Boko Haram is now seeking a ransom of nearly $56 million (about R842 million) for the release of the 219 schoolgirls it kidnapped from the Nigerian town of Chibok two years ago, sources close to the group have said.
The terror sect is thought to have issued the demand during secret contacts with the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, who has said he is willing to negotiate for the girls’ freedom.
The group’s leader, Abubakr Shekau, had previously demanded the release of jailed comrades in exchange for the girls.
But a deal along those lines – brokered by the Red Cross – fell through after Nigerian prison officials said that commanders on a list given to them by Boko Haram were not in their custody.
Details of the new ransom request emerged ahead of the second anniversary of the girls kidnapping on the night of April 14, 2014, when they were abducted by Boko Haram gunmen posing as soldiers.
Despite their case receiving global attention because of the celebrity-backed #bringbackourgirls campaign on social media, diplomats and sources close to the negotiations say they are no closer to knowing the girls’ whereabouts.
The Nigerian military has made significant gains against Boko Haram in the last 18 months, raiding a number of the sect’s camps in Nigeria’s vast Sambisa forest, and freeing at least 1000 women and children taken in other mass abductions.
A video from May 2014 showing the kidnapped Chibok girls at an undisclosed location in the Nigerian bush indicated that they were being kept well away from other captives and that their kidnappers saw them as having huge symbolic value as hostages – thanks partly to the publicity given to them by the social media campaign.
One source close to Boko Haram said: “The ransom demand has split the government.
“Some think it would be worth it just to resolve the Chibok situation, but others say it will simply allow Boko Haram to hire yet more insurgent recruits.”
The same source also said that a month after the ransom demand Boko Haram had secretly passed the government a new video tape showing 15 of the kidnapped girls.
“They are asked if they have been raped or mistreated, but they say no. They look relaxed.”
Stephen Davis, an Australian clergyman and former Nigerian government adviser, spent four months in Nigeria in 2014 attempting to negotiate the girls’ freedom.
He believes the only way to get the girls back is to exploit the “combat fatigue”.
He said: “If you offer Boko Haram fighters camps where they can get shelter, food, clothing and education, you can demobilise them quite quickly, as there are a lot of them who want to give up .
“Take away the foot soldiers, and you will also start getting information about where the girls are. Any other way is putting the cart before the horse.”