In the past, there have been numerous false reports that negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram would result in the freeing of some or all of the more than two hundred girls kidnapped in 2014. This time, the reports are true, and have been welcomed by President Muhammadu Buhari and Oby Ezekwesili, the leader of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. The Nigerian media reports that many or most of the freed girls have babies, which might have been a criteria for their release.
The presidential spokesman said that the negotiations were brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government. However, neither the Swiss government nor the ICRC have confirmed this.
There are Nigerian media reports that the girls were swapped for four imprisoned Boko Haram operatives. Further, Agence France Presse identifies the venue of the swap as Banki, in northeast Nigeria, to which the four militants were flown by helicopter. However, Lai Mohammed, the minister for information, denies that there was a swap: “Please note that this is not a swap. It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides.” He also said that negotiations would continue.
Is a mutual ‘release’ a swap? The Minister’s statement notwithstanding, Boko Haram “face” Abubakar Shekau has long said that the release of the Chibok girls was contingent on the release of imprisoned Boko Haram operatives.
It remains to be seen whether the partial release signals a fundamental change in Boko Haram. Many Boko Haram watchers have concluded that the movement has two wings, a larger one led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, and a smaller one dominated by Shekau. A difference between the two is that the former has been critical of the latter’s bloodshed against Muslims. Observers have also speculated that the Chibok girls are held in different venues. It is certainly possible that the freed Chibok girls were under the control of Shekau, and were indeed released in exchange for imprisoned Boko Haram operatives. But, at this point, that is only speculation.