The northeast Nigeria town of Chibok used to fill up before Christmas as people returned home to visit their families, but with the 219 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram still missing, few feel like celebrating this year.
Nigerians were forced to recall the April 14 mass abduction in Chibok this week, following news that another 185 people, mostly women and children, were seized in the nearby town of Gumsuri in another attack blamed on the Islamists.
“In a normal situation, by this time Chibok would have been bubbling with people trooping in to spend the holidays with families…buying livestock, food and new clothing for the holy celebration,” said Ayuba Chibok, whose niece is among the hostages.
“Nothing like that is happening right now,” he told AFP.
Chibok falls in Borno state, the epicentre of Boko Haram’s five-year uprising which has killed more than 13,000 people and forced an estimated 1.5 million others from their homes.
While northern Nigeria is majority Muslim, communities in southern Borno like Chibok have a large Christian population, which some say made it an attractive target for the insurgents, who seized the girls from a school the night before final exams.
“Christmas has always been exciting for our people,” said Bogo Bitrus, head of the local elders groups.
People will still go to church next week, he added, but only to ask “for God’s intervention in the rescue of the girls.”
Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, who boasted about the kidnappings in a video filled with wild-eyed rantings, said all the hostages have converted to Islam and been “married off.”
– Empty pledges –
A month after the girls were seized, President Goodluck Jonathan told global leaders at a World Economic Forum meeting in Abuja that the attack would mark the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria.
Violence has worsened dramatically since and Boko Haram has also seized large swathes of territory, proclaiming a caliphate in areas it controls, and raising questions about the feasibility of holding national election set for February 14.
Experts doubted that Nigeria’s military had the ability to defeat Boko Haram through force and called for a soft power approach, but some had hoped it would be possible to prevent a repeat of the mass kidnapping seen in Chibok.
The attack in Gumsuri, which is on the road that leads to Chibok, began after dusk on Sunday, with heavily armed gunmen throwing petrol bombs into buildings and destroying more than half the town.
The local vigilante force, which had repelled past Islamist attacks, was overwhelmed by the onslaught that killed at least 32 people.
The hostages were carted away on trucks towards the Sambisa Forest, an insurgent stronghold where the Chibok girls were also reportedly held before being split into groups.
– Troubling reaction –
The Chibok abductions ultimately became a source of global outrage, backed by the Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls which drew support from the likes of US First Lady Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie.
But in Nigeria, the initial reaction was muted, as loyalists of President Jonathan suggested reports of the attack had been inflated to embarrass the ruling party.
Human rights lawyer Jiti Ogunye noted that the day after Gumsuri abductions became public three of Nigeria’s main newspapers chose other stories as their lead item and commented on the lack of outrage or surprise on television and radio.
“This kind of resignation or accommodation is very dangerous,” he said, voicing fear for the future of a nation where “people have come to the conclusion that government can’t stop…185 people from being kidnapped.”
-Communities destroyed –
Despite a promise from Jonathan that security in Chibok would be reinforced following the abductions, Boko Haram briefly seized the town last month.
It was retaken in a joint operation by the military and local hunters days later.
Ayuba Chibok reminded that aside from the hostage crisis, many forget that the town has been destroyed by violence and haunted by the threat of further attacks, with locals sleeping in the bush when words spreads the Boko Haram fighters are nearby.
He said that even if people wanted to return to Chibok this Christmas, they may have nowhere to celebrate, as “many of the homes have been destroyed.”