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Podcast / December 07 2021

How a motley group of negotiators freed the Chibok schoolgirls

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In 2014, members of the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram abducted close to 300 mostly-Christian girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria, prompting outrage around the world and triggering an unparalleled social media campaign that included A-list celebrities and world leaders. Despite the global attention, it ended up taking three years to negotiate the release of the girls. By then, many had died; others were forced into marriages with their captors and remain missing to this day.

This week, senior producer Laura Rosbrow-Telem interviews two journalists from the Wall Street Journal, Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, who co-authored a book about the ordeal called Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls. She also sits down with Nigerian-born legal practitioner and humanitarian Zannah Bukar Mustapha, a key mediator in the girls’ release.

Full Transcript

Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.




From Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, welcome to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. 



JENN: This week, we’ll be talking about the negotiations that led to the release of more than 100 girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The Islamist terrorist group kidnapped close to 300 mostly-Christian girls from a boarding school in the northeastern Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014. Some escaped from transport trucks, and others were forced into marriages with their captors and they remain missing to this day. You might remember the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, launched several weeks after the kidnapping. The hashtag became one of the most viral campaigns ever on Twitter, with celebrities calling to bring the girls home, including Pope Francis, Russell Simmons and First Lady Michelle Obama. 



And I want you to know that Barack has directed our government to do everything possible to support the Nigerian government’s efforts to find these girls and bring them home. 



The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has been mentioned more than three million times on Twitter…



People like Malala Yousafzai, who is really the voice of female education in the Islamic world…


JENN: But despite the global attention, it ended up taking three years to negotiate the release of more than 100 of these girls. In captivity, many were abused, brainwashed and starved. And yet, they showed incredible bravery, with some staging hunger strikes and others later writing about their experiences. Two journalists from the Wall Street Journal, Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw, recently published a book about the abduction and the negotiations that led to their release. It’s called Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls. We’re going to hear from them in a minute. Their voices sometimes blend together, but you can remember Drew as the American. 



Thanks for having us. 


JENN: And Joe as the Brit. 



Thanks for having us. 


JENN: They traveled all over the world for this book, talking to girls who returned, ex-Boko-Haram members, and hundreds of other people who participated in the campaign. We’ll also hear from Zannah Mustapha, one of the key mediators who negotiated the girl’s release. The negotiations required Mustapha to deal directly with Boko Haram, whose insurgency has caused the death of more than 300,000 people and displaced millions more, according to the UN. The interviews for this episode were all conducted by our senior producer, Laura Rosbrow-Telem. Here’s Laura talking to Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw.



So I want to start by asking you: What happened in the first hours after the abduction? How did the Nigerian government respond? 


DREW: I would start by saying that in the critical 72 hours after they went missing, the only people looking for them were their moms and dads. So in those critical 72 hours where, really, the Nigerian state should have rallied everything to free these young women, nobody except their parents was really trying. And then all of a sudden, everybody was trying. Israel sent counterintelligence. The US sent drones. France had forces around the border. The UK sent a surveillance plane. China promised satellite photos. And I think there were too many actors trying to do the same thing. And I think that is part of what derailed this in the beginning. 


LAURA: Hmm. 


JOE: None of these efforts ended up finding a single girl. 


LAURA: OK, so those early efforts fail. And quickly, a media campaign to bring home our girls is launched. And that doesn’t really move the needle, either. And then eventually, a group of people bring a mediation effort. Who are they? 


DREW: One Swiss man and a small group of northeast Nigerian men who are kind of — what they shared was that they could kind of deal with both sides. They were willing to go meet Boko Haram and talk to them and meet them, and, you know, they were willing to take that risk. They would ride rowboats on the river to go see them. They would ride motorbikes and, you know, disappear into the forest for a few days and kind of build up those contacts to get to know these guys. What do they want? 


The group was incredibly discreet. Some of them didn’t exist on social media. They were so, kind of, secretive in their communications. They communicated by fax machine. 


