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Nigerian President Offers Support After First Of 219 Missing Schoolgirls Rescued

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari speaks with freed Chibok schoolgirl Amina Ali Nkeki, who is carrying her baby, as Borno state governor Kashim Shettima (C) looks on in Abuja, on May 19, 2016.
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari speaks with freed Chibok schoolgirl Amina Ali Nkeki, who is carrying her baby, as Borno state governor Kashim Shettima (C) looks on in Abuja, on May 19, 2016.

Nigerians got a lift this week. The rescue of former Boko Haram teenage schoolgirl captive, Amina Ali Nkeki, has raised hopes and expectations. It's also put pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari to do more to secure the freedom of 218 of her schoolmates who are still missing, as well as possibly thousands more captives.

He won last year's hotly-contested election pledging to rescue the students and others abducted by Boko Haram. Now the president is promising Ali all the support she needs to reintegrate into society. "Although we cannot do anything to reverse the horrors of her past," said Buhari, "the federal government can and will do everything possible to ensure that the rest of her life takes a completely different course."

Now 19 years old, the former captive was part of a mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in northeast Nigeria by Boko Haram extremists in April 2014. The abduction sparked worldwide outrage and inspired the social media #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which was supported by Michelle Obama and others. At the time, the Boko Haram leader bragged the girls had been married off to his fighters and converted to Islam.

Civilian vigilante forces who were assisting the military found Ali on Tuesday wandering the outskirts of the Sambisa Forest, a Boko Haram stronghold. She was with her 4-month-old baby and a man who called himself her husband.

The army has detained the man, who says he was also abducted by Boko Haram.

Hesitant and smiling, the first freed Chibok schoolgirl spent her second day, after two years of captivity, meeting the president in a high-profile televised encounter. She was shielded from speaking directly with journalists at the presidential villa in the capital, Abuja, on Thursday.

But the government's handling of her release has angered activists with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. The group has advocated relentlessly for the rescue of the schoolgirls, holding weekly rallies at Unity Fountain in Abuja. They gathered again this week.

The campaign group's co-founder, Oby Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian education minister, says Ali needs proper care after her physical and psychological ordeal at the hands of Boko Haram. Ezekwesili has called on the president to intensify efforts to find the missing schoolgirls, saying Ali's testimony can help. "The key message is that our Chibok girl, Amina Ali — a young woman who was in the enclave of the terrorists — is the best credible evidence that the government needs in order to find the 218 outstanding Chibok girls," she says.

Ali's rescue has swung the spotlight back on the continuing crisis in the northeast of Nigeria that has displaced more than 2 million people. Though Boko Haram has been driven from its main hideouts, the group continues to strike at will with deadly suicide attacks — often using girls and young women — in Nigeria and neighboring countries whose troops are part of a regional force battling the 7-year insurgency.

Kashim Shettima, the governor of Ali's home state, Borno — the one hardest hit by Boko Haram — says the army is making steady progress and the extremists no longer hold territory. But, he cautions, "Militarily, this madness will never come to an end unless we engage with the moderate elements within Boko Haram [who] are willing to lay down their arms and embrace being deradicalised and being integrated back into the society."

Shettima did not rule out peace talks with the militants. Last year Boko Haram's leader pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

The governor spoke to NPR surrounded by displaced families whose homes have been razed by the extremists. He and the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien visited Dalori camp outside the Borno state capital, Maiduguri — the birthplace of Boko Haram — on the day news of Amina Ali Nkeki's rescue was announced.

Shettima broke the news of the girl's freedom to the visiting U.N. delegation and later welcomed Ali to the Borno State Government House in Maiduguiri before accompanying her to Abuja.

O'Brien doubles as the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator and has been visiting Nigeria and neighboring Niger to assess the regional humanitarian fallout from extremist attacks ahead of the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul Monday and Tuesday.

Sitting in the dust, in sweltering heat in another camp in Konduga, O'Brien listened to the concerns of the displaced, including Falmata Bukar. She told him Boko Haram militants had torched her home and driven her family from Bama more than a year ago.

O'Brien pledged that much more would be done to rehabilitate villages and help the displaced, like Bukar, resettle back home once it's safe. "Not only do we need to make sure people, like this courageous woman, have the staples of life to be able to survive — [like] safety and shelter — but the protection as well," O'Brien said. "We need to to give people the chance to survive and thrive, in dignity."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.