By Colin Freeman, Maiduguri
Adamu Mohammed had braced himself for the worst. Five weeks ago, when Boko Haram gunmen staged a mass abduction in the northern Nigerian town of Dapchi, his 15-year-old daughter Maryam was among the 110 girls dragged off in broad daylight.
As he prayed daily for her safe return, he knew all too well she could be forced into sex slavery, conscripted as a suicide bomber, or simply never seen again.
Last Wednesday, he did not bother attending a planned “solidarity” meeting with parents of the missing Chibok girls, convened by Dapchi elders in a vain attempt to raise morale. After all, if their children were still missing nearly four years later, despite the global #bringbackourgirls campaign, what chance did his own daughter stand?
Instead he went on errands outside town, only for his phone to ring just after 8am. “Your daughter and the others have been released,” a neighbour told him. “A Boko Haram convoy came back into town and dropped them off.”
Maryam’s voice then came on the line. “We are okay, father,” she said. “It was frightening, but they did not beat or touch us.” This unexpected end to what looked like a repeat of the Chibok case sparked wild rejoicing in Dapchi, where Mr Mohammed slaughtered a sheep to celebrate. “I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly,” he told the Telegraph.
“I wanted to thank our President for making this happen.”
Across the rest of Nigeria, however, what was billed a triumph for President Muhammadu Buhari raised more questions than answers.
Why were the hostages freed so quickly? Why were the gunmen able to roll back into town unchallenged by the security forces, stopping for leisurely selfies with delighted townsfolk? And why was the press pack that was covering the Chibok meeting hustled out of town by state security agents, just before the convoy’s arrival?
“It’s all very fishy,” said one former intermediary to Boko Haram. “Normally, Boko Haram rapes and abuses any girls as soon as they kidnap them. Yet this group were brought back after just three weeks, mostly unharmed. It looks like a set-up.”
The Dapchi kidnapping is unlikely to be the last of its kind. After years of abducting girls mainly to provide its fighters with “bush wives”, Boko Haram now appears to have woken up to the lucrative potential of kidnapping for ransom, a move that could massively boost its warchest.
Mr Buhari’s government has made a series of ransom payments in the last year, and also authorised a number of prisoner exchanges. The first major ransom deal took place last May, when 82 of the 276 Chibok girls were freed for €3 million (£2.6 million) and the release of five senior militants. Last month, a further prisoner release bought the freedom of 11 women taken hostage last June en route to a funeral, along with a separate group of kidnapped academics.
Supporters of the ransom deals argue that they act as confidence-building measures that will ultimately lead to peace talks. Instead, it appears to have become a study in the perils of giving concessions to terrorists.
Mr Buhari’s decision to go down the risky path of negotiating with Boko Haram is surprising given his reputation as an uncompromising ex-general. When elected in 2015, it was on a pledge to be far tougher with the terror group than his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, whose dithering response to Chibok sparked the #bringbackourgirls campaign.
Ironically, it may have been the well-intentioned tweets of celebrities and pop stars that forced Mr Buhari’s hand.
Unable to free the Chibok girls by force, yet still facing huge international pressure to get them released, Mr Buhari told the UN 18 months ago that he was now “ready to negotiate” and was seeking international partners to act as mediators.
While Britain and America had both offered help in finding the girls, neither they nor the UN or EU wanted to get entangled with Boko Haram. But Mr Buhari found an unexpected partner in the neutral Swiss government, which happened to have an experienced intelligence agents at its embassy in Nigeria.
The agent – part of a Swiss government network of conflict-resolution specialists – worked with a Nigerian schoolteacher, Zannah Mustapha, whose work with orphans of Boko Haram fighters had earned him the militants’ respect.
He was sent to Switzerland for training in negotiation techniques, then he and the agent oversaw the handover of the 82 girls in a secret deal in the bush last May.
The Telegraph has learned that behind the scenes, many diplomats and advisers to Mr Buhari bitterly opposed the decision to make concessions.
One Western source involved in the talks said: “Buhari was influenced by the Swiss, who were keen to get the glory. Complaints were made repeatedly to the Swiss that if you paid for hostages once, you’d have to do it again. But they got quite belligerent. And now look – they got 82 girls back from Chibok, then another 110 get taken in Dapchi.”
The Swiss government said that it acted “neutral facilitator” in the negotiations to free the Chibok girls at the Nigerian government’s request.
“However, Switzerland was not involved in the content of the negotiations,” a spokesman said. “Switzerland does not pay ransom money for the release of hostages.”
Mr Mustapha, the Nigerian partner in the negotiation team, insisted the exchanges were “the only way to get the girls freed”. But even he admits there is a risk of creating a “vicious circle”, while others now warn that Nigeria is courting a potential boom in kidnapping.
Grant T Harris, who was Barack Obama’s envoy to Africa during the Chibok abduction, points out that Boko Haram may now follow the model of its Sahel affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has made $90 million (£64 million) kidnapping Europeans for ransom in the past decade.
“Kidnapping groups of young women mobilises a strong international reaction that pressures the government to respond, which is helpful,” he said. “But if the government goes the route of paying ransoms, it will only encourage more kidnappings.”
The Nigerian government claimed that talks with Boko Haram had led to the group releasing the Dapchi girls “unconditionally”.
That, though, does not chime with accounts given by hostages freed in earlier deals, who say their captors clearly expected Mr Buhari to pay up.
Janada Amos, 44, who was among the 11 women released last month after being kidnapped en route to a funeral in June, told the Telegraph: “Boko Haram said to me: ‘If we are to sell you back to Buhari, we want money and prisoners in exchange’.”
To make matters worse, some of the militants freed in last May’s Chibok deal have shown little interest in reconciliation.
One commander, Shuibo Moni, resurfaced in a video released earlier this month, firing weapons in Boko Haram’s strongholds in the vast Sambisa Forest.
The prospect of such men being freed to kill again has made even some ex-hostages uncomfortable about the price paid for their lives.
“When I was hostage, I was an innocent,” said Ms Amos. “But these fighters are in prison because they have done bad things. It’s hard to think of them being free again.”