part of the course, but remain based permanently in Abuja, some 550 miles southwest of their home. (The girls were allowed to return to the predominantly Christian village for Christmas, but were reportedly housed at a local politician’s house and unable to stay with their families due to security concerns.)

Read more: Three years on, here's what we know about the missing Chibok girls

Aisha Yesufu, a leader of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) campaign group, says that it is imperative that the families of the released Chibok girls be able to see their daughters. “It doesn’t make sense for them to have been in captivity for over three years and when they come back here, they do not have access to their families… It seems like they left one captivity to be in another,” says Yesufu. “[While] the government security probably think they are trying to protect them, they must ensure they are able to have access to their families.”

Much has changed in Nigeria since the former captives, who were aged between 16 and 18 years old at the time, were taken on April 14, 2014, as they prepared to take their final examinations. Goodluck Jonathan, the former Nigerian president widely criticized for his administration’s slow response to the kidnapping, was succeeded by Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, in May 2015. Buhari was elected on a promise to eradicate Boko Haram and rescue the Chibok girls; the president said in his inaugural speech that he would not claim that Boko Haram were defeated until the girls were freed. (The president later drew the ire of the BBOG campaign for saying in December 2015 that the Nigerian military had “technically won the war” against Boko Haram.)

The Buhari administration has made huge gains against Boko Haram, which has also been hit by internal division and split into two factions. Nigerian and regional military offensives have driven the insurgents into enclaves in the Sambisa forest, a remote shrubland in Borno state, and the surrounds of Lake Chad.

Nigerian military Chibok school Military vehicles leave the grounds of the Government Girls Secondary School Chibok in Borno State north-eastern Nigeria on March 25, 2016. The Nigerian military has made huge gains against Boko Haram since the girls were abducted in 2014. STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty

These efforts have freed thousands of people held captive by the militant group, and the Nigerian government is continuing to negotiate the release of remaining prisoners—including the 113 Chibok girls presumed to still be in captivity—and even a potential ceasefire. Zannah Mustapha, a barrister who led the negotiations that won the 82 girls their freedom, tells Newsweek that the achievement constituted a “high point in my life” but that the job was not finished. “The process is ongoing. It is not [just] about the Chibok girls,” says Mustapha, who founded a school in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, that educates children whose parents were killed by Boko Haram and the children of its fighters. Mustapha says that the Nigerian government is looking to negotiate a complete “cessation of hostilities” and was now in a “position of strength,” having largely subdued the militant group.

But while Boko Haram barely controls any territory in Nigeria, it still mounts frequent attacks on military and civilian targets in the northeast of the country. Having been held by the militants for more than three years, the freed 82 girls likely constitute a significant intelligence asset to the Nigerian security forces in locating the group’s hideouts and liberating its remaining captives.

Osai Ojigho, the country director for Amnesty International in Nigeria, says that the government must prioritize the girls’ wellbeing ahead of seeking any potential intelligence benefits. She says the girls should be accompanied by a legal professional and counselor during any questioning. “Those safeguards need to be there, [but] we are not fully convinced that they are,” says Ojigho. “We don’t want a situation whereby they are frightened and give information under duress.” (Dantsoho, the women’s ministry spokesman, says he is not able to comment on any intelligence debriefing as security matters are outside his remit.)

Freed Chibok girls A man carrying a Boko Haram flag walks past a group of 82 Chibok girls, who were held captive for three years by Islamist militants, as the girls wait to be released in exchange for several militant commanders, near Kumshe, Nigeria, on May 6. More than 100 of the so-called Chibok girls have not been released from captivity. Zanah Mustapha/Reuters

Also under scrutiny will be any allegiance the women may feel towards their captors. Some of the Chibok girls still under Boko Haram’s control refused to return home as part of the negotiations, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The first of the group to escape captivity, Amina Ali Nkeki, was found by civilian vigilantes with her then four-month-old daughter and a man believed to be her husband, a suspected Boko Haram member; Nkeki has since said that she misses her husband, who was arrested when they were found in May 2016.

Akilu, the psychologist, has worked with hundreds of freed Boko Haram captives—though none of the Chibok girls—for the government and is the executive director of the NEEM Foundation, a nonprofit that provides psychosocial support to victims of the insurgency. “I’ve seen some [victims] who have exhibited the Stockholm syndrome, who say, ‘These are just normal guys, they treated us well, they fed us, they got me a doctor when I was sick,’” she says, referring to a condition whereby hostages develop an affinity with their captors. “Those who have identified with their captors are a lot more difficult to rehabilitate,” she adds.

While the release of the girls is likely to cast them back into the spotlight, Akilu says that it is important the young women be allowed to choose their own future. She says, “When a terrorist takes you, you often have no choice in the matter. So when you return to society, we cannot repeat that—we’ve got to give [them] some choice.”