LAURA: I have to say one thing I’m getting from this interview is starting to believe in, maybe, the use of fax machines in this age. 


DREW: Yeah, they call this fax machine that the Swiss use the “007.” I’m not making that up. [LAUGHS] That’s, like, their nickname for it. It’s an encrypted device. Anyway, one of them went to jail for more than a year to try to free these young women. They spent three years at risk of imprisonment — and one was in prison for a year — to free them. 


LAURA: Can you explain to me a little bit about why they were imprisoned for this? 


DREW: The core problem here is that the military didn’t want people talking to Boko Haram. You know, building a relationship with Boko Haram meant talking to men who had set off bombs that had killed Nigerians. These were murderers, you know? At one point, one of the team was talking to a guy who was responsible for the Nyanya bombing. The same day as the Chibok abduction, a bomb went off about a mile from the presidential villa in the capital at a bus station and killed 77 people who had just been, you know — just ordinary people trying to get to work died on buses. And freeing the Chibok girls meant talking to the guy who did that, or at least was very credibly accused of doing that. The military would see that and — “Nuh uh. You’re going to jail. We’re trying to end the war here. We’re not trying to have humanitarian dialogue.” There was actors in the system that felt that way. You know, it’s a very complicated issue of, you know, talking with terrorists — not only in Nigeria; in the US, as well, you’d have the same issues, right? 


LAURA: Right. So tell me about Zannah Mustapha. 



My name is Zannah Bukar Mustapha. I’m a legal practitioner. 


LAURA: He was one of the key negotiators. And how did he get into this? 


DREW: Yeah, Barrister Zannah’s first step into this world was retiring and opening up an orphanage. 


ZANNAH: My life was very comfortable as a legal practitioner. In 2007, there was this motivation that I had, and I said, “Let me open a school to support orphans and vulnerable children.”


DREW: And he happily opened his gates to a few widows of Boko Haram fighters and their children… 


ZANNAH: When I started, I planned an inclusive institution. So I now brought in the Boko Haram elementary children, and then my own biological children; the childrens of all the other directors. All of them are meant to be part of this school. 


DREW: …which was incredibly risky. These were people who had killed a lot of people. And you’re taking them in — their widows — and raising their children amongst people whose parents have died. And killed by Boko Haram. He convinced the Boko Haram widows, as he calls them, to let him teach their children English, because they would need English to talk to other Muslims around the world. And they didn’t want their kids to learn math. 


ZANNAH: How about mathematics? It’s been founded by the Arabs. 


DREW: But he said, “Well, math, actually, you know, there are important Islamic contributions to math. It’s an Islamic subject.” He convinced them that math and English were not Western education colonial subjects — trying to, you know, alienate them from their tradition. It was part of their Islamic tradition. And then one day, a diplomat from Switzerland shows up. 


ZANNAH: The Swiss ambassador got in touch with me. And he said, “Well, you’ve been a legal practitioner, but have you had any formal training on mediation?” I said, “No, I don’t.” 


DREW: “I’m from the Swiss government. We’re looking for ways we can support the cause of peace and humanitarian development in Nigeria’s war-torn northeast.” And that Swiss diplomat is Pascal Holliger. And the two of them started to talk. And very soon, they realized that actually, if they wanted to advance the cause of peace, there could not be peace between Boko Haram and the government without the Chibok girls going home. They were what they called the “rock” to the conflict; the boulder in the road. You had to move it if you wanted to go towards peace. 


LAURA: So, you know, Zannah — and I should — he pronounced it to me [PRONOUNCES FIRST SYLLABLE WITH A SHORT “A”] ZAN-ah. 




LAURA: How do you pronounce his name? 




LAURA: Barrister ZAHN-ah?


JOE: I say ZAHN-ah. 




JOE: Yeah.


LAURA: Barrister ZAHN-ah?


JOE: But he’s the best person to tell you how to pronounce his name — [LAUGHS]


DREW: — He’s the authority on that —

JOE: — you should go for his pronunciation.


