Long after the #BringBackOurGirls campaign faded, Nigeria paid a secret ransom of €3 million to free some of the kidnapped schoolgirls
May 6, 2017
The convoy of Land Cruisers rattled down a dusty road near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, plunging into the remote forest stronghold controlled by fighters from Boko Haram. If everything went to plan, they would arrive at the rendezvous point before 4 p.m.
Inside the trucks sat five captured fighters, freshly extracted from prison, the first piece of the government’s proposed bargain. In a separate vehicle, according to people involved in the deal, a security detail guarded Nigeria’s principal concession to the Islamist terror group, a black duffel bag containing €2 million in plastic-wrapped cash.
The other man was a Swiss government agent who had served as Mustapha’s partner and mentor during the talks. He monitored the scene from a staging ground a few kilometers behind. The man’s identity was such a closely guarded secret that even high-ranking Nigerians didn’t know his full name. As an operative for the Human Security Division, a little-known cog in Switzerland’s diplomatic machine, he preferred it that way.
Not far away, 82 young women cloaked in black veils stumbled through the tall grass toward the rendezvous point, flanked by masked militants with guns. Hours earlier, their captors had ordered them to pack their belongings and start walking. They weren’t told where. They had no idea they were the world’s most famous hostages.
Naomi Adamu had once been an ordinary student at the Chibok Government Secondary School. She was older than most of her classmates. She played soccer. She studied mathematics in her dormitory bunk bed. Now, as she shuffled through the wilderness at gunpoint after 1,102 days in captivity, her eyes were hollow, her skin drawn tightly over her cheekbones.
The Chibok schoolgirls carried only a few visible possessions: strips of colored cloth, flip-flops and small twigs for pinning their hair. Tied around Adamu’s waist, concealed from view, was something the men with guns didn’t know about—an article of defiance. It was a diary, one of the few surviving written records of the girls’ ordeal.
When the Red Cross convoy arrived at the rendezvous point, the drivers pulled to the side of the road. Hiding in the bushes and in branches of acacia trees, snipers were training their rifles.
Zannah Mustapha, 58 years old, stepped out of the truck. He wore a pair of Calvin Klein spectacles and, in honor of the occasion, a crisp gray Kaftan-style robe. From the scrubland opposite him, a group of wiry young fighters in tattered fatigues gathered, cradling Kalashnikovs.
Behind them stood Boko Haram’s end of the bargain: Naomi Adamu and 81 of her classmates, the subjects of one of the largest manhunts in world history.
The captives huddled close and stared ahead, their eyes fixed. Some linked arms, others held hands. Mustapha noticed that one girl’s arm was in a sling. Another was missing a leg.
Since their 2014 kidnapping, the Chibok students had faced every manner of hardship, dragged from one remote camp to the next. More than a dozen had died from illness or military airstrikes. For all the girls knew, this could be the moment their ordeal ended, or a cruel disappointment.
Mustapha began to read the girls’ names aloud from a list. As a sign of respect, he had practiced how to pronounce them. He did not make eye contact with the hostages, however. If the transaction unraveled, he did not want to be haunted by the memories.
One of the militants removed the lens cap from a battered camcorder and began filming. A Boko Haram commander asked each hostage the same two questions:
“Were you raped?”
“Were you abused?”
No, they all answered.
The trauma the Chibok girls had endured as Boko Haram’s captives was extraordinary, but not unprecedented. As a tenet of its ideology and business model, the insurgents had taken thousands of other young Nigerians, many of whom were raped or conscripted as fighters. Most of these abductions went unnoticed. This one didn’t.
News of this particular kidnapping caught fire as celebrities started a global outcry demanding their release. As it grew, it became the most prominent example of mass global activism on social media. The high point came on May 7, 2014, when then-First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted a photo of herself holding a placard with the hashtag: #BringBackOurGirls.
All at once, a desperately poor and warring region of Nigeria—and the hostages hidden there—became a central preoccupation of the global war on terror.
The story of the Chibok girls, as it is commonly understood, reflects a landmark moment in world history. A simple hashtag on Twitter spurred seven nations to dispatch billions of dollars in armed forces, drones, satellites and sophisticated surveillance equipment. That combination of digital activism and international cooperation cut through the battle lines of a near decadelong civil war and helped Nigeria bring the girls home.
The full story, never before reported, says otherwise.
In interviews, many Nigerians involved in negotiations for the girls, from cabinet ministers to soldiers at the front, expressed bewilderment that a series of tweets could so thoroughly distort the priorities of a conflict that had been grinding to a stalemate.
Nigerian officials complained bitterly of social media’s intrusion and the compromises it forced them to consider. Some believed the girls’ fame only prolonged their captivity. Others resented the lack of focus placed on tens of thousands of other children the insurgents had abducted or murdered.
Then there is the matter of the ransom, which has never before been disclosed. Nigeria’s government hasn’t publicly detailed what it offered Boko Haram, or where any funds came from. Several senior officials confirmed that the swap included the release of five captured militants and a total of three million euros, delivered in two drop-offs.
“We had no choice,” said one cabinet minister. “And if we had to pay the same price again, we would.”
To a threadbare insurgency that had been driven into the mountains, the two payments in 2016 and 2017 represented a timely windfall. Since they collected the money, the group has stepped up its terrorist attacks. The number of suicide bombs detonated in Nigeria, most strapped to children, has seen a fourfold increase from the previous year.
At the exchange point, as he recited the list of names, Mustapha had a different view on the potential consequences of the deal. Bringing back these girls was, for him, the crowning achievement of his second act—a humanitarian mission devoted to helping Nigeria’s children.
To analyze the cost of freeing the girls was to miss the central point. Their release, he thought, was a prelude to ending the war. “#Bringbackourgirls had become the lock to the conflict,” he said, in an interview after the girls were freed. “I am trying to pick the lock.”
