Freedom for the World’s Most Famous Hostages Came at a Heavy Price – Joe Parkinson WSJ

Long after the #BringBackOurGirls campaign faded, Nigeria paid a secret ransom of €3 million to free some of the kidnapped schoolgirls

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 journey had started under a drizzling rain in a town torched by insurgents and bombed by jets during a decade of war. The road was notorious for improvised explosives. One misstep could derail months of planning.

The man most responsible for engineering this moment was Zannah Mustapha, a 58 year-old former barrister from northern Nigeria who had founded a school for orphans. Together with an agent from the Swiss government, he had roamed the world for nearly three years, organizing secret talks with Boko Haram. He had listened to endless diatribes and broken up fights at the negotiating table.

Zannah Mustapha, a former barrister, served as lead mediator in talks that freed 103 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram.

Mustapha’s partner was an operative for the Human Security Division, a little-known cog in Switzerland’s diplomatic machine. He monitored the scene that day from a staging ground a few kilometers behind. His identity was such a closely guarded secret that even high-ranking Nigerians didn’t know his full name.

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 had no idea they were the world’s most famous hostages.

Before her kidnapping in 2014, Naomi Adamu had been a student at the Chibok Government Secondary School. She studied mathematics in her bunk bed. She played soccer. Now, as she shuffled through the wilderness 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 her captors, was an article of defiance. It was a diary, one of the few surviving records of the girls’ ordeal.

At the rendezvous point, Zannah Mustapha, dressed in a crisp gray Kaftan-style robe, watched as a group of wiry young fighters in tattered fatigues gathered opposite him, 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.

After Mustapha read the girls’ names aloud from a list, one of the militants began filming them with a battered camcorder. A Boko Haram commander asked each hostage two questions:

“Were you raped?”

“Were you abused?”

No, they all answered.

Boko Haram released 82 abducted girls to Nigerian authorities on May 6, 2017, in exchange for five imprisoned commanders and two million euros in cash. Photo: ZANNAH Mustapha/REUTERS

Boko Haram fighters embrace members of the insurgent group after their release from prison. Photo: ZANNAH Mustapha/REUTERS

The trauma the Chibok girls had endured as Boko Haram’s captives was extraordinary, but not unprecedented. The insurgents had taken thousands of other young Nigerians, many of whom were raped or conscripted as fighters. Most of these abductions went unnoticed.

News of this particular kidnapping had not only spread, it became the most prominent example of mass activism on social media and the central preoccupation of the global war on terror. Its 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.

The remote, rugged topography of northern Nigeria.

The extreme poverty of northern Nigeria has helped Boko Haram build an insurgency around an apocalyptic vision.

The story of the Chibok girls, as it is commonly understood, shows how simple hashtag on Twitter spurred seven nations to dispatch billions of dollars in armed forces, drones and sophisticated surveillance equipment. It shows how digital activism 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.

‘We had no choice’

In interviews, many Nigerians involved in negotiations for the girls, from cabinet ministers to soldiers, 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 and overshadowed 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 €3 million, delivered in two drop-offs.

“We had no choice,” one cabinet minister said. “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.

Victims of a November 15 suicide bombing in Maiduguri. A young boy and a woman seven months pregnant were among the victims.

Residents gather to mourn the victims of a suicide bombing and prepare their bodies for burial. Since Nigeria paid Boko Haram for its kidnapped girls, the reinvigorated group has increased its terror attacks. Published Credit: Glenna Gordon for The Wall Street Journal

Bodies of victims from the Nov. 15 suicide bombing.

Zannah Mustapha, the chief architect of the deal, said such concerns miss the central point. Their release, he believes, 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.

The kidnapping

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 their small town, firing rockets and assault rifles. The 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.

Cowering in his boxer shorts from the safety of a nearby mountain, Samuel Yama saw his phone light up. It was his sister, Margaret, a student at the Chibok school. “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 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.

A view of the small town of Chibok, where militants abducted 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory in 2014.