DREW:  — but the æ sound isn’t super common in Nigeria, is it, you know? 


JOE: It’s not, it’s not.


LAURA: — It’s not.


JOE: — Most people would lengthen that “a,” so —


LAURA: — OK. So, I mean, I was just curious because that’s how he described it to — 


DREW: — I have to say, ZAHN-ah, ZAN-ah, ZAHN-ah — I mean, something that he is really incredible at is presenting himself very subtly differently to different audiences. 


LAURA: Right. Because that was my question, is, like, maybe he said that because he knows I’m American — 


DREW: — Exactly. 


LAURA: — and so he just wants me to pronounce his name —


DREW: — He picks up on that. He notices more than he lets on. I think it’s — he’s a very, he’s a skillful communicator. He really does have a way with noticing who he’s talking to, thinking about that person. A way to put it is: This is a guy who shakes hands and feels comfortable with Abubakar Shekau — the child-soldiering warlord of Boko Haram — and Angelina Jolie. [LAUGHS] You know? This is a guy who can, like, thrive in both settings. You can take him from a UN gala in Geneva and drop him in, you know, northeast Nigeria with a bunch of violent fundamentalists, and in both places, he’s respected and listened to. I mean, wow. How many people like that are there?


LAURA: Right. Not a lot. And so quickly, I want to understand a little bit about the Swiss, and — why were they so interested in Nigeria? And what exactly did they teach Zannah? Because I understand that part of him working on this team is that they actually sent him to this specific, pretty fancy training in Switzerland. 


DREW: It was this beautiful hotel — I visited there. It’s like, you wouldn’t believe it. It’s like alpine, lake, mountains. It’s breathtaking, the setting. They flew Barrister Zannah — but also people from other conflicts and other people who wanted to be mediators, or learn more about this art of mediating peace talks. And you know, one of the first people they meet is this guy Julian Hottinger, who worked under Nelson Mandela. If you’re looking to, like, the “who’s who” of peace talks, you don’t get any higher than that. 


LAURA: And so for the, you know, plebeians out here, you know, who don’t know how to make peace — like, what are the big things that he learned at this training? How can we all make peace, you know? 


DREW: [CHUCKLES] Yeah. I think the lesson there was that it’s — it’s not simple. There’s no straight path towards peace. You know? Just when you think things are deadlocked is when they open up. Just when you think things are moving is when they get deadlocked. They had a saying: “Never trust a breakthrough.” It takes years of patience, and you have to walk people all the way over the finish line, and then some past the finish line, to accomplish this stuff. 


LAURA: Hmm. 


JOE: What the Swiss offer, and where they’re incredibly effective, I think, is they identify people on the fringes of the conflict who have inside contacts, or ability to influence or to start talks with actors in the conflict. And they then offer them a kind of framework, and a kind of cheat sheet for what they need to do. We’ve all seen the press conferences where people are, you know, signing the document, shaking hands. But really, this idea of trying to create a template for how you go through these steps — from number one, you know, understanding the group, doing what they call, you know, conflict analysis, to the communication stage where you start to create contacts and channels for information flow, and then all the way through to, actually, the kind of — the sort of bricks and mortar of mediation —


ZANNAH: Whether there is a willingness on the part of the two parties to accept your own, or come in with a middle-course approach to the issue. 


JOE: And I think by saying they can talk to anyone — by actually making that a sort of identifying point of their foreign policy, “We are happy to actually talk to anyone” — that means that they are able to kind of get information and have access to groups that even the most, you know, powerful countries and intelligence agencies and militaries in the world can’t get direct access to. And that is, you know, incredibly important and effective for them. 


LAURA: So then, what does Zannah do? What was he doing in these years? 


DREW: He was on a plane. He went to, you know, Sudan, to Khartoum, to meet people who had been part of Boko Haram or were connected to it. He went to Accra —


ZANNAH: Benin, Ghana, Chad, Niger, Cameroon. All these, you know — I have been through these. 


