The governor of Nigeria’s Yobe state told residents of the village of Dapchi in person on Thursday that 76 of their schoolgirls who were reported to have been rescued from Islamist Boko Haram kidnappers were in fact still missing.
His government on Wednesday said the schoolgirls had been rescued by the military, sparking celebration in the streets.
But a day later, Ibrahim Gaidam told villagers the girls were still unaccounted for, according to an apologetic statement from his spokesman.
“The government said yesterday the girls have been found, then the governor came today to say the soldiers are yet to find them,” said Ali Maidoya, who lives in Dapchi. “Why did they lie to us before?”
The students’ disappearance may be one of the largest since Boko Haramabducted more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014. That case drew global attention to the nine-year insurgency, which has sparked what the United Nations has called one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
A roll-call at the girls’ school on Tuesday showed that 91 students were absent, two people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.
Boko Haram insurgents drove into Dapchi on Monday evening in trucks, some of them camouflaged and mounted with heavy guns, and attacked the girls’ school, sending hundreds of students fleeing.
On Wednesday, one witness told Reuters he had seen three trucks filled with weeping girls as he was forced by the militants to guide them away from the region.
Confusion over numbers
There is confusion over the number now missing, with estimates ranging from around 50 to more than 100. State police, the Yobe government and others have all given different figures.
Monday’s Dapchi attack is likely to have been carried out by a faction of Boko Haram allied with Islamic State, two people briefed on the matter told Reuters, declining to be identified because they were not authorised to speak to media.
Until now, that group, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, has typically attacked military targets, those people said.
The other major faction, led by Abubakar Shekau, which purports to hold some of the remaining Chibok girls, frequently uses suicide bombers to try to kill civilians.
Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration agreed to pay millions of euros to secure the release of some of the Chibok girls, as well as ransoms for kidnapped university staff, after negotiations with Boko Haram aided by Switzerland and the Red Cross.
The kidnapping of the Dapchi schoolgirls may have been carried out in the hope of securing a similar multi-million euro ransom, said one of the people briefed on the matter.
The shadow of Chibok hangs over Dapchi in other ways too.
Nigerian authorities at the time denied and played down the Chibok kidnapping, as they have done for more recent abductions. Residents now fear the same is happening in Dapchi.
“We were happy yesterday when the government said they have found our daughters. Now the story has changed,” said Ali Yari.
On Wednesday, parents and other local witnesses told Reuters they had been warned by Nigerian security and government officials not to disclose the students’ disappearance.
Soldiers now prowl Dapchi and guard the perimeter fence of the school, which is almost deserted except for a few police.