Some of the abducted Chibok girls
Set in 1,000 acres of lush grassland, the sprawling campus of the American University of Nigeria represents everything that the Islamist militants of Boko Haram oppose. Since opening a decade ago, its stated aim for its 1,400 students is to provide a US-standard education for “Nigeria’s and Africa’s future leaders” – be they Christian or Muslim, male or female.
Yet among the university’s new autumn intake, one group of students knows all too well the ruthlessness with which Boko Haram enforces its mantra that “Western education is sinful”. The shy, quiet girls on the university’s new “Chibok Scholarship” are from a group of 58 who escaped during Boko Haram’s mass schoolgirl abduction in April, when some 276 female pupils were snatched from the Chibok Boarding School.
Since September, the university has enrolled 21 of the escapees as full-time students for free – in a bold bid to continue the education that their kidnappers sought to deny them.
“I feel very excited to have a chance to be part of this university and to continue my education,” said Anna, 19, one of the scholarship girls, in an interview by telephone with The Sunday Telegraph last week. “I am studying science now and I hope to become a doctor after graduating.”
Indeed, had Anna remained in Chibok, she might be contemplating a very different future right now. For only last Thursday, Boko Haram militants attacked the town yet again, sending its residents fleeing into the bush once more and reviving memories of that dreadful night when so many of their daughters went missing.
Anna, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, is still reluctant to talk about the abduction itself, during which a number of girls managed to leap from the trucks that spirited them away. However, she is well aware how close she came to appearing in the chilling “class photo” that emerged a month later, when Boko Haram released video images of her classmates lined up under a tree at a secret location in the Nigerian bush.
Since those images were broadcast around the world, nothing more has been heard from them, and despite numerous claims of ceasefires and prisoner swaps, many believe the militants intend to keep them as bush wives.
“We pray for our friends every day and we hope they will go back home soon,” she said. “But for myself, I try to forge ahead and forget about the past.”
In recent weeks, though, forgetting about the threat from Boko Haram has become rather less easy. The scholarship girls’ new campus home, which was founded by Atiku Abubakar, a US-educated former vice-president, lies on the outskirts of Yola, a city of 300,000 near Nigeria’s mountainous eastern border with Cameroun. The capital of Adamawa State, it has so far been spared Boko Haram’s violence, which has been at its worst in towns like Chibok, some 200 miles further north in neighbouring Borno State.
But over the last two months, Yola’s population has nearly doubled overnight as hundreds of thousands of people have fled a major push by Boko Haram into northern Adamawa. In early November, the group seized Mubi, a city of 100,000 that is just 100 miles north of Yola, burning down churches, declaring Sharia law and renaming it as Madinatul Islam, or “City of Islam” in Arabic.
Such is the influx of people fleeing into Yola that even the city’s main Catholic Cathedral has become a temporary shelter. Those camped in its precincts talk of how Boko Haram gunmen rooted out Christians from Mubi by asking them to recite parts of the Koran. Anyone who could not was ordered to flee on pain of death.
“The Boko Haram guys came into Mubi on motorbikes and started shooting everywhere, chanting Allah Akhbar and saying they were here to impose Sharia,” said Malachy Tizhe, a 53-year-old college lecturer who is now a refugee in Yola. “They targeted only the Christians and the Christian shops. As a man of God, I tell you, it was completely terrifying.”
For Boko Haram, the latest incursion is just another bid to expand its empire, which now extends across a vast swathe of north-east Nigeria that also includes the city of Bama, north of Chibok, which fell in early September. The militants now hold sway over an estimated two million people, and continue to spread terror elsewhere. Last week, a suicide bomber disguised in school uniform killed 48 students at a school in Potiskum on the western edge of their fiefdom.
The push into Adamawa has gone largely unreported outside Nigeria, even though its anti-Christian element has close parallels with Isil’s campaigns in northern Iraq. It has, however, been viewed with alarm by Western diplomats, who say it shows the Nigerian army is still unable to contain Boko Haram, and that if anything, things are now worse than they were six months ago, when the kidnapping of the girls first brought the insurgency to world attention.
“The overall picture is negative, and it is fair to say that the Nigerian army has not done particularly well,” said one Western diplomat.
During the fall of Mubi, for example, there were widespread reports of soldiers ditching their uniforms and fleeing. In a sign of their growing confidence, the insurgents also recently stormed the nearby town of Vimtim, home to none other than the chief of Nigeria’s defence staff, Alex Badeh, where they made a point of ransacking his palatial mansion. It was seen as a deliberate snub to his widely-reported claim two weeks before that a ceasefire deal had been reached.
There are now also concerns that Yola itself could soon be in the militants’ sights, along with the American University of Nigeria, which is also home to a number of American expatriate staff. While the city currently serves as one of the main bases for Nigerian army operations further north, few have great confidence in the military’s ability to defend it.
“People think that if Boko Haram can take Mubi, then they can take Yola as well,” said Stephen Mamza, Yola’s Catholic bishop, who now has more than 20 newly orphaned children living at his cathedral. “The atmosphere is very tense at the moment, and many people who have the means to leave Yola are currently doing so.”
While a number of Yola’s schools have now temporarily closed, Dr Margee Ensign, the AUN’s president, insists that at present, there is no threat to the campus, which also has its own 400-strong privately trained guard force.
An American herself, she is a proud supporter of the scholarship scheme, which began by chance when a guard at the university asked for help for a sibling who was among the 58 girls who escaped the Chibok abduction.
The girl was still in Chibok, and living in daily fear of being kidnapped again by Boko Haram, who continue to attack surrounding villages. Indeed, when Dr Ensign and a colleague went to collect the girl and some of her friends, the university’s armed security staff refused to accompany them, leaving them to make a risky drive into the bush on their own.
“It is absolutely vital that these girls continue their education,” said Dr Ensign. “They want to become doctors, engineers and the like, and to go back and serve their communities when they are ready.”
The scholarship was originally intended for just 10 pupils, but when word reached the university that some of the girls in Chibok were drawing lots to see who would get to go, it was extended. A $3m appeal fund (Www.aunf.org) has now been set up so that potentially all 58 escaped girls can be put through the university’s education course, which starts with a year of basic education and then goes onto a four-year college programme.
Whether Nigeria’s government can do a better job of protecting the AUN than it did of protecting Chibok school, only time will tell. Such is the current mood of despair across the nation that last week, the country’s Catholic bishops held a major prayer session for the nation’s soul, hoping to purge Boko Haram’s gunmen of their “evil” influences.
“The government hasn’t been able to do much, so we have to take our case to the tribunal of God,” said Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, of the northern city of Jos.
Meanwhile, for Anna and the other Chibok Scholarship girls, the other big question is whether the scheme may one day have to be expanded further so that their missing classmates can join them.
“Like the Israelites who went into exile for 70 years, God will release our sisters one day,” said Anna. “They just need to have courage – and one day, after all this pain and sorrow, some good will come.