Kayode Idowu and Justin Tyopuusu
Dapchi village in Yobe State has been filled with excitement since some abducted pupils at the Government Girls Science and Technical College in the village regained their freedom.
They were released in the early hours of Wednesday.
One hundred and ten pupils were abducted from the school on February 19, 2018, by Boko Haram insurgents, while efforts to locate them by security agencies failed until they were released by their captors.
As of 8.50pm on Wednesday, the Federal Government had confirmed the release of 105 schoolgirls and a boy, making a total of 106 released persons.
Earlier, the Federal Government in a statement by the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had said 76 of the girls had been freed.
Later in an interview with State House correspondents at the Presidential Villa, Abuja, Mohammed said 91 girls and a boy were freed by the terrorists.
However, in another statement, the minister said the number had increased to 101 with the documentation of more freed girls by security agencies.
The Minister of Information and Culture, in a late afternoon interview with journalists at the Air Force Base in Maiduguri, Bornu State, said the number had increased to 105.
The minister attributed the earlier changing figures released by the government to the fact that the “the girls went to their homes after they were released in Dapchi. What we have now are 105 girls and a boy; that makes it 106 persons released today (Wednesday).”
One of our correspondents that visited Dapchi gathered that the insurgents brought their captives back to the village and set them free on Wednesday.
It was further gathered that five of the schoolgirls had died due to suffocation.
It was also learnt that a pupil, a Christian, was still being held by the insurgents because she refused to be converted to Islam.
Soldiers, who were deployed in the town, were said to have made “tactical withdrawal” to allow the terrorists to have access to the village.
The military, which was apparently aware that a deal for the release of the captives had been brokered, had reportedly stationed a large detachment of soldiers in another part of the village since Tuesday.
The PUNCH was told by some parents of the freed pupils that they had been told to be on standby to pick up their children on Wednesday.
It was, therefore, into the waiting hands of their overjoyed parents that the boy and the released schoolgirls reportedly fell as soon as the insurgents left.
One of our correspondents learnt that six of the freed pupils were allowed to disembark at Jumbam, a town not far from Dapchi.
Journalists that stormed the town as early as 7am was initially turned back by soldiers who allowed other motorists to have access to the village.
Some of the journalists had come into the town on Wednesday to cover the solidarity visit of Chibok schoolgirls’ parents to Dapchi.
They, however, met excited villagers who informed them about the release of the Dapchi schoolgirls.
After journalists were prevented from entering Dapchi, some went to Jumbam, a 15-minute drive from Dapchi.
It was gathered that five of the six freed girls were from the village, while the sixth, who was also a pupil at the Dapchi school, was from Damaturu, the state capital.
One of the six girls, Khadija Grema, told The PUNCH that her experience in the hands of the insurgents was a sad one.
Grema said she was lucky to be alive, but lamented that five of her fellow pupils died of suffocation.
“The five girls who died were buried in the bush. Two of them are from Jumbam,” she added.
The schoolgirl noted that one pupil was still being held by the insurgents.
Grema said, “One girl, Leah, is still with them because she is a Christian. About five are dead but it was not as if they killed them – it was because of the stress.
“We were at the school, about to break our Monday voluntary fast, when the gunmen arrived and started shooting. Everyone was screaming and one of the men said we should come.
“We ran towards the school gate and when we got there, they brought vehicles and they drove us away from Dapchi.
“On the way, they stopped and asked some of us that were fasting to come down from the vehicle. They gave us groundnut cake, meat and water and we had our prayers after breaking the fast.
“We continued with the journey and when it was dark, they stopped at a place with a big tree. We prepared our food and after eating, we continued the journey. They drove for a long time until we got to a river. We took canoes to cross that river.
“Then, they took us to a house in one village where we stayed for some time. One day, they came and asked us to come and we were taken to the river and continued the journey until we got to a thick forest. That was where they kept us until they brought us back.
“They fed us very well, they treated us very well. They did not beat us; they did not molest us.
“The people that took us away were all speaking Kanuri and Arabic. They told us today that we were Muslims and it was right for them to free us.”
A parent of another girl, Kundili Bukar, told the BBC that the terrorists drove into the town in a motorcade in the early hours of Wednesday.
The terrorists were said to have left the town with a warning that the parents must not send their daughters back to school.
A father of one of the girls that died, Abdullahi Hassan, said he was sad to lose her daughter to the insurgents.
Hassan, who gave the name of her daughter as Maimuna, said, “I feel sad because my daughter is one of the girls that died. Her name is Meimuna Hassan.”
It was a different story for Alhaji Aliyu Maina, whose daughter, Aisha Maina, got back alive.
He said, “We are happy for the release of those found, but still sad over the loss of some girls.”
Vehicles were later brought to transport the girls to Maiduguri under heavy security.
It was gathered that the girls were immediately airlifted to Abuja aboard a military transport plane.
They are expected to meet with Buhari in Aso Villa, Abuja.
FG claims credit for the release
The Federal Government said the release of the schoolgirls was the outcome of the directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to all security agencies to secure the release of the schoolgirls.
According to the government, the girls were released through “back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country,” adding that their release was unconditional.