A house in Chibok. Corruption, military coups and a limping economy have made northern Nigeria one of the world’s poorest regions.

The twisted metal frames of bunk beds are all that remains of the Chibok Government Secondary School. After abducting its students, Boko Haram burned it to the ground.

For centuries, Chibok had been a place of refuge. Families had settled there in the 1700s to escape the slave trade. In 1941, an American missionary couple arrived and Chibok became a majority-Christian hamlet in Nigeria’s Muslim heartland.

By the turn of the 21st century, corruption, military coups and a limping economy left thousands of unemployed young men feeling disillusioned. In nearby Maiduguri, 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.

After Yusuf’s murder by authorities, a bearded and bellowing cleric named Abubakar Shekau took over the group. Burning with anger and wrath, he demanded that all of Nigeria adopt Shariah Law. 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!”

A still from a video released in October, 2014 by Boko Haram’s commander, Abubakar Shekau. Photo: Associated Press

“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 and setting fires. Tens of thousands died.

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 neighbors and friends.

Naomi Adamu was among the school’s more serious students, “a hardworking girl,” as her mother, Kolo Adamu, described her. She also had a goofy sense of humor she shared with a few close friends.

Photos of the Chibok girls taken before their kidnapping. The girl in the yellow dress is Naomi Adamu, one of the 103 captives released. Photo: GLENNA GORDON

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.”

When the girls emerged in the courtyard, they could see the men were not soldiers. They wore unkempt beards, flip-flops and tattered uniforms. They raided the school cafeteria and poured gasoline on the school to torch it.

Boko Haram had not come to abduct the school’s students—it had come to steal a brick-making machine. Its camps faced a housing shortage. A commander fired his rifle in the air and demanded to know where the machine was kept. The fighters found it and 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.

The unit’s commander turned to the girls. “Shekau will know what to do with them,” he said.

The fighters ordered the girls to climb into their trucks. The teenagers linked hands and arms as they stumbled through the dark.

The hashtag

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.

To the surprise of President Barack 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, Mr. Obama’s Africa director. “But it was initially met with a deafening silence.”

When Boko Haram burned the Buni Yadi schoolboys, Oby Ezekwesili, a former Nigerian education minister and mother of three sons, felt she had failed them. When she saw a short article about the kidnapping in Chibok, she broke down in tears. “These people’s children are missing, and nobody is talking about it,” she said.

Oby Ezekwesili, second from right, at a recent meeting in Abuja. The former government official led daily protests on the girls’ behalf and popularized the famous #BringBackOurGirls Twitter hashtag.

Ezekwesili began leading daily protests at a decrepit fountain in Abuja 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.

Ezekwesili also took to Twitter. For nine days she posted a series of hashtags aimed at needling the Nigerian government. Eventually, a lawyer who followed her account tagged a post with #BringBackOurGirls.

As a former official at the World Bank, Ezekwesili had picked up a handful of overseas celebrity followers. On April 30, recording artists Mary J. Blige, Common and Young Jeezy tweeted the hashtag. Actors Reese Witherspoon and Whoopi Goldberg followed suit, while Harrison Ford and others held up placards on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. “#BRINGBACKOURGIRLS You crazy mothaf—ers,” wrote comedian Chris Rock.

The cast of “The Expendables 3,” posing on the red carpet during the 67th Cannes Film Festival. Photo: VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images

By mid-May, the hashtag had been mentioned more than 3.4 million times.

At the White House, Mrs. Obama asked the National Security Council for regular briefings on the missing students. Then, to the surprise of her husband’s staff, she summoned a photographer. Standing in the Diplomatic Room 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.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan agreed to a White House 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.

U.S. Predator drones began circling the forests of northeastern Nigeria and U.S. and Nigerian officials began to gather 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 remote Sambisa 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. “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 refused. The militants shook the cans menacingly. Then they broke into laughter. The cans were full of water.

The road to captivity had been a two-day journey for the girls, often on foot, through a labyrinth of backwoods tracks. Several students had suffered gashes, broken limbs and scorpion bites. After arriving, Adamu said, she cried through the night. She 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.”

