AN 18th birthday should be a happy day for a young girl, on the threshold of adulthood.
For Leah Sharibu, however, there is little reason to celebrate as her childhood came to an abrupt end on February 19, 2018, when she was abducted by fighters from the radical Islamic West African Province of the Islamic State (ISWAP), a faction of Boko Haram.
Sharibu was kidnapped alongside108 girls, mostly Muslim, from her school in Dapchi, Yobe State.
While five schoolgirls died on the same day of their abduction, remaining survivors were released a month later.
But only Leah, then 14, who refused to give up her Christian faith and convert to Islam, remained in prison.
The news has been sparse since then; after the initial threat to execute Leah, Boko Haram announced that it would keep her as a slave.
During a visit to the United States in April of the year of the kidnapping, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to lobby for her release, but these efforts have been little visible since then.
In August 2018 an audio was released of Sharibu pleading for her freedom. Two months later, her parents revealed that Boko Haram had threatened to kill her later that month, should the government not meet their demands.
In February 2019 social media reports circulated about her death, but were dismissed by the government as politically motivated disinformation.
After spending almost two years in captivity, in January 2020, it was widely reported that Sharibu had given birth to a baby boy after being forcefully converted to Islam and married off to a Boko Haram commander.
Her father, Nathan Sharibu dismissed the report saying that he would not want to hear such news. And reports of a second baby surfaced earlier this year.
FG not giving up
On the seventh anniversary of the Chibok school girls kidnap last month, the Federal Government said all hope is not lost for Leah and others still missing.
“Our government came into power with a public mandate to control the insurgency in the northeast that led to the Chibok girls’ abduction and to fight the corruption that hampered the rescue effort, which corruption created the deprivations that have made the northeast a breeding area for terrorists,” said Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Sadiya Farouq.
“We have achieved a lot but significant work remains for all levels of government. Half of the Chibok girls have been rescued and reunited with their families and have resumed their education.
“We will continue working to bring back those left behind. Local, State and Federal government readiness to respond to attacks on schools is greatly improved.
“We are working to prevent such attacks from occurring in the first place”.
The international community keeps tab
A member of the House of Lords of the United Kingdom, David Alton, has urged the UK to encourage the Nigerian Government to prioritise the release of all captives held by extremists.
Lord Alton noted how the terror group has declared Leah a “slave for life” due to her refusal to convert.
Paying tribute to Leah’s “strong faith”, he said it “should serve as an inspiration to us all”.
However, he also stressed that “this is also about a fundamental human right”.
“During every single day of her captivity, Leah’s right to believe has been denied and the authorities have done precious little to proclaim this fundamental right,” he said.
Calling to mind the many other people held captive by terrorist factions, Lord Alton said they have not been forgotten and millions will continue to be vocal on their behalf.
He urged the UK to use its position as one of Nigeria’s major overseas aid and development funders to “encourage the Nigerian Government to prioritise the release of all who are held captive by extremists and to address every source of insecurity in a comprehensive and unbiased manner with perpetrators being held to account and being brought to justice”.
“We must use our aid programmes, our trading opportunities, our friendships and the wonderful Nigerian diaspora in the United Kingdom to achieve all those targets,” he said.