When asked about the price paid for the girls’ freedom, he pointed a finger skyward: “That’s between me and God.”
The following account of the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, their captivity and Nigeria’s attempts to free them is based on dozens of interviews on three continents with West African, European and American officials, including intermediaries between the warring parties.
Details of the girls’ captivity come from their handlers, the officials who debriefed them, and Naomi Adamu, the first of the Chibok girls to talk so extensively about the ordeal.
Nearly three years earlier, close to midnight on April 14, 2014, the girls of the Chibok school sat up in their bunk beds.
A group of men in pickup trucks were bearing down on the small town of Chibok, firing rockets and assault rifles. A dozen or so soldiers stationed nearby ran for their lives.
There was no electricity in the single-story schoolhouse and the girls had only flashlights to guide them. Outside their dormitory windows, they could hear the rumble of approaching engines.
Many of their parents and neighbors had fled to the nearby mountains, some wearing nightgowns. Hiding behind shrubs and in the crevices of rocks, the adults watched the fighters swarm toward their target—the Chibok school. Parents furiously dialed their children.
Cowering in his boxer shorts on the side of the mountain, Samuel Yama saw his phone light up. It was his sister, Margaret, a student. “She could not even speak and I was telling her to flee,” he said; “She was in tears…then the call cut off.”
Outside, the girls heard voices.
“Don’t worry! We are soldiers. Gather!”
The school’s elderly security guard had fled. The girls didn’t know what to make of the men ordering them to come into the moonlit courtyard.
“Don’t worry, we are soldiers,” they repeated.
The students, some carrying Bibles, tiptoed through their rooms toward the voices outside, swimming through darkness.
For centuries, Chibok had been a place of refuge, remote and shielded by mountains. Families had settled there in the 1700s to escape the slave trade. It was among the last outposts to fall under British colonial rule.
In 1941, a missionary couple arrived from the Illinois-based Church of the Brethren. Chibok became a majority-Christian hamlet in Nigeria’s Muslim heartland, a place where people of both faiths lived side by side.
By the turn of the 21st century, corruption, military coups and a limping economy created a wave of unemployment across the impoverished north. Thousands of disillusioned young men—including jobless college graduates—began listening to the teachings of radical Islam.
In Maiduguri, a city of roughly one million people 80 miles from Chibok, a baby-faced cleric named Mohammed Yusuf built a following by declaring that Western education, or boko, was haram, sinful. The earth was flat, the cleric argued, and evaporation was a lie—Allah caused rain. Western education was a scam to distance Nigerians from their maker, he said, and democracy was an affront to God.
As Boko Haram’s ranks swelled, Yusuf and his lieutenants toured the northeast in buses strapped with speakers, urging Muslims to sever their ties to the government and follow Shariah law. During a 2009 street battle between his followers and police, Yusuf was handcuffed and pulled into a station. A crowd watched as officers shot him in the chest.
The leader who took charge after Yusuf’s murder pursued a more radical path. Abubakar Shekau, a bearded and bellowing cleric, burned with anger and wrath, propagating an apocalyptic vision.
The Nigerian government sent envoys to reason with Shekau. They came back in disbelief. He demanded all of Nigeria adopt Shariah as a precondition for peace talks.
Shekau redirected Boko Haram into the countryside, shedding its reclusiveness in favor of a full-blown insurgency. His army commandeered tanks and anti-aircraft guns from the military and exacted revenge on communities that resisted them.
In hourlong video sermons, Shekau threw tirades at Queen Elizabeth II and Abraham Lincoln, rambling, cackling and jabbing his finger into the lens. “We will kill whoever practices democracy!” he screamed. “We should decapitate them! We should amputate their limbs! We should mutilate!”
“Kill, kill, kill!”
By the early 2010s, Boko Haram was regularly slaughtering moderate Muslim leaders and dispatching suicide bombers to crowded markets. Kalashnikov-wielding militants hanging off the backs of scooters attacked villages, spraying bullets indiscriminately at adults and children and setting everything on fire. Tens of thousands died. Hundreds of thousands fled.
Schools closed by the hundreds. Some were burned down by their own students, converts to Shekau’s army, now one of the world’s most deadly. To keep feeding its ranks, Boko Haram began kidnapping children.
In their red-tin-roofed schoolhouse, the Chibok girls were learning that the earth was round. “PROOF THE EARTH IS SPHERICAL,” the students were told to copy in their notebooks. “Pictures taken from spacecraft at great height clearly show the curvature of the earth.”
It wasn’t just this school’s curriculum that violated Shekau’s vision—it was the mixing of faiths. Its students included Muslims and Christians. Their parents were neighbours and friends.
The students seemed destined to become northeastern Nigeria’s next generation of educated women. Hauwa Nkeki, a star volleyball player, was studying to be a nurse, or maybe an economist. Elizabeth Joseph read the Bible at night by lantern. Dorcas Yakuba passed the days writing love letters to a boy who had nicknamed her “the remote control of my life.”
Naomi Adamu was one of the school’s more serious students, “a hardworking girl,” as her mother, Kolo Adamu, described her. She also had a goofy sense of humour she shared with a few close friends. As she prepared for final exams, she was looking forward to the next stage of her life.
Outside the school grounds, Chibok had come to feel less safe. Earlier that year, Boko Haram torched six nearby villages. Distant gunfire sometimes thundered. One day, a school administrator found a piece of paper on the ground warning of a Boko Haram attack, but dismissed it as a prank.
The girls didn’t live in fear, but understood the gathering threat. Families seeking sanctuary in Chibok brought stories of the insurgents’ brutality.
In March, three weeks before the attack, Shekau appeared on YouTube, threatening the region’s young women: “Girls, you should return to your homes…In due course we will start taking women away.”
