Nigerians are quick to see parallels between the February 2018 kidnapping of more than 100 school girls at Dapchi and Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of almost 300 from the girls boarding school at Chibok. In both cases, there have been inaccurate and misleading public statements by the government and certain officials even denied that kidnappings had even taken place, at least initially.
In the case of Dapchi, officials are refusing to characterize the episode as a kidnapping. Instead, they say that more than one hundred girls are “missing.” The Yobe state governor has contradicted himself, first saying the girls had been rescued and later that they were indeed missing. The governor has apologized, saying, quite plausibly, that he had been misled by reports from the security services. Also credible was the presidential press spokesman's statement that the confusion was caused by some of the girls successfully avoiding capture by fleeing into the bush. Only after they had returned was it feasible to draft a list of victims. Nevertheless, the media reports public outrage at the Buhari administration and local officials about their seemingly inadequate response to the kidnapping. Civil organizations are being formed that resemble #BringBackOurGirls.
On the other hand, President Muhammadu Buhari has been forthright: “The entire country stands as one with the girls’ families. This is a national disaster.” He has ordered immediate action by the security services. Nigerian aircraft have been deployed, frightening local residents who fear indiscriminate bombing, according to American media.
Boko Haram, quick to claim credit for Chibok, has been silent about Dapchi thus far, though the modus operandi at Dapchi recalls Chibok. The gunmen were focused on identifying the school and kidnapping the girls. Otherwise, they stole nothing. The military were absent in Chibok, and in Dapchi it had recently been withdrawn. The raiders wore bits of uniform and initially represented themselves successfully as Nigerian soldiers sent to protect the girls. The captured girls in Chibok and in Dapchi were then herded onto trucks.
Conventional wisdom (though not objectively confirmed) holds that Boko Haram has split into two seemingly antagonistic factions: that of Abubakr Shekau, with some connections to the Islamic State, and that of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, son of the martyred founder of Boko Haram and with some links to al-Qaeda. There is little consensus among observers as to whether the international aspects of either faction are of tactical or strategic importance. The source of contention between the two factions appears to be Shekau’s more stringent view of apostasy among Muslims that often merits death, while al-Barawi argues that Shekau is killing too many Muslims. Ideological differences aside, both would be capable of a dramatic kidnapping, and it is even possible that the two factions cooperated.
Dapchi could be a Boko Haram propaganda coup, presuming one or another faction claims responsibility. President Buhari has been maintaining that Boko Haram is on its last legs. Others have argued that the northeast returning to normal and that internally displaced persons can return home. In the aftermath of Dapchi, those positions are hard to maintain.