Miss Amina Ali Nkeki was freed on 17th May 2016 by 25 Brigade and vigilantes on routine patrol in the vicinity of Baale, 761 days after she and 276 classmates were abducted from GSS Chibok, Chibok Town, Borno State. She was positively identified by a vigilante and her mother in Mbalala village, of the 219 still unaccounted for she states 6 have died.
Her liberation is an important symbolic milestone in this conflict, what it says about the actual realities of the conflict are equally interesting
1) She was found on the outskirts Sambisa Forest and states that most of the girls are still there. Nigerian forces have been fighting in the Sambisa Forest for over a year. It is overflown daily by Nigerian, US, UK, French UAVs and reconnaissance aircraft, it is photographed by satellite, and crisscrossed by air combat patrols as well as Nigerian ground forces, yet somewhere in its vastness are 212 hostages and their captors which is testament to the size and complexity of the terrain and also leaves open the question that if Boko Haram can leave high value assets like the Chibok girls in the Forest, what else could be concealed there
2) Miss Nkeki has a 4 month old daughter and was captured with her ‘husband’, Mohammed Hayatu. This confirms the general perception that the girls had been ‘married off’ to their abductors. It is also a high profile example of the problem of reintegrating former hostages and their children born of rape or forced marriage. The ‘husband’ Hayatu claims to be a forced conscript from Mubi. This is also a high profile example of the complexities of dealing with Boko Haram fighters. As a forced conscript he is technically a victim, however to be allocated a ‘Chibok wife’ he would have been a trusted member, thus at what point does a victim become a perpetrator? And how is he treated? As a Prisoner of War, a criminal or a candidate for rehabilitation? What takes precedence, vengeance, justice or rehabilitation and reintegration?
3) The fact that this girl either escaped, was captured or released indicates that the dynamic within the final hard core elements of Boko Haram have changed. The group she was with were allegedly searching for food and firewood, if she was captured it indicates Boko Haram has been pushed out of the depths of the forest to the outskirts and are so desperate that they are willing to allow high value targets run free on. If she was set free, it was either due to the inability of her captors to cater for their hostages or as a proof of life or a demonstration of good will, or else maybe as a messenger for the rest of the group or their captors. Or maybe as a decoy to concentrate friendly forces effort in a particular place while the enemy operates elsewhere. If she escaped it indicates that the enemy no longer has the capability to guard its most valuable propaganda assets.
4) Taken alongside the widespread use of dane guns rather than modern assault rifles, abandoned camps, the inability to mount successful strategic IED attacks, relatively few raids in Nigeria and the relative media silence of the group are clear indicators of a loss of operational capability by the group. The question is whether they will gain the operational and strategic space to regenerate or not
It is clear a decision point has been reached by the enemy, although involuntarily. Their military weakness means they are in the process of losing their most valuable bargaining tool and propaganda piece. Their options are to attempt to regain the initiative by murdering their captives or desperately try and gain some sort of advantage by negotiating, or else continue the campaign to its logical conclusion.
Boko Haram is not defeated or eradicated but barring any local or international intervention the conflict has reached a critical and hopefully decisive juncture.