The night of the attack, when the girls emerged in the courtyard, they could see the men were not soldiers. They wore unkempt beards, flip-flops and tattered uniforms. Several were raiding the school cafeteria, stealing sacks of rice, beans and pasta. Others poured gasoline on the school to torch it.
Boko Haram had not come to abduct the students. It had come to steal the school’s brickmaking machine. The insurgents had been on a kidnapping spree, and their camps faced a housing shortage.
A commander fired his rifle in the air and demanded to know where the machine was kept. Once they found it, the fighters hoisted it onto a truck.
As they prepared to leave, one militant, motioning to the students, asked a fateful question. What shall we do with them?
A few weeks earlier, Boko Haram had barricaded dozens of schoolboys in their dormitory at the Federal Government College of Buni Yadi and burned them alive. At other colleges, they had tossed grenades into the dorms while the students slept.
The unit’s commander turned to the girls. “Shekau will know what to do with them,” he said.
The fighters ordered the students to climb into their trucks. The teenagers linked hands and arms as they stumbled through the dark.
Hours after the attack on Chibok, the first intelligence reports flashed across screens at the White House. The details coming through were terrifying: More than 100 girls were missing from a school in northeastern Nigeria, making it one of modern history’s largest abductions.
It was Monday morning in Washington. President Barack Obama was scheduled to meet faith leaders to discuss immigration policy, then hold a strategy session to discuss the escalating conflict in Ukraine.
To the surprise of Obama’s Africa team, the abduction of an entire student body barely registered in the press at home or abroad. In Nigeria, the reaction was muffled by military leaders who informed their president the kidnapping seemed to be a hoax.
“We knew this was going to be big,” said Grant T. Harris, Obama’s Africa director. “But it was initially met with a deafening silence.”
On the afternoon of April 15, Oby Ezekwesili thumbed through her phone and found a short article from the British Broadcasting Corporation. More than 100 girls had been kidnapped in Nigeria the previous night.
At first, she figured it was an error. She walked through the office of the aid organization where she worked, in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, and checked the story again. What if it wasn’t?
When Boko Haram burned the schoolboys in Buni Yadi, Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian education minister and mother of three sons, felt she had failed them. That evening, her son found her in her bedroom in tears. “These people’s children are missing, and nobody is talking about it or doing anything,” she told him.
In the following days, Ezekwesili began leading daily protests at a decrepit fountain near the Hilton. “What are we demanding?” the few demonstrators chanted. “Bring back our girls, now and alive!” One day, police shot tear gas at them. On another, hoodlums ran through the crowd, whacking protesters with plastic chairs.
As a former government official who had worked at the World Bank, Ezekwesili had developed a following on Twitter. For nine days, she posted a series of hashtags aimed at needling the Nigerian government. None caught on. Then a lawyer who followed her account tagged a post with #BringBackOurGirls.
Ezekwesili had picked up a handful of celebrity followers during her trans-Atlantic travels. On April 30, in the space of five hours, recording artists Mary J. Blige, Common and Young Jeezy tweeted the hashtag. Actors Reese Witherspoon, Whoopi Goldberg and Anne Hathaway followed suit, while Harrison Ford held up a placard on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. “#BRINGBACKOURGIRLS You crazy mothaf—ers,” wrote comedian Chris Rock.
By mid-May, the hashtag had been mentioned more than 3.4 million times. Ezekwesili’s Twitter account became so overwhelmed that she stopped checking her mentions.
While Obama was preoccupied, another resident of the White House embraced the cause. His wife, Michelle, asked the National Security Council for regular briefings on the hunt for the missing students. On May 7, to the surprise of her husband’s staff, she called a photographer into the White House’s Diplomatic Room.
Standing opposite a portrait of George Washington and wearing a somber expression, she held up her placard. The tweet was liked or retweeted more than 179,000 times.
The first lady’s photo would front nearly every Nigerian newspaper, blindsiding President Goodluck Jonathan, whose military still suspected the kidnapping had never happened. Facing an unprecedented form of public pressure from his most powerful ally, Jonathan had few options. He accepted the White House’s request to launch a rescue effort.
Days later, a rapid-response team of roughly 40 officials deployed to the U.S. embassy in Abuja, including CIA analysts, two of the FBI’s top hostage negotiators and a therapist to treat the girls upon their return. The team even brought its own receptionist.
Within days, a U.S. Predator drone was circling northeastern Nigeria, scouring the forest floor. U.S. and Nigerian officials began to gather regularly around a table at a so-called intelligence fusion center.
Other nations followed suit. The U.K. sent a spy plane. Canada deployed special forces soldiers as advisers, and China pledged to send satellite imagery. “The line that came down from Obama,” said a U.S. diplomat in Abuja, “was do everything you can to get those girls.”
Convert or Die
At their camp in the forest, the Boko Haram militants lined up gasoline cans, rounded up the Christian girls they had taken from the Chibok school and told them it was time to choose. They could convert to Islam and marry a fighter. Or they could die.
Ever since the girls arrived, the insurgents had been pressuring them to embrace the group’s creed. “We were initially threatened that seven men would rape us if we refused to get married to their members,” Naomi Adamu said. “But we stood our ground.”
This tactic was new. “You don’t want to be Muslim?” the girls recalled the captors saying. “We are going to burn you.”
The girls were terrified. Still, they refused. The militants shook the cans menacingly. Then they broke into laughter. The cans were full of water.
For refusing to marry a member and convert, the girls became slaves. The militants assumed hard labor and deprivations would wear them down. The girls said it strengthened their bond. “Anything that happens, happens,” Adamu and her classmates told each other.
The road to captivity had been a two-day journey for the girls, often on foot. Several students had suffered gashes, broken limbs and scorpion bites. After passing through a labyrinth of backwoods tracks, they arrived at the beating heart of the insurgency: a thousands-strong encampment of mud-brick homes powered by stolen generators.
