It has been almost two years since Boko Haram, the radical Islamist movement operating in northeast Nigeria, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of some 276 school girls. Despite significant international outcry, offers of assistance from the international community, and commitments from two Nigerian presidents, most of the girls still have not been found. A small number have escaped.
Boko Haram “face” Abubakar Shekau claimed that the girls were sold into slavery, and there are anecdotes (of untested reliability) that Boko Haram operatives have taken some as “wives.” Boko Haram continues to kidnap women and girls, and the Nigerian security services regularly announce that they have freed Boko Haram kidnap victims. But, thus far, none have been the Chibok girls.
In a March 20, 2016, interview with the London Sunday Times, Andrew Pocock, UK High Commissioner to Nigeria from 2012 to 2015, provides additional tidbits to the Chibok story. He said that British and American aerial surveillance spotted up to eighty of the girls around a very large tree, locally called the Tree of Life, in the Sambisa Forest, Boko Haram’s haven in northeast Nigeria. They were part of a large encampment. But, Pocock said, the governments involved were “powerless” to rescue them: “A land-based attack would have been seen coming miles away and the girls killed. An air-based rescue, such as flying in helicopters of Hercules, would have required large numbers and meant a significant risk to the rescuers and even more so to the girls.” Pocock continued: “You might have rescued a few, but many would have been killed. My personal fear was always about the girls not in that encampment – 80 were there, but 250 were taken, so the bulk were not there. What would have happened to them? You were damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Pocock added that the British and American findings were shared with the Nigerian authorities who did not follow up with a request for assistance.
Pocock seems to confirm that British and American surveillance did succeed in locating some of the girls, but it is hard to quarrel with his assessment that, as a practical matter, their rescue was impossible. Pocock retired in 2015 after a distinguished diplomatic career. In addition to serving as High Commissioner in Nigeria, he was also ambassador or high commissioner to Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Canada. (High Commissioner is the title of the person fulfilling the functions of British ambassador in countries that are members of the Commonwealth of Nations as Tanzania, Canada, and Nigeria are.)