Leah Sharibu – the last girl from Dapchi, Nigeria, kept in Boko Haram captivity after a mass abduction in 2018 – will turn 16 Tuesday as a hostage after refusing to convert from Christianity to Islam.
Activists seeking more effective government action against Boko Haram have organized events honoring Sharibu on Tuesday in Nigeria and in front of Nigerian embassies internationally.
Boko Haram, an affiliate of the Islamic State, released the other 109 girls kidnapped from the northern Nigerian town in February 2018 after forcing them to recite the shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith. The freed girls told authorities and Sharibu’s parents that Leah refused to do so and the jihadists have thus refused to release her until she changes her mind.
The Nigerian government under President Muhammadu Buhari has failed to liberate her or curb the threat of Boko Haram attacks since he took office in 2015, when he first declared that Nigeria had “won the war” against the jihadist group. Buhari handily won reelection in February despite national dismay over the Boko Haram threat and concerns that the 76-year-old’s health would not allow him to fully commit to the obligations of the job.
Sharibu was attending Dapchi’s Government Girls Science and Technical College on February 19, 2018, when Boko Haram jihadists stormed the school and abducted 110 girls. The jihadist group, whose name means “Western education is sin,” typically targets girls’ schools for attack, kidnapping the students and turning them into slave-wives. Escaped captives say the terrorists routinely rape them, force them to cook and clean for them, and otherwise help the group survive in the dense Sambisa forest of northern Nigeria.
By March, the jihadists had released 104 of the Dapchi girls due to government pressure – or, some reports claimed, a government ransom – and ultimately released 109 of them. Sharibu, as of today, remains in captivity. Father Nathan Sharibu told reporters that month that the freed girls told him the Boko Haram terrorists refused to let her go:
My daughter is alive, but they wouldn’t release her because she is a Christian. They told her they would release her if she converted, but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also overjoyed because my daughter did not denounce Christ.
Sharibu spent her 15th birthday in captivity. Authorities have not revealed any evidence since August that Sharibu is alive or well. That month, terrorists released an audio clip of a girl speaking Hausa and identifying herself as Sharibu as proof of life.
“I am Leah Sharibu, the girl that was abducted in GGSS Dapchi. I am calling on the government and people of goodwill to intervene to get me out of my current situation,” the girl said in the audio. “I also plead to the members of the public to help my mother, my father, my younger brother and relatives. … treat me with compassion, I am calling on the government, particularly, the President to pity me and get me out of this serious situation.”
Nathan Sharibu confirmed at the time that the voice sounded like her daughter’s.
As of Tuesday, Sharibu will have spent 449 days as a Boko Haram hostage.
Activists in Nigeria organized events Tuesday to urge the government to work harder to free her. Bring Back Our Girls, a group of Boko Haram victim parents led by former Nigerian Education Minister Oby Ezekwesili, organized protests for Sharibu and the dozens of known captives still with the jihadist group throughout Nigeria, according to the Punch newspaper.
In remarks Tuesday, Ezekwesili called Nigeria “diseased” with corruption and government ineptitude and accused Buhari’s administration of doing nothing to help the captives because they are poor.
“Nations are like human organisms. Nations can become diseased. Sadly, a people may not realize how injustice is a disease that eats up nations. A country that handles the abduction of the children of the poor with levity is unjust. What more does President Buhari need to hear?” she reportedly asked.
Punch reported that five cities in Nigeria, including the capital Abuja, are hosting events for the captives Tuesday. Churches in those cities will also hold services to honor and pray for the girls. Abroad, Vanguard reports that hundreds are expected at the Nigerian embassies in the United States and United Kingdom.
Buhari claimed that Nigeria had soundly defeated Boko Haram in an interview with BBC in 2015. The group has continued to engage in mass abductions regularly since then, including Sharibu’s, while Buhari and the Nigerian military insist they are no longer a threat. In November, Buhari released hundreds of Boko Haram terrorists, claiming they were reformed and had completed a program to peacefully reintegrate into society. The jihadist group continues to attack communities in northeast Nigeria and bordering countries like Cameroon, however. In the latter, a group of over 100 Boko Haram members set a village on fire in April, burning at least 11 residents to death in their sleep and taking another 100 hostage.