The Sambisa Forest, where the hideout was located, consisted of 250 square miles of forbidding wilderness. During colonial times, the forest had been set aside as a game reserve. Boko Haram saw advantages in its topography. Gunmen riding motorcycles and pickups launched deadly raids on military outposts, then retreated into scrubland only they could navigate.
On reaching the camp, Adamu said, she cried through the night. She and her classmates had no idea a world-wide social media campaign was being waged on their behalf. “We were just on our own,” Adamu said. “They are going to kill us, or even burn us—that was what I was thinking.”
For the Muslim students, and a handful of their Christian classmates who agreed to convert, captivity brought a different, though no less harrowing set of consequences. They were pushed into sexual bondage.
In the early days of captivity, two of Adamu’s closest friends succumbed to the pressure to marry. That night, Adamu said, she cried herself to sleep. She felt sick for a week. “I was thinking about what was happening to them,” she said.
Christian girls who refused to yield were denied tents and forced to sleep under trees and in the rain. They cooked beans, rice and yams for the militants, and ate little themselves, usually one meal near sunset. They were sent to repair roads, treat injuries and amputate the limbs of wounded fighters. They buried the dead in shallow graves.
To keep the girls hidden, their guards split them into small groups and relocated them constantly. “They were moved through every kind of terrain: desert, forest, mountain,” said one official who debriefed them.
One asset the Chibok hostages had was their bond, developed over years of sharing bunk beds and dorms. Many of their families were friends. They also had a common language, Kibaku, spoken almost exclusively in Chibok and understood by 0.1% of Nigerians. In captivity, it was an uncrackable code, allowing them to communicate privately.
To force the girls to study the teachings of Islam, the guards gave them flimsy notepads, some with cartoon characters on the cover, for transcribing recitations from the Quran. The girls were accustomed to copying lessons verbatim from the blackboard. Here, under the watchful eyes of violent captors, they turned the notebooks into diaries, to tell their own stories.
“We were hoping that we would eventually be released,” Adamu said. Or if they died, that the diaries might someday be found. “We wanted the world to see what we witnessed,” she said.
The girls continued to show no enthusiasm for their religious studies, and their captors decided to try a new tactic. They took Adamu and 21 others to meet Shekau.
The warlord who controlled their fate sat on a chair flanked by two deputies with guns, each of them shooting video of the meeting on tablet computers. Shekau was dressed in a Nigerian military uniform underneath a sweater, balancing a rifle and a Quran on his lap.
“You have shown that you do not like the Islamic religion,” he began. He launched into a long lecture about Boko Haram fighters in Nigerian prisons being denied food and water. “God will not hold me responsible for any one of you,” Shekau said.
Kidnapping the girls had helped Boko Haram by deflating the morale of Nigeria’s soldiers. The insurgency had been notching battlefield victories. But Shekau seemed to view them as a nuisance.
The thousands of young boys he’d kidnapped could be pulled into his army to fight, but the girls had little military value. It took money and manpower to feed and guard them. Thinking back on the meeting, Adamu said, Shekau didn’t show any sign that he had grasped how valuable social media had made the young women seated before him.
“I will sell them in the market, swear to God,” he shouted in a YouTube video posted around the same time. “Because they are our slaves!”
In May 2014, American intelligence officers monitoring feeds from drones high above the Sambisa Forest had begun piecing together a picture of the militants’ whereabouts.
The Nigerians, anxious for a breakthrough, decided to try a simpler approach. It began when a presidential aide placed a call to a security guard working the late shift at a grocery store in Dubai.
Ahmad Salkida was a difficult person for Nigerian officials to petition for help. A Muslim convert from a poor background who had dropped out of grade school, he was a self-employed journalist, blogger and government critic who had fled Nigeria for his family’s safety.
But by teaching himself fluent English and mastering social media, Salkida had become a widely known expert on Boko Haram who often scooped Nigeria’s journalists. He had built such a rapport with the insurgency that before it turned violent, the group had asked him to run its newspaper.
Salkida wasn’t interested in the job or in being anyone’s mouthpiece. His business card said “INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST.” He was an avowed nonconformist down to the five-fingered toe shoes he wore under his Muslim robes. He avoided any situation where his advice could be ignored or his integrity compromised. “I have a set of values,” he said, “and it is these values that have allowed me to survive.”
Nigerian officials felt leery about Salkida’s fixation with social media. “Everything he does has to be in the public domain. He has to tweet about it,” one official said. They weren’t sure if Salkida was loyal to them, Boko Haram or his own brand. They also knew that he, better than anyone, understood how to communicate with Boko Haram.
The government invited Salkida to Abuja. He asked a Ugandan co-worker to cover his shifts at the grocery store. “I’m going to meet my president,” he explained.
Alongside Salkida, another quiet effort to negotiate with Boko Haram was taking shape. For years, Swiss officials in Bern had been discreetly monitoring the conflict in Nigeria’s north, looking for an opportunity to bring the warring parties to the table. Winning the release of the girls struck them as an ideal place to focus.
After years of inserting themselves into some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, the Swiss had learned that one key to successful negotiations was finding the right local person to kick-start it—an “inside mediator.” The ideal candidate was wealthy and prominent enough to engage in a protracted peace process and to be credible to both sides. In a civil conflict like Nigeria’s, it was crucial to find a mediator the insurgents couldn’t ignore.
To the Swiss, Zannah Mustapha’s long career as a lawyer, part-time professor and local luminary checked one important box. Boko Haram might not like his views on education and the law, but they had a compelling reason to listen to him. He looked after their children.
In 1959, the year Mustapha was born, the northeastern city of Maiduguri was a British imperial garrison in the last year of colonial rule. Mustapha was the son of a prominent family who opened his own legal practice.