DREW: — to kind of get to know: What is Boko Haram? What do they want? How do I talk to them? How should I conduct myself in their presence? 


ZANNAH: What is it that made you believe? Why did that? Who are your disciples? 


DREW: And it’s important to note: Zannah, Zannah was sort of the public face of it. But the really detailed grunt work was done by people he’d known, people he’d grown up with, who were going out there to meet people, you know, in Boko Haram. Going into Boko Haram territory. On the phone with members of Boko Haram. Those guys were taking the, the huge risks. Zannah, because he was, you know, a founding member of the PDP — the party that was running Nigeria up until 2015 for, you know, years — he was a lawyer, constitutional lawyer, a university professor…he gave this a respectable face. You know, if these guys had just been talking to Boko Haram on their own, the government might not have taken them very seriously. But because you have this barrister who taught constitutional law, who was a member of the ruling party at the time and who was working with the government of Switzerland, it had a certain respectability. You could bring it to the president and say, “This is what we’re working on.” 


LAURA: Yeah, and this was something you were alluding to, in terms of his trips abroad — but one of the principles that was at this Swiss training was the importance of what they call “meeting the diaspora.” In these kinds of armed groups, oftentimes, a way of building up relationships up the ranks was meeting people who defected. 


ZANNAH: Among those disciples of those in diaspora, you have some of the most high-ranking people. 


JOE: I think, you know, meeting the diaspora definitely achieved many things, not just more information about where the group came from and what makes them tick, but also it’s — again, it’s this idea of taking your time and working from the outside in. You know, you need to build relationships, and every time, you need to build your credibility with the people on the edges of the group until you get closer towards the center.


LAURA: Right. So Zannah, you know, he’s building up these contacts. He’s getting close to people further and further up the network. But then, in August of 2016, there is finally this breakthrough. Can you tell me about that? 


DREW: They had this concept for years that you need to move when the windows are open. When the windows aren’t open, you don’t stop. You keep the dialogue going. There’s constant dialogue. But sometimes, the government wasn’t ready. And really, a big part of the impasse here was just — the government wasn’t quite ready to meet Boko Haram’s demands. And at times, the government just wasn’t interested. There’d been too many failed attempts, and the government had other priorities. It’s a big country. And then all of a sudden, the Swiss president — this, you know, bespectacled former engineer who was the president of Switzerland at the time — went and met President Muhammadu Buhari at UNGA in New York, at the UN General Assembly. And they kind of said to him, “Look, we’ve got these guys who are working on a deal here, and they think they can make a deal. Do you want this? Do you want this?” And Nigeria’s president, Buhari, didn’t even seem fully to grasp how much work the Swiss had been doing. He didn’t seem to fully understand that there was this effort. Then, all of a sudden, he gave his yes. And it came in as a fax to the Swiss Embassy in Abuja. You know, “The president approves your effort. Go see what — if we can make a deal happen.” And they moved very quickly. At the time, Boko Haram had been bombarded by airstrikes. One of those airstrikes had killed at least 10 of the very Chibok girls that, you know, we in the West were trying to free. The group was on the run. The Chibok girls were emaciated, and I think the group saw, “Well, we’re on the run. Military has us on the back foot. We’re being struck from above. And we have a chance here to raise some funds by ransoming off these young women that we’re struggling to feed.” So they, they took that chance. Yeah.


JOE: It’s one of those things it’s perhaps impossible to understand from the outside. Like, why wouldn’t the government want this to happen? But it was incredibly difficult to get the commander in chief and his office to actually sign off on a deal that agreed to pay Boko Haram money directly, you know, in order for these girls to be freed. You know, that was a dangerous precedent, and that was a very, very controversial — and needed to be a very, very secretive — thing. 


LAURA: OK, so I want to move on to — you know, Zannah finally gets through to someone who can send a voicemail to Shekau. 


