After the Islamic militant group Boko Haram abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls from the northern Nigeria town of Chibok in April, few journalists managed to get to the scene of the crime. The trip, which required three days of traveling on roads sometimes attacked by Boko Haram and past fields razed by the militants, was regarded by many as too dangerous.
But freelance reporter Chika Oduah, 28, was among the few who tried. A reporter based in the capital Abuja whose work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, The Atlantic and on al-Jazeera, Odua went to Chibok in Nigeria's Borno State in May, just weeks after the girls were abducted. By then, a few dozen had managed to escape the group and return to Chibok. Her reporting earned her the 2014 Trust Women Honourary Journalist award from the Thomson Reuters Foundation. She told Global Journalist's Lucas Minisini about meeting the escaped girls and the Nigerian government's unsuccessful efforts to free those still held.
Global Journalist: Tell us about your visit to Chibok.
Chika Oduah: I went to Chibok once, and it was in May. I stayed overnight. I was one of the first journalists to go [there] and I have not had a chance to go back, because every time I tried, I was told “No, it’s just not safe.” Right now there is no phone network in Chibok; Boko Haram has destroyed all the telecom masts. So I cannot even call them [the families] to know if they are okay. But sometimes I try to reach them when they leave Chibok and have access to a phone, and I ask “Can I come?” and they say "No." As you know, [Chibok] was attacked again last month [November 2014].
GJ: Was it difficult to meet and photograph the families affected by the kidnapping in Chibok?
Oduah: Not at all. Chibok people were extremely friendly, I think they were really pleased to see that someone had made the effort to come and see them. When I arrived they were like “Oh finally, someone came instead of covering the story from miles away.” So that is why I was able to make friends with them, and I still call them when I can.
GJ: How was your encounter with the girls who escaped from Boko Haram?
Oduah: Perhaps I expected them to appear physically traumatized but when I talked to them, they seemed [like] they were trying to move on mentally, emotionally, socially, and even in terms of their education. They are coming back to school…Some people talk about the African sense [or] spirit of resilience. But I talked to some psychologists working with the girls and they said that these girls have expressed some signs of trauma.
GJ: How is the government helping these girls?
Oduah: I am in close touch with the chief medical doctor of the Chibok Hospital. They have done a lot of training for counseling…. [Some international organizations] have come and helped to train medical personnel to offer grief counseling not only for the girls but also for their families.
GJ: Has any collaboration between the girls and the Nigerian government taken place to procure any potentially useful information on Boko Haram?
Oduah: That is the issue here. The government does not seem to really have engaged with the girls to get information. Perhaps they are, but that has not been publicized because the government tends to operate behind a veil. But as far as we know, it does not appear that there [has been] a lot of talking, and it is just an era of confusion and a lack of will to get at the bottom of this.
GJ: Can you describe the "confusion" and "lack of will" on the part of the Nigerian government?
Oduah: This is where Nigeria’s historical context comes into play. You have a country that is largely sectarian—that is divided by religious and ethnic lines. The president is a Christian from the South. And there is a sentiment that people from the [mostly Muslim] north are against him. Even when the [kidnapping] happened, the First Lady said that this was a plot from the northern Muslim politicians to make her husband look bad. So again, all of this became politicized because of the Nigerian history. The nation was made up from a mix of 300 ethnic groups.
GJ: How did the families in Chibok react to the Nigerian government's actions?
Oduah: In the beginning a lot of them tried to be cooperative with the government even though it seemed like the government [wasn’t] taking any initiative. As you know the President still has not been to Chibok …to express his condolences. People have more hope in the state government rather than in the federal government and there are some political inclinations because the state government is [led by the predominately Muslim] opposition.
For now, a lot of the families in Chibok try to go their own roads, and go back to the forest to find the girls and try to go outside of the government perimeter. Right now there is this sense that the government just may not help them. A lot of them have more faith in trying to reach the global communities, calling the U.K., France and the United States out.
GJ: What has the state government done?
Oduah: Borno State actually did a lot. The governor implemented a vigilante force there to fight Boko Haram and these vigilantes were trained by the Nigerian military. A lot of people were very much impressed because the state was financially supporting this vigilante [force] which was pretty much just teenagers and young adults holding sticks and hundreds of rifles and fighting Boko Haram. Boko Haram is actually quite intimidated by this vigilante force because, unlike the Nigerian army, these guys are willing to die defending the state.