Nigeria’s independence brought civil war and military coups. The economy was sputtering and the Sahara was encroaching, wiping out crops. As he rode through the streets in air-conditioned sedans, Mustapha would pass scores of young men unable to find work. Over time, he came to resent the corruption and inequity of the system he helped defend. He became obsessed with redeeming Maiduguri and leaving a legacy. “We realized that we weren’t models for our own children,” he said.
In 2007, he left his law practice, took over an abandoned building and opened Future Prowess, a school and orphanage for children between 3 and 8. He bought uniforms, food and secondhand books. He persuaded a respected principal to run the school by buying him a car. The inaugural class welcomed 36 students. He bought each one a pair of shoes.
Future Prowess, a school founded by Zannah Mustapha, seated at center, took in the children of fallen Boko Haram fighters when no one else would.
Mustapha had to persuade the widows of Boko Haram that teaching subjects like English, math and science was in keeping with Islam.
Two years later, a steady stream of orphans and widowed mothers from a strange sect began showing up at the gates. Mustapha had known the family of the group’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and had represented children of its members in inheritance cases.
As he began enrolling the children of slain Boko Haram militants, their mothers took issue with his curriculum. Science, math and English were Western education, they protested. He reasoned with them. The children needed English to communicate with Muslims around the world, he argued, and science and math were subjects conceived of by Muslim scholars. In time, they relented. Six widows took jobs at the school as cooks and cleaners.
Soon Mustapha’s 10 classrooms overflowed with 350 students. There were 1,000 more on a waiting list. The government was reluctant to support the children of Boko Haram, so he found supplies from another source: the Red Cross, the Geneva-based aid group, which donated food and counseling services for traumatized students.
One day in late 2013, a visitor came to Future Prowess for a tour. It was Switzerland’s ambassador. The envoy had heard about the school that brought children of warring parties together and wanted to have a look. The Swiss entourage included a man whom Mustapha would come to know well: the operative from the Human Security Division.
After settling on Mustapha as their point man, the Swiss diplomats invited him to spend two weeks in the Alps as a guest of the government. There, he would take a course on peacemaking taught by some of the world’s most experienced mediators.
Just as Ahmad Salkida arrived in Abuja to open a dialogue with Boko Haram, Zannah Mustapha had traveled to a boutique hotel on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Thun to begin his education.
The class had roughly 20 students, all handpicked by the Swiss from warring nations. They began by role-playing different sides in a pedestrian scenario: a conflict involving two neighbors and a fence. The goal was to explain how to structure a negotiation.
“The logic of a mediation is easier to show in that fence session than in Syria,” said Simon Mason, an organizer of the course.
Several students had come from Colombia, which was close to ending a 50-year insurgency. The class studied those talks and discussed them over long walks around the Lake.
Mustapha flew home two weeks later, ready to undertake the challenge of a lifetime.
‘Cancel the Operation’
In the space of a month, the high-tech, seven-nation military hostage-rescue operation began to stumble. The British spy plane broke down after a few weeks. The FBI negotiators bugged out. Nigerian officials don’t recall ever seeing any satellite data from China.
On several occasions, when U.S. drones spotted large groups in Sambisa Forest they believed to be the Chibok girls, the analysts had to wait up to 72 hours for approval from Washington before sharing their intelligence with the Nigerians. By then, the girls had usually been moved. In some cases, U.S. officials said, the Nigerians didn’t follow up on leads.
Soon, the Nigerians stopped returning American phone calls. “We had to tell them: Obama is not our president! You’re not in Washington now,” said one official.
“We gave them a hammer, but they never picked it up,” an American officer said. “There wasn’t enough political will.”
The #BringBackOurGirls campaign had made Nigeria a magnet for reward chasers and have-a-go heroes. The government fueled the chaos by paying millions of dollars for information that led nowhere.
Reuben Abati, President Jonathan’s spokesman at the time, acknowledged the search became a gold rush. “There were too many actors working at cross-purposes,” he said.
Nigeria’s decision to call Ahmad Salkida, the grocery store security guard, began to look prescient. In an early meeting with Nigeria’s security chiefs, Salkida shared an insight, gleaned from his sources, that the Twitter activists and foreign rescue brigades hadn’t considered. Shekau was tired of the girls and wanted to bring them back, too.
Salkida contacted Boko Haram to request a meeting with Shekau. The insurgents said they would allow it, so long as Salkida left his phone behind. If he brought it, they’d kill him, they said.
Boko Haram agreed to the meeting and pointed Salkida to a rendezvous point in northeastern Nigeria. Once there, he was collected in a car and dropped off to wait for another driver. After several more trade-offs and a bumpy nine-hour ride on the back of a motorcycle, he arrived at the Sambisa camp, where Shekau welcomed him with a hug.
The warlord was more sober in person than the barking figure on YouTube, Salkida said. After they prayed together, Shekau walked off with hardly a word, directing Salkida to an air-conditioned tent.
After debating with Shekau’s deputies into the wee hours, Salkida woke the next morning to an encouraging sight: the Chibok girls, about 100 of them, some still wearing their checkered-print school uniforms. Naomi Adamu was there, sitting on a patch of scrub and staring back defiantly. A militant began filming a proof of life video, which Salkida took as a sign that Shekau was interested in striking a bargain.
Back in Abuja, he brought the video to the president, who gave his blessing to cut a deal.
Salkida spent the next few weeks exchanging text messages with the two sides to help Nigeria piece together the terms of the girls’ release. The government would load a vehicle with five imprisoned Boko Haram fighters. The insurgents would deliver 20 girls. The two sides would repeat the process until one ran out of captives. Nigerian officials concluded it was the best deal they could hope for. They told him to go ahead.
After scheduling the first exchange, Salkida and the prisoners climbed inside six government vehicles and rode in a convoy to the designated exchange point in the city of Damaturu. It was all systems go.
As evening fell the day before the swap, Salkida’s phone rang. It was a ranking figure in the Nigerian military. The man gave Salkida a curt order.