ZANNAH: When I sent a voicemail that I want to be a mediator on the process, he now said, “If it is the Zannah I knew, when was the last point we met?” 


DREW: Zannah gets this voicemail, and it’s a test. Like an authentication, like two-factor authentication. And the question is: “If the Zannah I am speaking to is the Zannah I know, let him tell me when and where we last met.” And Zannah had met Abubakar Shekau around 2008, and they were at a bus station, basically. 


ZANNAH: And I specifically told him, I said, “I live Yola, where my daughter was studying then, American University there.” 


DREW: Zannah was on his way back from dropping his daughter off at university. And Shekau — whose idea of mortal sin is a young woman going to an American university — says hello to him. And Zannah says hello back, and —


ZANNAH: He has two sugar cane in his hand. In fact, he gave me one. 


DREW: And Shekou was eating a sugar cane, and he cracked a piece off and gave it to Zannah. And the two kind of amicably say “hello” and “how are you” and everything great. And then they part ways. So Zannah sends back this message which says, “The last time we met was in 2008. You gave me a piece of sugar cane.” And it’s clear, yes. Abubakar Shekau has confirmed that he is really speaking with Zannah, who he’s known in a, kind of, acquaintance kind of way for years and years and years. 


JENN: You’re listening to The Negotiators. We’ll be right back. 




JENN: Welcome back to The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams. So before the break, Mustapha and his team had managed to open a dialogue with Abubakar Shekau, the head of Boko Haram. Mustapha spent the next weeks working tirelessly to put together a deal. As a first step, Boko Haram agreed to release a small number of girls in October 2016, and then more in a final batch soon after. OK, let’s get back to our producer, Laura Rosbrow-Telem, who was talking to Drew Hinshaw and Joe Parkinson from the Wall Street Journal


LAURA: So now I’m actually going to move forward to the day that the first batch of girls were released. It was pretty dramatic, and it almost fell through. Can you walk me through what happened? 


DREW: Yeah, the original deal was for 20 young women to go free. So in the forest, in the complete darkness, Boko Haram is, is counting out 20 women. They seem to be picking who’s the hungriest, who looks like they need to go now or they might not make it much longer. 




DREW: Somehow, they end up picking 22. They miscount. And they send one of the young women back — she’s brought to the roadside, and they count again, like, “Wait, we have too many” — just to show you how chaotic this was. And they said, “OK, that one, she has to go back.” She was put on a pickup truck, driven into the night, and nobody’s heard from her since. The 21st, they decide, “OK, well, we’re going to give her as a gift” — this is their phrasing — “to show that we want these negotiations to continue.” And on the other side, meanwhile, the Swiss diplomat, Pascal Holliger, Barrister Zannah and a few other people who worked on this for years are on a helicopter headed towards an airstrip on the border of Cameroon — a cracked tarmac with just, like, tires buried halfway into the sand. And they load up into a chain of Red Cross land cruisers. They start driving on a dirt road. It’s nighttime, and in the front — the very first car — there’s an officer from one of Nigeria’s intelligence agencies, and he’s sitting with a black backpack full of money. 


LAURA: And my understanding is that there was actually some, like, military fire at some points. 


JOE: The point that’s been picked by Boko Haram for the exchange is like, the — pretty much the most dangerous part of Nigeria at that point. It’s a place where Boko Haram have been able to move across the border for many years with a degree of freedom, because they’re so in control of the terrain. The convoy is approaching the rendezvous point, and they understand — even though they can’t see — that there will be hundreds, maybe even thousands of Boko Haram fighters deployed around this area trying to make sure that this isn’t some kind of elaborate ambush. 


So the convoy is moving in, and one of the conditions of the exchange is that all Nigerian army units or military units, including special forces, will have withdrawn from the area, so that it’s safe to do this, this handover. Now, somehow, one of these Nigerian special forces units have not got this order. They have not got the memo. And they find themselves in the middle of this choreographed exchange. And Boko Haram then sees that these soldiers are in position, and they start radioing through, “Look, we can see the military positions. This is really, really dangerous.” And at this moment, it looks like the whole thing is going to collapse in a hail of gunfire. 


