LAGOS, Nigeria – Aid workers and parents of the girls who were kidnapped from a school in 2014 lashed out at the Nigerian government and military Thursday for their handling of the first of the so-called Chibokgirls to escape the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram.
Tuesday’s escape brought joy and renewed hope but also increased pressure for the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to rescue 200-plus other students who were seized in the mass abduction that outraged the world.
On Thursday, Amina Ali Nkeki, who was found nursing her 4-month-old baby on the fringes of Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold, was flown to Abuja to meet with the president.
A second girl believed to be among the Chibok abductees was rescued Thursday evening, army spokesman Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman said in a late-night statement.
The information could not be independently confirmed, and Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of the Chibok Parents Association and uncle of Ali, said he had heard the report but had no information about it.
Ali, 19, was shielded from journalists when she arrived at the presidential villa, her mother carrying her baby. She was shown into Buhari’s office for a private hour-long meeting. Television cameras and photographers were allowed in briefly afterward.
A presidential statement said Buhari’s feelings were “tinged with deep sadness at the horrors the young girl has had to go through at such an early stage in her life.”
On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram stormed and firebombed the Government Girls Secondary School at the remote northeastern town of Chibok after a handful of soldiers ran out of ammunition and ran away from about 200 extremists. They seized 276 girls preparing for science exams. Dozens managed to escape in the first hours. Until Tuesday, 219 remained captive.
Ali revealed to her mother that a few of the girls died in captivity, but most remain under heavy guard in the forest, according to family doctor Idriss Danladi.
“Bring back our girls — now and alive!” about 40 men and women chanted Thursday evening at a rally of the movement, which has inspired a worldwide social media campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. They have met faithfully every week at Abuja’s Unity Fountain.
“No more excuses. And no failure is acceptable,” Oby Ezekwesili, a founder of the movement, told the gathering. “We can rescue our Chibok girls. What happened with one can happen with 218.”
A former World Bank vice president and Nigerian education minister, she helped start the group after former President Goodluck Jonathan initially denied there had ever been a mass kidnapping. His wife claimed it was a ruse to make her husband look bad.
Jonathan lost elections last year in part because he was seen as not caring about the Chibok girls and not committed to rescuing them.
Ezekwesili criticized Buhari for admitting he has not seen a proof-of-life video that Boko Haram sent to the government months ago in a bid to open negotiations to exchange the Chibok girls for detained Boko Haram leaders. It was the first indication in two years that some of the girls are alive.
“We urged our government to take the proof-of-life video seriously,” she told the rally. “But you know that our president did not watch that video.”
Still, she said, “God is very good. He gave us a miracle, a young woman who was in the enclave of the terrorists with the best bed of information that anybody can have.”
She called for Buhari to mobilize countries such as the United States, France and Britain in a reinvigorated effort to find the girls. Those countries sent drones, hostage negotiators, intelligence officers and others after the kidnapping, to no avail.
Chibok parents were outraged that the military had “paraded” the young woman beside the Boko Haram commander who took her as his wife, Ezekwesili said.
Ali has told her mother that the man, Mohammed Hayatu, rescued her, deserting Boko Haram and leading her out of the forest because the camp had run out of food and they feared their baby would starve to death, according to Danladi. The military said Hayatu is detained for interrogation.
Buhari’s government also was lambasted by Washington-based Refugees International, which said Ali should be getting immediate care for rape and psychological counseling, instead of making public appearances.
“It is an outrage!” said Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, women and girls’ advocate at Refugees International, saying the escapee’s case should not be politicized.
Buhari’s statement said medical personnel and trauma experts had examined Ali on Wednesday for five hours. The president promised that she would get the best medical care and education available.
The Associated Press does not normally identify suspected victims of sexual assault, but Ali appeared publicly alongside the president and was seen widely on television. Buhari’s statement identified her by name.
In it, Buhari repeated promises his administration will do all it can to bring the girls home.
Nigerian hunters found Ali wandering on the fringes of the remote northeastern Sambisa Forest and reunited her with her mother, Danladi said after speaking with the mother.
Nigeria’s military claimed it had rescued the young woman, though its initial statement identified the escapee as another Chibok girl who is still missing.
Authorities will be asking her where her classmates are being held. If Boko Haram tries to move large groups of girls because of her escape, those movements can be captured by satellites and air reconnaissance.
Aid groups also alleged that thousands of other rescued or escaped Boko Haram hostages have been further abused by the military, which detains many.
Amnesty International this month called the military’s Giwa barracks in Maiduguri “a place of death” where babies and children are among scores of detainees dying from disease, hunger, dehydration and gunshot wounds.
Nigeria’s military denied the allegations and insisted that Amnesty officials have seen the facilities and “made recommendations that were implemented.”
Amnesty said the military’s statement was “completely false” and that the rights organization has never been allowed into Giwa.
The fresh charges of military abuses come as the U.S. considers a Nigerian request to buy 12 Super Tucano light attack aircraft to fight Boko Haram.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the proposal last week. Attempts by the Jonathan administration to buy American helicopter gunships were blocked, in part because of alleged Nigerian military abuses.