Cancel the operation.
The military had grown uncomfortable with the trade. Some still thought the kidnapping was a hoax and the exchange a feint to free Boko Haram fighters. Others simply hated negotiating with terrorists.
Shekau was furious. “Nigerians are saying bring back our girls?” he screamed in a tape posted on YouTube weeks later. “Bring back our prisoners of war!”
Salkida flew back to Dubai feeling betrayed.
As the calendar turned to 2015, the rescue effort had all but collapsed. Almost all of the U.S. operatives had been pulled out, and the Twitter community had moved on to a crisis in West Africa, the Ebola epidemic. In Nigeria, a tightening presidential race dominated the news.
There was one ray of hope that had been kept from view. After secretly making contact with Boko Haram, Zannah Mustapha received a video from the militants. It showed the Chibok girls, very much alive, resting against a bullet-riddled wall. Despite the disaster in Damaturu, the insurgents were still open to cutting a deal.
Mustapha considered taking the footage to the president but decided against it. He remembered one of the lessons he’d learned in Switzerland: Negotiations take time. “I realized, at that moment, I needed to keep my mouth shut,” he said.
To maintain their spirits in the Sambisa camps, and their unity, the girls began engaging in small acts of rebellion.
They whispered Christian songs in Kibaku. They traded stories from back in Chibok and awarded their captors nicknames. “Soon Soon” was a commander who kept promising they’d be released, “soon, soon.”
When instructed to chant Muslim prayers, the girls mouthed Christian verse instead. On Friday prayers, they sat together. They retold the Old Testament story of Job, who was tortured by Satan but never abandoned his faith. “This was their favorite,” a psychologist who later treated them said. “It helped them make sense of their situation.”
Most of the Christian girls had steadfastly refused to embrace Islam and marry fighters. Boko Haram decided it was time to try a new approach.
The militants told the girls they could all go home, but only if every single one of them converted.
The proposal began to cleave the girls into two camps. Those who were willing to accept the offer, or had already converted, began trying to persuade the others. The arguments became heated. Some of the holdouts flatly refused; others said they didn’t trust their captors.
Eventually, one of the converts grew so angry at the holdouts that she took a desperate step. She approached her group’s commander and said her classmates were keeping diaries.
A panic broke out. Some girls opted to throw their notebooks in water, or burn or bury them. Naomi Adamu had two notebooks. One had a picture of Cinderella on the cover. There were many pages of handwritten entries, some by her, some by classmates. She decided she couldn’t destroy them. She tucked them inside her clothes.
Nearly all of the holdouts refused to convert. “We would rather die than accept,” Adamu said.
Though the girls didn’t know it, their captors were reluctant to harm them. Boko Haram finally grasped that the Chibok girls were the among the world’s most valuable hostages. Besides, they had a bigger problem. Their enemies were coming.
The initial foreign deployment of drones and aircraft, justified as a rescue effort, had evolved into a grisly aerial assault. On the ground, South African mercenaries, crack troops from Chad and vigilantes packing muskets entered the forest to engage in gunbattles with Boko Haram. Nights now brought the threat of airstrikes.
One evening, the whoosh of jet engines sent Adamu’s captors scrambling. Soon the camp erupted into smoke, flame and the smell of sulfur. “There were jet bombers hovering over our heads, bullets passing close to our ears,” Adamu said. Six men died in front of her.
She decided to make a break for it, and sprinted through the forest. Soon however, she was lost and hungry. For five days, she wandered the woods in silence, turning delirious. A militant found her.
Back at the camp, she felt a strange sense of resolve. “I had seen so many dead bodies,” Adamu said. “I was no longer afraid to die.”
The relentless attacks of 2015 pushed Boko Haram back into the hills, and the girls came with them. In their camps, the girls had seen other, less-valuable hostages eating leaves or sticks. Children died constantly of hunger, thirst and disease. Though they slept outside, the Chibok girls knew they had it better than some.
The more Boko Haram retreated, the more that distinction faded. As they moved from camp to camp, food became scarce. The Chibok girls chewed tree bark as they waited for meals that never came. They used plastic bags to lift sips of water from muddy puddles, sometimes going thirsty for up to four days. Adamu had a long-running kidney condition, which brought physical agony. “We were left to eat grass,” she said.
In the summer of 2015, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s newly elected president, gathered his cabinet for a meeting. The list of girls reported killed had grown, and the others were said to be near starvation. Two weeks before Buhari’s election, Shekau made an audio recording pledging allegiance to Islamic State.
Buhari had won the presidency in March on the strength of his vow to wrap an iron grip around the insurgency. He set a hard target. He wanted the girls freed by Sept. 5, his 100th day in office.
After leading a 1983 military coup, Buhari had ruled Nigeria as a dictator for 19 months, imposing a harsh code of law and order. In a so-called “war on indiscipline,” he ordered soldiers to whip Nigerians who cut in line and demanded retroactive death sentences for drug dealers.
On taking elected office, Buhari turned over the Chibok negotiations to Nigeria’s State Security Service and began asking his aides sharp strategic questions about the insurgency and its vulnerabilities.
Beyond his military bluster, the president had another motivation for freeing the girls. He reminded aides he had nine daughters of his own. “I’ve never seen Buhari’s tears except in the case of the Chibok girls,” said a senior intelligence adviser to the president: “This is personal.”
In a nondescript office building across from a toy store in the Swiss capital of Bern, the diplomats, subject experts and operatives from the Human Security Division, previously known as Political Affairs Division IV, kept close tabs on the situation in Nigeria.
Most of their information came from reports filed by their longtime Africa field agent, the man who was accompanying Zannah Mustapha to his secret talks with emissaries from Boko Haram.