DREW: Meanwhile, the team is, like, frantically trying to save this. They’re calling up contacts in the military and the Defense Ministry saying, “Get those soldiers out of there.” And it all comes together. Soldiers get out of the way. The shooting stops. Boko Haram shrugs it off. And when the land cruisers from the Red Cross pull up, Boko Haram sees them and says, “OK, there is — there’s no military, it’s just civilians.” And that’s when the deal proceeds.


JOE: So then they start walking over the brow of the hill with the Chibok hostages. And this is where Zannah describes that he finally saw these women in the flesh, these women that were kind of mythologized, if you like.


ZANNAH: They were just looking haggard. They looked so dehumanized at that point.


JOE: They’re wearing the clothing that Boko Haram has given them, these dirty, dusty veils they’ve been in for, now, three years. And they’re walking towards Zannah, and Zannah has this piece of paper with the names kind of scratched into it, and he actually doesn’t know how to pronounce some of the names. So the first of the young women that walks across, her name is Rebecca Mallum, and Zannah gives the piece of paper to Rebecca Mallum, and she’s the one who actually reads the names of her classmates. And they start walking over, across this invisible line between captivity and freedom, one by one. And you just get the sense of this incredible scene in the middle of, you know — on the edge of the Sambisa Forest, with the sun just starting to come up after this incredibly dangerous night where the whole thing nearly fell apart. 


ZANNAH: I went into the car and then closed the door. And I just turned around and said, “You people are free.” Then they started laughing and then singing. 


LAURA: And then what happens? 


DREW: They all get into different land cruisers, and they’re to be flown to meet the president and then go into a safe house, And the whole thing was supposed to be secret. Part of the deal was, if these 21 can go free and government doesn’t claim to have freed them, it’s — the message Boko Haram wants is, “We freed them out of our own decision, and if it can be kept secret, we will free the next group and then you can announce it to the world.” You know? So they drive back, they get to an airbase, and that’s where somebody sees 21 young women walking onto a helicopter. It’s the Chibok girls the world’s been looking for for three years. Takes a picture. Posts it. It goes completely viral on social media. There it is. The Chibok girls are free. To the Nigerian government’s credit, they hadn’t broken the deal. But Boko Haram doesn’t quite see the distinction. And Boko Haram is furious. They don’t release another batch for another six months. And in that time, some of the young women that they would have released relent to, kind of, the constant pressure and coercion to enter one of these forced marriages, and we never hear from them again. 


LAURA: So eventually, there is a second release and that more or less closes the book on the story of the kidnapped girls. So I want to understand: What’s the state of the conflict with Boko Haram now? 


JOE: There is still a lot of reason to be very, very — you know, very worried about what’s happening in northeast Nigeria. The war’s definitely not over, and the Islamic State faction in the areas that it controls is very entrenched, and actually is kind of gaining in credibility by trying to offer state services. At the same time, what was Boko Haram is diminishing in influence and power by the day, and thousands of people are walking out of the forest, and that is a really, really encouraging development. 


LAURA: So I actually want to get back to this issue of ransom. You were mentioning that that was part of this deal — was that a ransom was paid. And I know that, you know, for example, Zannah denies that this happened. But you verified this with a bunch of other people. 


DREW: I think Zannah just says he doesn’t talk about it. Unless he changed — his thing is it’s, you know, between me and God. I don’t — I don’t know if he actually — if he does, I’d be interested to hear if he actually straight-up denies that there was a ransom. I think he’s — but maybe. Did he deny that to you? Did he say, like, “No, there was never a ransom”?


JENN: Yeah. Yeah, he denied it. 


DREW: OK, interesting. 


JENN: Yeah.


