By Chika Otuchikere
This is the Christmas season, when the world celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God. The Holy Scriptures say God gave his son to be the savior of the world. The season is characterised by the exchange of gifts; aptly dubbed season of giving. In Nigeria, Christmas is a season when everyone; young, old, rich and poor expects a gift and always gets one.
In the spirit of giving, Christians in Nigeria requested from President Muhammadu Buhari, for the unconditional release of Miss Leah Sharibu, the celebrated hostage of the Boko Haram terrorists. Leah was captured alongside over 110 Dapchi schoolgirls in February, 2018. While her co-captives were freed after a short spell with their abductors, Leah was denied her freedom because she refused to deny her faith in Jesus Christ and convert to Islam, the religion of her abductors.
Her continued captivity has drawn the ire of the entire Christendom as well as of well meaning world leaders who have persistently called on the Buhari-led government to facilitate her release. Many other captives have since regained their freedom from the terrorists since the call for Leah release began, some through negotiation with the terrorists others reportedly through random payments. President Buhari, a retired army Major General and military head of state, had severally given assurance that his government was doing everything to secure Leah’s freedom from the terrorists. His promise was even one of his 2019 campaign promises leading many to speculate that he would use Leah’s release as bait for his election victory. Buhari won the highly controversial election but Leah remained in captivity.
The uncertainty that surrounded the fate of the young schoolgirl who was taken hostage at the age of 14, took a more frightening turn when an aid worker, also taken hostage by the Islamic terrorist group, told the world that Leah had been killed by the Boko Haram terrorists. The news sent shockwaves across the globe and rattled the Buhari administration.
The aid worker, Grace Taku, kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists on July 18, claimed that Leah alongside one Alice had been killed by the terrorists because of the Federal Government’s inability to “do something”. She made the claim in a video released by the insurgents.
The transcript of her appeal read: “My name is Grace, I work with Action Against Hunger, an NGO in Borno State; my base is Damasak. We went to work on Thursday, 18th July 2019. On our way going back to Damasak by Keneri/Chamba ward, we were caught by an army called the Kaliphas and they brought us here. We don’t know where we are.
“I want to beg the Christian Association of Nigeria because I am the only Christian among the six of us here. I want to beg that CAN should please do something about me to see how I can be released. I call on Borno State.
“I beg Action Against Hunger. We have families, some of us have children. We are Nigerians who are working for Nigerians. I am begging please, I am begging again. Please do something to see that we are released because this has happened in the Red Cross before where some ladies were caught, Hauwa and Zipporah. They also asked to be released but because Nigeria did not do anything about it, they were killed.
“I am begging on behalf of all of us. I don’t want such to happen to us and it also happened again with Leah and Alice, because Nigeria could not do anything about them, they were not released they were also killed.”
The government came out with a swift denial saying that Leah was still alive, ‘hale and hearty’. The government’s swift reaction gave indication that the government was fully in touch with the terrorist sect. Many, however, wondered why it was difficult for them to ensure her freedom.
According to the presidency in a statement by spokesman, Garba Shehu, Leah was alive, while the Federal Government continues to negotiate her release from the terrorist group. Shehu assured Nigerians that the government would not give up on Leah
“Instead of giving up, the government is carrying forward processes that should hopefully yield her release by her captors. Lines of communications remain open with the kidnappers, ISWAP, to secure the release of Leah Sharibu.
“Contrary to false reports, she is alive – given assurances from our security agencies- and the government is committed to her safe return, as well as all other hostages to their families.
“Kidnapping for ransom should never be encouraged. This means not capitulating to the demands of terrorists: refrain from rewarding their heinous crimes with payment.
“With the abduction of loved family (members) and friends, the government understands how difficult these times are for them, but government is pursuing many options to ensure the safe return of Leah Sharibu.
“We must commit to law and communication, using the breadth of strategies at our disposal: legal initiatives, stakeholder cooperation, involvement of all relevant parties and the use of the latest hostage negotiation techniques.
“Kidnapping for ransom is rising across the Sahel. We must – collectively – make sure we implement best practice to prevent its exploitation.” He called for patience to allow the government’s efforts to come to fruition”.
More than five months after the federal government gave assurance of its commitment to ensure Leah Sharibu’s freedom, it does not appear the Boko Haram which the government and its security agencies have celebrated as technically defeated, have capitulated. On the contrary, they seem to be waxing more defiant and merciless. Only recently the insurgents reportedly executed another set of aid workers in their custody. This is apart from more hostage takings and invasions.
Following the preparations for this year’s Christmas celebration and the expectation of exchange of gifts, Christians in the country renewed their plea on President Buhari to gift the Christendom Leah Sharibu as their Christmas gift. The Archbishop of Lagos State, Most Rev. Alfred Martins, urged Nigerians to remember those in captivity as Christmas drew closer.
In a statement signed by the Acting Director of Social Communications, Rev. Anthony Godonu, the archbishop singled out the plight of Leah Sharibu. His words, “I want to appeal to the President, in particular, to do all he can to bring back Leah so that she can be reunited with her family once again.”
Apart from Martins, many leading church ministers and denominations have repeated calls for Leah’s release from the Boko Haram den with many raising hopes that the president will make it a Christmas gift to Nigerian Christians. This was, however, not to be. The president rather released former National Security Adviser (NSA) Col. Sambo Dasuki, and the leader of RevolutionNow Movement, Omoyele Sowore, two men who the courts of the land had ordered their freedom but the government refused to obey the courts orders.
In as much as the Christian community hailed the freedom granted the duo, they expected the Buhari government to intensify action to free Leah if truly, the young girl suffering because of her Christian faith is still alive. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in a statement described the release of Sowore and Dasuki as Christmas gifts.