Even to those who worked with him in Nigeria, the neatly dressed Swiss operative was an enigma. He was a native French speaker who had lived on three continents. He had survived robberies, befriended celebrities and was acquainted with royalty. In Nigeria, those who met him were impressed that a white man could have managed to master Nigeria’s linguistic and cultural idiosyncrasies. He often switched into Nigerian pidgin English.
Above all, he was relentlessly discreet. He declined to comment for this article.
Many Swiss citizens are only vaguely aware, at best, that their government employs about 100 people—many of them trilingual graduates from Europe’s finest schools—to unravel the world’s knottiest conflicts. There is a simple reason for this: Switzerland isn’t doing it for the publicity. “Many of our engagements have not been public and will never be public,” said Matthias Siegfried, a mediation adviser at the Swiss political-affairs directorate.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, joyous as it was, put Switzerland in a tough spot. Through the 20th century, this mountain-ringed country maintained its influence by acting as a neutral mediator between warring nations. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, a decline in state-on-state conflicts left it groping for a way to stay relevant and help preserve its position as the world’s safest place to deposit money.
“You cannot stay anymore in this world hiding behind your mountains, because you’re not able to defend your interests,” said Micheline Calmy-Rey, a former Swiss president and foreign minister.
The fragmenting of the post-Cold War world brought a new kind of conflict. Internal battles, such as Rwanda’s genocide, drew global attention but proved too numerous and complex for the international community to tackle. In this increasingly unstable world, Swiss diplomats saw an opportunity to maintain their position. Switzerland hadn’t joined the European Union and could not be sanctioned for violating its ban on talking to terrorist groups.
Groups such as FARC and Hamas flew to meetings in Switzerland, where officials welcomed them with flowers in their hotel rooms. At one point, the government suggested opening talks with Osama bin Laden. “If you are too conventional in thinking about who is a terrorist and who is not, then of course you may lose opportunities,” said Thomas Greminger, one of the Human Security Division’s founding figures.
Over the past two decades, often with the assistance of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross, the division has engaged in more than 30 peacemaking missions in 20 countries, from the Philippines to the Nuba Mountains of Sudan.
In the middle of 2015, the reports coming to the division headquarters from Nigeria were not optimistic. Their star pupil, Mustapha, had yet to make significant progress. He was also starting to wonder if he was the right person for the job. Despite the mercy he’d shown for their children, Boko Haram still considered him an apostate whose death would be cause for celebration.
Shekau didn’t seem to know what he wanted. Sometimes he demanded billions of dollars. He canceled prisoner swaps at the last minute. The barrister started to think he was dealing with a madman.
The Swiss operative had worked hard to coach Mustapha. He had tried to convince him an exchange was still possible. Swiss diplomats decided to invite him back to Lake Thun for more training.
For more than a year, the world heard almost nothing about the Chibok girls. Social media had gone dark. Buhari, failing to meet his deadline, moved to a more confrontational strategy. Negotiations were officially off the books. The situation appeared stagnant.
Meanwhile, Boko Haram continued its terrorist attacks throughout the north. In the fall of 2015, after Mustapha returned from his second training session in Switzerland, the insurgents detonated a bomb in Maiduguri just blocks from his school. When the last of his students was accounted for, Mustapha threw a celebratory feast.
He watched the children of Boko Haram sitting with the children of government soldiers sharing plates of chicken and rice. “It made me stronger,” he said. “It made me think the new generation could make peace. They will grow up and make a settlement.”
With a renewed spirit, Mustapha scheduled meetings with Nigerian intelligence operatives and Swiss diplomats. He traveled the globe to meet in secret with Boko Haram emissaries. In meetings, he began taking charge, putting both sides in their place. Sometimes he let them argue for hours until fights broke out. Other times he cut meetings short after 15 minutes. At one session he listened to both sides discuss an issue, then outlined a middle ground so persuasively the rival parties broke out in applause.
A rapport was building. “I could tell that time was ripening,” he said. “It is only when you don’t talk that you can’t win.”
The breakthrough came in the form of an epiphany. Nigeria had been offering to give Shekau some of Boko Haram’s most senior commanders, thinking they would sweeten the deal. But beneath the warlord’s ferocious exterior, Mustapha picked up on a weakness. Shekau was afraid of losing his grip.
Shekau was traveling with two bodyguards to protect him from his own followers. He’d dissolved his Shura, a council of elders. When one of his deputies publicly challenged his reluctance to make a deal to free imprisoned fighters, Shekau had him executed.
By releasing senior commanders, Nigeria might strengthen the challenge to Shekau’s authority and weaken his hold on the spellbound army of teenage boys he’d conscripted.
Islamic State had come to dislike Shekau and his methods and stopped responding to his communications. The group’s top clerics in Iraq and Syria began cultivating a new leader for Boko Haram: the roughly 20-year-old son of cleric Mohammed Yusuf.
The growing rift inside Boko Haram over Shekau’s refusal to trade the Chibok girls soon exploded. Top commanders, forced to choose between the factions, turned their guns on each other. At least 400 Boko Haram fighters died from internecine battles after the split broke out in 2016, officials estimated. The captives they had tried to divide were now dividing them.
Under siege and facing a mutiny, Shekau had one card left to play. His faction held almost all of the Chibok girls still in the camps. Mustapha believed his moment had finally come.
The talks Mustapha orchestrated in mid-2016 moved with remarkable speed, yielding the outlines of a deal. The plan called for two exchanges. In the first one, Boko Haram would free 20 Chibok hostages in exchange for one million euros. If both sides were satisfied with the outcome, the rest of the girls who wanted to come home would be swapped in a second exchange in return for two million euros and five imprisoned Boko Haram commanders.
Mustapha agreed to make sure that the militants sent back would be senior enough for Shekau to save face, but also loyal to him and junior enough to protect his authority.