The Muslim students, and a handful of their Christian classmates who agreed to convert, were forced into sexual bondage. Christian girls who refused to yield were treated as slaves. They cooked beans, rice and yams for the militants, and ate little themselves. They were sent to treat injuries, amputate the limbs of wounded fighters and bury the dead in shallow graves.

One asset the Chibok hostages had was their bond, developed over years of sharing dorms. “Anything that happens, happens,” Adamu and her classmates told each other. They shared a 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.

When Boko Haram gave the girls notebooks to be used for studying the teachings of Islam, they used them as diaries instead. “We were hoping that we would eventually be released,” Adamu said. Or if they died, she said, that the diaries might someday be found. “We wanted the world to see what we witnessed.

A page of a secret diary kept by the Chibok girls during their captivity. Photo: Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani/THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

At first, Shekau didn’t seem to grasp how valuable the social media campaign had made them. It took money and manpower to feed and guard them and they had little military value.

“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!”

The mediator

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. Quietly, thousands of miles away, an effort to negotiate with Boko Haram was taking shape.

For years, diplomats in Switzerland 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 good place to begin.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Swiss had been quietly inserting themselves into some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. These effort both allowed the small, historically neutral nation to stay relevant on the world stage and to 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 Swiss believed the key to a successful negotiation was finding the right local mediator. The ideal candidate was someone prominent enough to be credible to both sides. Zannah Mustapha, a longtime lawyer from Maiduguri, checked that box—but he also had another advantage in dealing with Boko Haram.He looked after their children.

In 2007, Mustapha had left his law practice to open Future Prowess, a school and orphanage for children between 3 and 8. After two years, a steady stream of orphans and widowed mothers from a strange sect called Boko Haram began showing up at the gates.

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.

One of 10 schoolrooms at Future Prowess.

Mustapha had to persuade the widows of Boko Haram that teaching subjects like English, math and science was in keeping with Islam.

As he began enrolling these children, he had to convince the widows of slain militants that studying science, math and English was not an affront to Islam.

After settling on Mustapha as their point man, the Swiss diplomats invited him to take a course on peacemaking taught by some of the world’s most experienced mediators. He traveled to a boutique hotel on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Thun to begin his education.

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.

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.

The Twitter community had moved on to the Ebola epidemic. In Nigeria, a tightening presidential race dominated the news. Shekau, who had learned of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, posted a tape on YouTube. “Nigerians are saying bring back our girls?” he screamed. “Bring back our prisoners of war!”

Ahmad Salkida, one of the first mediators to hold talks with Boko Haram for the release of the girls, shows a proof-of-life video shot by the insurgents.

In the Sambisa camps, Boko Haram became preoccupied with a new problem: they were under attack. The initial military rescue effort had evolved into an all-out assault. Nights now brought the threat of airstrikes.

Nigerian soldiers fire on Islamic extremists during a May 2015 military operation in the Sambisa Forest. Photo: Nigerian Military/Associated Press

The relentless attacks of 2015 pushed Boko Haram back into the hills, and the girls came with them. Food became so scarce that 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. “We were left to eat grass,” Adamu said.

In the summer of 2015, Muhammadu Buhari began his term as Nigeria’s new president. He’d been elected on the strength of his vow to wrap an iron grip around the insurgency. Eager for a political victory, he told his cabinet he wanted the girls freed by Sept. 5, his 100th day in office.

The Samuel home in Abuja, Nigeria. The family left Chibok after the kidnapping.

Yana Galang, in Chibok, holds up a photo of her missing daughter Rivka.

Rivka’s younger sister Rejoice, 12, pulls down her sister’s papers. The room has been left empty in her absence.

Rivka Galang’s math notebook.

Esther Yakubu, whose daughter Dorcas is still missing, poses with her husband outside her house in Abuja.