ZANNAH: I have not been party to any exchange for money. I also say it over and over again. 


LAURA: But in any case — but to get to this issue of ransoms, still, obviously there is this public perception that a ransom was paid, right? And this has influenced how Boko Haram has operated. So can you tell me a little bit — just a little bit more about how that impacted the nature of the war, in terms of ransoming afterwards? 


DREW: I think even before this ransom was paid, the Chibok kidnapping created a template of: If you’re a militant group and you want attention — and maybe with attention, money — and you’re prepared to go take children out of a school, unfortunately, the state isn’t capable of stopping you. It’s not really capable of punishing you. And the only option left is to reward you to get those children back. That is something that continues, and it’s gotten worse since we published this book. 


LAURA: This leads me, then, to my last question, which is about social media and the role social media played in this conflict and in this negotiation and, ultimately, in these girls’ — these girls’ release. But still, it sort of poses, like, the uncertain consequences of moral certainty and, as you put it, the unpredictable power of social media. The book, I think, provides a mixed picture of its impact, because on the one hand, these girls likely might not have gotten released without all this global attention. And I know that Zannah, specifically, very much credits the social media campaign with their ability to get them released. 


ZANNAH: We wouldn’t have had the opportunity of even getting them if the attention has not been brought to the fore by the #BringBackOurGirls. 


LAURA: But on the other hand, it created all these other complications that maybe made it harder to ultimately get a larger peace deal. What do you two make of social media’s role at the end of the day and in this story? 


JOE: One of the sort of “bumper stickers” that we wanted people to to come away from, from reading the book with was, “It’s complicated.” The world would not, most probably, have known about the plight of these young women — and, more broadly, about the kidnapping epidemic in 2014 and before in northern Nigeria — if it wasn’t for social media. But the particular hashtag kind of rewired the conflict. So the outside of Nigeria — for most people, the abduction of the Chibok girls became not only a portal into what was happening, but it became more important than everything else that was happening. When Buhari was elected in 2015 and went to the US, the question he kept being asked was: “When are the Chibok girls coming home?” Nigerian policymakers had a degree of, you know, sympathy with them. People inside the security establishment, especially, could not believe years later the way that the hashtag had distorted the priorities of the war. Even funding that was linked to the plight of the Chibok girls. When of course they were — what happened to them was awful, was criminal. But it also happened to thousands of other people and continues to happen to thousands of people now. 


JENN: That was the conversation between our producer, Laura Rosbrow-Telem, and Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw from the Wall Street Journal. They’re also the authors of the book Bring Back Our Girls: The Untold Story of the Global Search for Nigeria’s Missing Schoolgirls. Laura also interviewed Zannah Mustapha, one of the lead negotiators of the deal that freed more than 100 girls from Boko Haram. Mustapha is the director and founder of the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School, which serves orphans and vulnerable children in northeastern Nigeria. He’s also the 2017 winner of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award. 




JENN: The Negotiators is a production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. A bunch of people helped produce today’s show, including Rob Sachs, Rosie Julin, Zamone Perez, Claudia Teti, Japhet Weeks, Jigar Mehta, Amjad Atallah and Dan Ephron. Laura Rosbrow-Telem is the show’s senior producer. Thanks to Nelufar Hedayat, Govinda Clayton and James Wolley for helping create the show with Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. If you liked the show, please follow us on your favorite platform and leave a review. It really helps. And if you appreciate Foreign Policy and are sick of reaching your article limit, we have a special deal just for you, and it’s a bigger one this time. Head over to to become an FP subscriber and use the code NEGOTIATE to get a 20% discount. 


Next week on the show, a Finnish diplomat negotiates the release of dozens of children and their mothers from detention in northern Syria. 



So after the first repatriation of the two children, my idea, obviously, was to continue as quickly as possible. But quite quickly, I realized that what they wanted to talk about instead was criminal accountability for the women. 



JENN: That episode next week, on The Negotiators. I’m Jenn Williams.