As Mustapha worked through the details and tried to maintain the confidence of both sides, the Nigerian government began the delicate process of finding prisoners Shekau would deem acceptable. Ahmad Salkida, the blogger, was the man picked for the task. He began to crisscross Nigeria combing jails and interviewing inmates, looking for militants who fit the profile.
As the deal began coming together, Nigeria was mired in recession. Basic goods had been disappearing from stores, and motorists often had to queue for days to buy gasoline. President Buhari had fallen ill and was spending weeks at a time in London undergoing treatment. The president was eager for a victory. He also loathed the idea of paying Boko Haram. No one knew if he would sign off.
In the end, he approved the deal, with a condition: He insisted that any money that reached Boko Haram would be a step toward a comprehensive peace agreement.
On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2016, Buhari met the U.N. secretary-general to discuss the emerging deal, according to Nigerians involved and an email between senior U.N. officials.
The U.S., which had once corralled the rescue effort, opposed in principle paying ransoms. If Washington knew, it stayed silent.
“The Swiss do the Swiss thing, and they don’t do it on the front pages of the newspaper,” said a current senior U.S. official. “It’s not for us to tell them what to do or not to do. These are complex things and you’re talking about human lives.”
Freedom and Its Price
Under the terms of the first exchange, which took place on Oct. 13, 2016, Nigeria expected to receive 20 hostages. Instead, Boko Haram brought 21. The extra girl, the militants told Mustapha, was a personal gift to him. “You took care of our children when no one else would,” explained a Boko Haram commander. The barrister allowed himself a smile.
The girls climbed into Red Cross Land Cruisers, discarded their veils and burst into a hymn in Kibaku. “Praise God!” they sang.
The world’s attention was focused elsewhere. The U.S. presidential election was three weeks away and Hurricane Matthew was pummeling the Carolinas. Although Oby Ezekwesili continued to lead protests demanding the release of the other girls, the celebrities moved on.
Michelle Obama last addressed the girls’ plight in April 2017 at a World Bank event in Washington. Through her office, she declined to comment, as did former President Obama.
The second exchange on May 6 freed another 82 captives, including Naomi Adamu. She pressed her face to the window as the convoy drove away, watching her captors became small figures on the horizon.
After a restless night’s sleep in a military barracks, she was bundled onto an airplane for the first time. She and her classmates landed in Abuja and rode in a motorcade to a presidential banquet hall. There she watched a compilation of CNN footage and learned what none of the Chibok girls had known. They were a global cause célèbre.
One by one, in the following days, handlers peppered the girls with questions to see if they’d been radicalized. Is the earth flat? they asked.
Each of them said no.
Asked if the Trump administration knew about the second trade, which took place on its watch, a spokesman for President Donald Trump’s National Security Council said: “To my knowledge, not in advance.”
Of the 276 kidnapped schoolgirls, 163 are now free: Fifty-seven fled in the early hours and days after the initial attack. Three more escaped later. The Swiss-coached mediation secured 103.
Of the remaining 113, at least 13 have died, officials say. Some were felled by malaria, hunger or a snake bite. The majority died in airstrikes. Among those forcibly married to fighters, at least two died in childbirth.
The last command Boko Haram made to the Chibok girls before their release was a parting threat. “If you go back to school, we’ll kidnap you again.”
They ignored that order, too.
Since September, the freed girls have been living in the northeastern city of Yola learning music, literature and computer science in air-conditioned rooms on the sprawling and secure campus of the American University of Nigeria. They walk arm-in-arm over manicured grass, hold spelling bees, watch movies and do yoga together. Outside the campus gates, tens of thousands of escaped Boko Haram victims suffer anonymously.
Zannah Mustapha toured Europe after the second exchange, collecting awards. At a glitzy gala in Geneva, Angelina Jolie, a U.N. goodwill ambassador, told him: “Mr. Mustapha, you are an inspiration.”
“I have a vision for peace in Nigeria,” he told the crowd, which later gave him a standing ovation. “We are in a journey to understand our differences and overcome our adversity.”
Since the insurgents collected their three million euros, some Nigerian officials say an army that had struggled to feed itself seems replenished. Since the first exchange, Boko Haram has sent more than 90 children strapped with bombs into public places. More than 1,000 people have died and two million are homeless. Kidnappings have continued as well.
A month after the final exchange, Shekau released a video boasting he’d abducted 10 policewomen.
The Nigerian government believes it is finally winning the war. President Buhari is starving Shekau out, officials say. Peace talks are ongoing. Thousands of fighters may be willing to come out of the hills.
Behind the scenes as always, the Swiss operative from the Human Security Division continues to work on the larger goal of a lasting peace in Nigeria.
After helping to identify prisoners for Mustapha, Salkida decided to stay in Abuja. He remains a go-between as the war rages on.
Though the two weren’t always aware of the other’s work, Mustapha and Salkida were never strangers. They knew one another from Maiduguri. Asked to comment on Salkida’s prowess as a mediator, the barrister demurred. “He is my younger brother,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about him.”
Mustapha doesn’t think the deal empowered the insurgency. “I have done this mediation with the highest sense of sincerity,” he said.
The office of Nigeria’s president did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Boko Haram could not be reached.
For the first time in four years, Naomi Adamu plans to spend Christmas with her mother. In an interview on a recent afternoon at her aunt’s one-room apartment in Maiduguri, the college student said she is hoping to study medicine. She saw no problem with the ransom payments.
“The government should yield to the requests of the Boko Haram terrorists so the remaining girls can be free,” she said.
The diaries the girls kept, which haven’t been published, documented what one official who debriefed the girls called “a hard, hard life. These girls are combat veterans. They are tough,” the official added.
Mustapha said he has unambiguous reverence for the Chibok girls he helped bring home. They remind him of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, the biblical characters who were thrown into a fire but escaped unburned.
“They survived,” he said, “because they stuck together.”
—Gbenga Akingbule and Glenna Gordon contributed to this article.