Colin Freeman

Ransom money has turned Boko Haram into Nigeria’s Cosa Nostra

Ransom money has turned Boko Haram into Nigeria's Cosa Nostra
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Amina Ahmed counts herself as one of the lucky ones, or just about. When Boko Haram staged a mass kidnapping in her home town of Gwoza, northern Nigeria, three years ago, she and other female captives were sorted into two different categories of chattel.

The less favoured ones were conscripted as cannon fodder against the Nigerian army, with suicide bombs strapped to their waists. The others became ‘servants to the Emir's soldiers’ – which, Amina discovered, was Islamist-speak for sex slave. During her two years in captivity, she was forced to sleep with at least 10 different men. She'd shudder whenever she heard their motorbikes roaring into camp.

Eight months ago, she escaped to an IDP (internally displaced person) camp in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri. But there are, she says, drawbacks to still being alive. Now aged 16, she last set foot in a classroom four years ago. And without parents to pay for school – her father is dead and her mother's whereabouts unknown – her dreams of being a doctor, or even having her own roof over her head, are slipping away.

‘I see my old friends going to school and I feel jealous,’ she says, begging me and a British aid worker to find her a school place. ‘At times, I almost feel like going back to Boko Haram in the bush – there is nobody to look after me here.’

Amina's name has been changed to protect her identity as a rape victim. Not that you would have heard of her – nor, most likely, the looting, pillage and rape inflicted on Gwoza. There are tens of thousands of children like her in northern Nigeria, but unlike the Chibok girls, the 276 pupils abducted back in 2014, most don't enjoy the patronage of a celebrity-backed Twitter campaign like #BringBackOurGirls.

The freed Chibok girls have been awarded university places and met everyone from Malala Yousafzai to Ivanka Trump. But many other ex-abductees are in IDP camps or on the streets, their future in street-hawking rather than scholarships. Another ex-hostage I met had been thrown out of her home when relatives learned she was pregnant with an Islamist’s child. Small wonder that some experience a touch of Stockholm Syndrome.

Street Child, the British charity that showed me round Maiduguri, points out that the Chibok girls are merely ‘the tip of an iceberg of enormous child suffering in north east Nigeria’.

Sadly, the only time Boko Haram's other victims are guaranteed world attention is when their ordeals have direct echoes of Chibok. So back in February, the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter hashtag flickered briefly into life again, when the group kidnapped 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi, a remote farming town north-west of Maiduguri.

They were released unexpectedly last month, when a Boko Haram convoy rolled back into town and went round dropping the girls at their homes, like a heavily-armed school bus.

But while Dapchi case had a happy ending, few believed President Muhammadu Buhari's claim to have negotiated the girls ‘unconditional’ release for free.

A well-placed Western source told me that a $10 million ransom was paid, although it may have been a murkier deal altogether. ‘It's quite possible that Boko Haram staged the kidnapping in cahoots with a local military faction, who also took a cut,’ he said. ‘Either that, or the government staged the entire thing to make themselves look like heroes.’

In most countries, such claims might sound like conspiracy theories. Not so in Nigeria, whose security forces are a still an Augean stables of corruption, and where Mr Buhari is in dire need of good news ahead of next year's elections.

For despite being elected as a tough-guy successor to Goodluck Jonathan, whose tardy response to Chibok sparked #BringBackOurGirls, Mr Buhari has also faltered in the war on Boko Haram – most recently last Christmas, when he boasted of crushing their ‘last enclave’ in northern Nigeria's vast Sambisa forest. Days later, the group replied by murdering 25 loggers near Maiduguri. Its frontman, Abubakr Shekau, cackled in a video: ‘We are in good health.’

Admittedly, Boko Haram no longer controls entire districts, as it did during the Chibok episode. But much of the countryside outside of Maiduguri is still contested, with nearly 700,000 people preferring to languish in spartan IDP camps rather than return home. One northern senator, Abubakar Kyari, has the dubious political distinction of being elected entirely by votes cast in IDP camps.

Meanwhile, as the killings and kidnappings continue, Isis is watching carefully. It has long dismissed Shekau as a loon, but it thinks it can do business with his up-and-coming rival, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, who became their official West African representative 18 months ago, and who is thought to have masterminded Dapchi.

True, making sense of anything in Boko Haram-land is hard for Westerners. While Street Child's Nigerian staff can foray into Boko Haram’s turf, the closest I could get was interviewing residents of IDP camps, most of them taciturn villagers who speak only local dialects.

Yet the accounts they give suggest Boko Haram isn't some rural bogeyman, appearing every now and then to snatch innocent schoolchildren. Instead, it's become a local Mafia, as much part of the community as the Cosa Nostra in Sicily. In places like Gwoza, everyone seems to have an uncle or friend who joined up. Sometimes half the village has, even if it's more for the cattle-rustling opportunities than the Quran classes.

In the early days, though, the spoils of war were limited what Boko Haram’s thugs could loot from their own dirt-poor communities. Unfortunately, Mr Buhari has now given them an appetite for bagfuls of cash, having embarked on the slippery route of paying ransoms.

His first big pay-out was for 82 of the Chibok girls, exchanged last May for £2.6m in a deal brokered by diplomats from neutral Switzerland. The payout went ahead, despite warnings to both the Swiss and the Nigerians that it would only encourage further kidnappings – as it appears to have done.

In fairness, Mr Buhari can hardly be blamed for taking the easy way out, given the immense pressure heaped upon by him by #BringBackOurGirls. Most of its celebrity backers failed to realise that freeing 276 girls from some of the world's most violent terrorists would test any government, let alone Nigeria’s.

Yet much as HMG may tut at Mr Buhari for paying terrorists, the question also arises as to why it failed to persuade him not to. In the aftermath of Chibok, both Britain and America made a great fanfare of dispatching legions of hostage negotiation experts to Nigeria.

Downing Street loftily assured us that Nigerian government was getting the best possible advice – the key thrust of which would have been not to cough up under any circumstances. In reality, my Western source tells me, none of those experts were present at ‘top table’ discussions.

All of which is bad news for Nigerian schoolchildren, for whom it may now only be a matter of time before the next Chibok or Dapchi. #BringBackOurGirls might have made the West feel good. #Don’tPayRansoms might have been kinder in the long run.