Of the 110 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by militants in the town of Dapchi in February 2018, 101 have been returned, the Nigerian government has said, amidst rumours of a ceasefire.
Nigeria's militant Islamist group, Boko Haram - so named by the residents in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri - has returned nearly all the Dapchi girls who were taken from their school on 19 February 2018. The kidnapping of the girls is the biggest mass abduction by the Islamist group since approximately 270 Chibok girls were taken from their town in 2014. People have conflicting feelings about the abduction and return of the girls, given that to date more than 100 of the Chibok girls remain in captivity. This is a reality that any female student faces as long as Boko Haram remains at large.
The Dapchi girls, who had been snatched from their boarding school, were "dropped off" in their town in northeast Nigeria, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said in a statement. They were later flown to the capital, Abuja, to meet President Muhammadu Buhari.
Despite rumors that the Nigerian government likely gave something in return for the girls' release, the Minister refuted this. He said that no ransom had been paid to free the Dapchi schoolgirls and that their release "came with no conditions".
"The only thing they asked for was that they should be the ones to drop them off. They didn't want to hand them over to any third party. Nothing was given in exchange for them," Mohammed said.
Read: War on Boko Haram: Amnesty International Reproaches Cameroon for Torturing Suspects
He did, however, admit that the girls had been freed following "back-channel efforts" by the Nigerian government. "The government had a clear understanding that violence and confrontation would not be the way out as it could endanger the lives of the girls," he explained.
"What happened was that the abduction itself was a breach of the ceasefire talks between the insurgents and the government, hence it became a moral burden on the abductors. Any report that we paid ransom or engaged in a prisoner swap is false," he told journalists at a media briefing in Maiduguri, Borno State.
President Buhari described the kidnapping in Dapchi as a "national disaster" and deployed both troops and surveillance aircraft in search of the missing students when the abduction happened.
"Let me assure you that our gallant armed forces will locate and safely return all the missing girls," Buhari had said in a statement on Twitter in February 2018.
However, a report from Amnesty International has accused the Nigerian army of failing to act on advance warnings of the raid. According to the report, phone calls were allegedly made to the army and police on the afternoon of the attack, warning that Boko Haram militants were on their way to the school.
"The Nigerian authorities must investigate the inexcusable security lapses that allowed this abduction to take place without any tangible attempt to prevent it," said Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International's Nigeria director.
Boko Haram has outlived other militant groups in northern Nigeria and built a presence in neighbouring states, including Chad, Cameroon and Niger, where it has carried out attacks and recruited fighters. The group's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which is Arabic for "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad". But its core principal, and a loose translation of the region's Hausa language, defines "Boko Haram" as "Western education is forbidden". Boko Haram therefore promotes a version of Islam that makes it "haram", or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. The group also regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers and it is aiming to change that by all means.
For the first time in years, having suffered an insurgency that has killed tens of thousands of people since 2009, the government is talking to Boko Haram about a ceasefire.
President Muhammadu Buhari's administration holds that he has been open to talks with the group for a long time. "Unknown to many, we have been in wider cessation-of-hostility talks with the insurgents for some time now," Minister Lai Mohammed said in an e-mailed statement outlining the background to the release of the Dapchi schoolgirls.
Regarding the ceasefire, Minister Mohammed told Reuters by telephone: "We were able to leverage on the wider talks when the Dapchi girls were abducted," he said "The ultimate aim is the permanent cessation of hostilities."
Although Boko Haram has been severely weakened in recent years by regional military pressure and the loss of territory it once held, it would still be difficult to negotiate with the group because of its internal divisions.
"There are many factions, some of which have committed terrible atrocities and have a world vision incompatible with the rule of law and constitutional democracy, but other elements may be ready to settle," Antony Goldman, CEO of the Nigeria-focused ProMedia Consulting, told Reuters.