At the headquarters of the Human Security Division in the Swiss capital of Bern, the reports arriving from their operative in Nigeria were not encouraging. After secretly making contact with Boko Haram, their star Nigerian pupil, Zannah Mustapha, had yet to make significant progress.

At the negotiating table, Shekau’s emissaries sometimes demanded billions of dollars. On one occasion, he canceled a planned prisoner swap at the last minute. The barrister started to think he was dealing with a madman.

Abubakar Shekau, the bellicose Boko Haram commander who ordered the attack on Chibok, appears in an August 2016 video. Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

He had also started to wonder if he was the right person for the job.

For more than a year, the world heard almost nothing about the Chibok girls. Social media had gone dark and Shekau had pledged his allegiance to ISIS. Buhari, failing to meet his self-imposed deadline, moved to a more confrontational strategy.

Breakthrough

Far from public view, however, Mustapha had flown to Switzerland for another two-week training session. At secret meetings between the two sides, he had finally begun to take charge. He would listen to both sides, then take the floor to persuasively outline a middle ground. 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.”

Zannah Mustapha was handpicked by Swiss diplomats to attend a two-week course on mediating conflicts.

Zannah Mustapha shows a picture of the Chibok girls taken during a tense exchange with Boko Haram.

Islamic State had come to dislike Shekau and his methods and stopped responding to his communications—and the group’s top clerics in Iraq and Syria began cultivating a new leader for Boko Haram.By 2016, Sheaku’s top commanders, forced to choose between factions, turned their guns on each other.

Mustapha knew the Chibok girls were Shekau’s only card left to play.

With remarkable speed, the talks arranged by Mustapha and the Swiss yielded the outlines of a deal. It involved two transactions. In the first one, Boko Haram would free 20 Chibok hostages in exchange for €1 million. If both sides were satisfied, the rest of the girls who wanted to come home would be swapped in a second exchange in return for €2 million and five imprisoned Boko Haram commanders.

President Buhari loathed the idea of paying Boko Haram, but he was also eager for a political victory. He decided to approve the deal.

On Oct. 13, 2016, as the first exchange began in the Nigerian wilderness, the world’s attention was focused elsewhere. The U.S. presidential election was three weeks away and Hurricane Matthew was pummeling the Carolinas.

Rose Lawan, whose older sister, Comfort, was kidnapped and released by Boko Haram, locks the gate of her family home.

Amos Lawan and his children pose for a family portrait at their home in Chibok.

The Lawan family at church. Though most of northern Nigeria is Muslim, Chibok is a predominantly Christian town.

Mrs. 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 21 students released that day climbed into Red Cross Land Cruisers, discarded their veils and burst into a hymn in Kibaku.

The following may, the second exchange freed another 82 captives, including Naomi Adamu. She and her classmates were flown to Abuja for a presidential banquet. It was there, watching a compilation of news footage, that they learned they had become a global cause célèbre.

Asked if the Trump administration knew about the second trade, which took place on its watch, a National Security Council spokesman 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, the majority in airstrikes.

Freedom’s price

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 studying 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, watch movies and do yoga together.

A dormitory at American University in Yola, Nigeria, where the Chibok girls have been living since their release.

At the school, the girls are studying music, literature and computer science and holding movie nights with popcorn.

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.”

Since the insurgents collected their €3 million, some Nigerian officials say an army that was struggling 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 had abducted 10 policewomen.

The Nigerian government believes it is 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. The office of Nigeria’s president did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Boko Haram couldn’t 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, she saw no problem with the decision to make ransom payments. “The government should yield to the requests of the Boko Haram terrorists so the remaining girls can be free,” she said.

Naomi Adamu, right, with her mother, Kolo, in Maiduguri. Photo: Gbenga Akingbule for The Wall Street Journal

When it comes to the Chibok girls he helped bring home, Mustapha said his reverence is unambiguous. 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.

The broken fountain near the Hilton in Abuja where Oby Ezekwesili continues to hold protests in support of the Chibok girls still missing.

Every day at the protest site, a member of the activist group Bring Back Our Girls updates the number of days the remaining girls have been held captive.

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