Nigeria denies paying ransom and freeing Boko Haram leaders for Chibok girls

Security experts say it is unlikely the 21 girls released on Thursday were freed without a significant incentive

The Nigerian government has denied reports that it paid millions of dollars and released senior extremist leaders to convince Islamist militants to free 21 girls abducted more than two years ago.

The girls, who were released early on Thursday morning, were among 276 female students taken from their hostel in a government boarding school in the small town of Chibok in April 2014 by Boko Haram. They were handed over to the government at a remote location in northern Nigeria.

Boko Haram has waged a violent insurgency in the north of Africas most populous nation for seven years.

The kidnapping of the girls brought the group international infamy and led to the global campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which featured public figures including the US first lady, Michelle Obama.

Officials have confirmed that the Swiss government provided mediators during negotiations, while the International Committee of the Red Cross provided medical assistance during the transfer of the girls.

Security experts say it is unlikely the girls would have been released by the group, which has split into two major factions, without a significant incentive.

A demonstration calling on the Nigerian government to rescue the Chibok girls. Photograph: Olamikan Gbemiga/AP

A Nigerian hostage negotiator not involved in Thursdays release told the Associated Press a handsome ransom worth millions of dollars was paid by Switzerlands government on behalf of Nigerian authorities.

Military officers initially told the Guardian the 21 girls were swapped for four detained Boko Haram leaders. Those statements were later denied by civilian officials.

Yemi Osinbajo, the vice-president of Nigeria, told reporters there had been no exchange, although he did not comment on the reports of a ransom. Absolutely, there was no exchange of any kind, Osinbajo said.

However, he did not rule out such exchanges in the future, saying the government would consider all options available and that he was confident there would be further releases soon using exactly the same kind of negotiations and the same template.

At least two previous rounds of negotiations to free the Chibok girls have failed, reportedly due to Boko Harams demands for huge sums of money and the opposition of Nigerias military to any deal.

Splits within the movement have also proved an obstacle to any deal. In recent months, Boko Haram has fractured into two, possibly three factions over the issue of links with Islamic State.

Isis, of which the Nigerian group is still theoretically an affiliate, announced last month that Abu Musab al-Barnawi was Boko Harams new leader, replacing the erratic Abubakar Shekau. The decision may have been prompted by Shekaus use of female suicide bombers and targeting of Muslims.

However, it is Shekau who is holding the Chibok girls. A video released of some of the girls in August seemed to have come from Shekaus camp somewhere in the remote Sambisa forest, in Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria. It showed about 50 of the girls and included a demand for the release of imprisoned militants in exchange for them.

Video posted by Boko Haram shows a masked man talking to dozens of girls the group said were from Chibok. Photograph: Reuters

Shekau is thought to be short of manpower, funds, ammunition and other vital supplies.

Ryan Cummings, a security analyst in South Africa, said it was very unlikely Boko Haram would have released any hostages without a significant reward. Why hold the girls for two years and then release them for nothing? It simply doesnt make sense and is totally contrary to what we know about the group, Cummings said.

There is evidence the Nigerian government and Boko Haram have conducted previous prisoner exchanges. In the initial stages of the insurgency the group swapped captured military personnel for its own combatants or family members seized by the Nigerian army.

There have also been a series of kidnappings of westerners in Nigeria, some by extremists, resolved when, it is believed, significant ransom payments were paid by western governments.

Elsewhere in the region, kidnapping for ransom has generated huge funds for militant groups such as al-Qaida in the Maghreb.

We dont know the details yet but a series of such deals could have the potential to regenerate the group, said Cummings.

Few details have emerged of the ordeal of the abducted girls, many of whom are believed to have been taken as wives by extremists and systematically raped. Others have reportedly been forced to carry out demanding physical tasks.

The Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, vowed to crush Boko Haram within a year of his taking power. Photograph: POOL/Reuters

About 190 girls from Chibok are still held by the militants. Fifty-seven fled within hours of being captured. In May, one girl was found and rescued in an area close to Boko Haram strongholds.

The Daily Trust newspaper, the most widely read news publication in the north of Nigeria, reported that Shekau agreed to release a first instalment of 20 Chibok girls as proof of good faith.

The newspaper quoted an unidentified official who described several attempts before a deal was struck early last week.

It was Shekau that decided that [Thursday] should be the day that the girls would be released and gave the designated place. He was not there himself, he only sent his representatives and instead of bringing 20 girls, they came with 21, the source said.

According to Nigerian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, some efforts were made to arrange a prisoner exchange but no captured Boko Haram combatants were prepared to return to fight alongside Shekau.

They are sensible people. They have been deradicalised, the official said.

The released girls arrived in Abuja, the capital, on Thursday afternoon. A team of social workers, doctors and counsellors had been readied for their arrival.

When Nigerias president, Muhammadu Buhari, took power in May 2015, he vowed to crush Boko Haram within a year. While his government forces have taken back large amounts of territory from the group, it has remained active, killing hundreds of people in suicide bombings.

A suicide bomber in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and birthplace of Boko Haram, killed eight people on Wednesday.

British and US special forces have been assisting the Nigerian military in their campaign against Boko Haram. Support from soldiers in the neighbouring countries of Niger, Cameroon and Chad was critical in pushing back the extremists, experts said.

Buharis government was previously thought to be attempting to rescue the girls by force. The army had launched airstrikes on Boko Haram strongholds and claimed to have wounded or even killed Shekau. The extremist leader subsequently appeared, apparently unhurt, in a video.

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