ABUJA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some of the Chibok schoolgirls abducted three years ago by Islamist Boko Haram militants refused to be part of a group of 82 girls freed at the weekend, a mediator involved in the release said on Monday.
The militants on Saturday released 82 schoolgirls out of the more than 200 they kidnapped in April 2014 from northeast Nigeria in exchange for prisoners.
Yet mediator and lawyer Zannah Mustapha said some of the abducted girls had refused to go home, fuelling fears that they have been radicalized by the jihadists, and may feel afraid, ashamed or even too powerful to return to their old lives.
“Some girls refused to return ... I have never talked to one of the girls about their reasons,” said 57-year-old Mustapha, who acted as an intermediary in the latest negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram.
“As a mediator, it is not part of my mandate to force them (to return home),” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in the capital Abuja.
The return of the 82 girls on Saturday marked the second group release of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram - with both deals brokered by Switzerland and the International Committee of the Red Cross - after 21 young women were released in October.
A few others have escaped or been rescued, and 113 of the girls are believed to be still held in captivity by Boko Haram.
The latest release may give a boost to President Muhammadu Buhari, who made crushing the militants’ insurgency a pillar of his election campaign in 2015, and said in April that the state was in talks to secure the release of the remaining captives.
Yet many women and girls abducted by Boko Haram identify with their captors, may not want to give up their new lives with their militant husbands, or feel forced to stay due to fear or shame, according to Nigerian psychologist Fatima Akilu.
“They develop Stockholm syndrome, identify with captors and want to remain,” said Akilu, who has run deradicalization programs for Boko Haram militants and women abducted by them.
“Some are afraid of what to expect, the unknown. We don’t know how much influence their husbands have in coercing them not to go back,” added Akilu, head of the Neem Foundation, a non-profit group aimed at countering extremism in Nigeria.
NEGOTIATING FOR PEACE
Future talks between Nigeria and Boko Haram militants will extend beyond the release of the remaining Chibok girls in captivity and focus on negotiating peace in the conflict-hit northeast, according to Mustapha.
His role as a mediator dates back to 2007, when he founded the Future Prowess primary school in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state. When conflict broke out in 2009, the school remained open and even enrolled those children born to Boko Haram fighters.
The Islamists have killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million during a seven-year insurgency aimed at carving out an Islamic caliphate in mainly Muslim northeastern Nigeria.
“We are not just talking ... we are still actively working towards peace,” Mustapha said.
“Even though we have got (some of) the girls back, I don’t feel we have made much progress. After the (release of) the 21 girls, how many hundreds have been killed by suicide bombings?”
Although the army has retaken much of the territory initially lost to Boko Haram, large parts of the northeast, particularly in Borno, remain under threat from the militants, who have ramped up bombings and attacks in recent months.
The release of the 82 Chibok girls could be a sign that the militants are weakening further, raising hopes that the remaining captives will be freed one day, said security analyst Ryan Cummings, head of risk management consultancy Signal Risk.
“While Boko Haram may indeed hold out in releasing all of the hostages to maintain some form of leverage, the reality is that the girls have limited value to the sect outside of public relations capital and are likely placing a strain on resources.”