Nigerians are asking themselves how far their government should go to bring almost 300 abducted schoolgirls back to their families.
The militants of Boko Haram, the Islamist extremist group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping last month, have offered to swap the girls for some prisoners held by the government.
That offer was immediately rejected by the Nigerian government, but relatives of the girls say that firepower alone wont save them. They want the government to reconsider.
The hashtag “Bring back our girls” has more than 4 million tweets. At a daily vigil in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, activists and relatives have added two important words to their chant: “and alive.”
After the rally, Peter Iliya, a local pharmacist says that two of his nieces were abducted, driven off by militants into the forest. One niece, named Mundi, age 18, managed to escape off the truck.
“The vehicle was moving and it passed under a fairly big tree,” Iliya says. “She clung onto the branch and she hung there until the vehicle zoomed off and she jumped down.”
She hung in the tree while trucks full of her classmates passed beneath her. Then she jumped down and walked back through the dark forest to her village. But Iliya’s other niece was not so bold or so lucky. She disappeared with the others.
The government says it has dispatched 20,000 soldiers to rescue the girls. Iliya has very mixed feelings about that firepower.
“Because I will tell you, categorically, that no military action will bring back these girls,” he says. “If you go on a military action, you are losing all the girls, absolutely. These people, they are erratic people. They are drug addicts. They should be handled with the utmost caution. And I think if I am to say, if I were to advise the government, negotiation is the way out.”
He wants the government to negotiate. The U.S. offered to send hostage negotiators, but Nigeria refused.
Aliyu Gebi, an elected member of parliament, says it’s because of the word “terrorist.”
“Government will not negotiate with terrorists,” Gebi says. “It is enshrined in the anti-terrorist act, just like your government will not negotiate with terrorists! And if you’re branded a terrorist, tough luck for you. Nobody will negotiate well with you!”
Gebi represents Bauchi state, in northeast Nigeria. Like Borno state, home of the abducted girls, Bauchi is also frequently attacked by Boko Haram.
Boko Haram’s purported leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said in a Youtube video that he would trade the girls for prisoners held by the government.
Chinedu Nwagu, a Nigerian security analyst who now works in police reform, is skeptical.
“Give us back your people we’ll give you your girls — the state could weigh the cost of that. After that, then what next?” Nwagu says. “Negotiation is not a solution. It’s not a long-term, permanent fix to the problem.”
But Nwagu says in this particular case, the Nigerian army doesn’t have the capacity to make a surgical strike and rescue the girls alive. He says the prisoners that Boko Haram wants to trade the girls for are not even clearly militants. They were rounded up in brutal and arbitrary military operations — mass sweeps highly criticized by human rights groups.
Also not clear is whether Nigeria’s holding onto those so-called militants is preventing war or fueling it.
“How long can we hold out like this?” Nwagu says. “What are we willing to concede in this situation? And if we don’t concede anything, how much damage does that do to our psyche and our well-being as a people.
Government officials have told NPR that some inside government are trying to open a dialogue.
Chinedu says he hasn’t heard about any secret talks, and he doesn’t want to know if there are. He just wants to hear one day soon that some prisoners have been released, and some girls have been returned to their families, alive.