A statement by Mohammed said, ‘’For the release to work, the government had a clear understanding that violence and confrontation would not be the way out as it could endanger the lives of the girls; hence, a non-violent approach was the preferred option.
“When the girls were being brought back, an operational pause was observed in certain areas to ensure free passage and to prevent loss of lives.”
A Federal Government delegation, comprising the Ministers of Information and Culture, Mohammed; Interior, Abdulrahman Dambazau; and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khadijah Ibrahim, were sent to Maiduguri to meet with the freed girls.
Mohammed told journalists before the delegation left that “the girls were released unconditionally. No money changed hands.”
“They (B’Haram) only had one condition: that they will be the ones to return them (schoolgirls) to where they abducted them. In the early hours of today (Wednesday), they returned the girls and most of them went to their parents’ homes.”
“The girls were not dropped in one place. Some were left by the roadside and they naturally went back to their parents’ houses.
“They have been asked to come for documentation at a centre in the area.”
When asked how a boy was among those released when the school where they were abducted is only girls’ school, Mohammed said, “Whether they picked the boy or not, I can’t hazard any guess; but don’t forget that even in a girls’ school, which is a boarding school, there will be parents. There are teachers who have children among them.”
Mohammed said apart from security that had been beefed up in schools in the area, the Federal Government was considering merging some schools as a way of preventing a recurrence.
He said the freed girls had been attended to at the Dapchi General Hospital as part of their rehabilitation programmes.
“Just as we did when we had the first and second sets of released Chibok girls, they will be quarantined and be psychologically counselled before they go back to school,” he said.
The Minister of State, Foreign Affairs, who is from Yobe State, expressed delight that the girls had been released.
Saraki, UNICEF, BBOG, ACF laud release
The Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki; the #BringBackOurGirls coalition; the Arewa Consultative Forum and the United Nations Children’s Fund have lauded the release of the schoolgirls.
The groups said the Federal Government should ensure the release of the remaining Dapchi and Chibok girls.
The BBOG spokesman, Sesugh Akume, in a statement on Wednesday, said the group would investigate the circumstances surrounding the abduction of the girls.
Akume expressed the hope that the remaining schoolgirls in Boko Haram custody would be released soon.
The Christian Association of Nigeria also expressed hope that the remaining Chibok girls in Boko Haram captivity would be released.
“It is unfortunate that it was after the abduction that security forces went to the Dapchi school. We hope that following the release of the Dapchi girls, other girls in Boko Haram captivity would also be released,” the media aide to CAN President, Pastor Bayo Oladeji, said.
UNICEF also expressed delight on the return of the girls.
A statement by UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Mohammed Fall, said, “UNICEF is delighted that the abducted girls…were returned to their families. We are pleased to see that the girls are back in the safe environment.
“UNICEF is working closely with the Ministry of Youth in Yobe State to provide the necessary support to the girls and their families.”
Saraki and the Majority Leader, Ahmad Lawan, described the release of the schoolgirls as “the answered prayers of millions of Nigerians.”
In a statement in Abuja on Wednesday by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Yusuph Olaniyonu, Saraki commended the President, security forces and the government of Yobe State, for the efforts that led to the release of the girls.
The Ekiti State Governor, Ayodele Fayose, congratulated parents of the schoolgirls and sympathised with parents of five of the girls that reportedly died.
He described the abduction of the girls as an indictment of the Federal Government and their release as a “drama scripted by the government and its agents to swindle Nigerians.”
Fayose in a statement issued on Wednesday by his Special Assistant on Public Communications and New Media, Lere Olayinka, said it was strange that the girls could be brought back to Dapchi by their abductors without the security agents knowing when they were returned and who returned them.
On its part, the ACF expressed delight over the release of the girls.
The National Publicity Secretary of the Forum, Alhaji Muhammad Biu, said in a statement that the release of the girls was good news to the ACF.
The All Progressives Congress described the release as another “solid demonstration of the political will of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to secure the lives of all Nigerians.”
This was contained in a statement by the National Publicity Secretary of the APC, Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi.
The statement read in part, “With this prompt release of the Dapchi girls, the APC government has demonstrated how government should respond to such situations. If the immediate-past Peoples Democratic Party administration had responded with similar alacrity, the Chibok schoolgirls would have been released or rescued.”
A former Vice President of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, in a press statement, said he was gladdened by the return of the girls.
“This is a moment of joy for all of us as a nation… We are all celebrating with the families, the community and the entire Yobe State,” he said.
The Peoples Democratic Party has asked the Federal Government to explain to Nigerians the “real” circumstances that surrounded the adoption and the release of the girls.
The party alleged that both were done in a suspicious manner that would make Nigerians ask valid questions from the Federal Government.
It called on the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to “declare this evil by the APC Federal Government a war crime against humanity and immediately commence an investigation into the matter.”
The National Chairman of the party, Prince Uche Secondus, spoke at a media briefing in his office shortly after the news of the release was made public.
Additional report: Niyi Odebode, John Alechenu, Olusola Fabiyi, Olalekan Adetayo, Friday Olokor, Kamorudeen Ogundele, Adelani Adepegba, Leke Baiyewu and Godwin Isenyo (Punch)