An article published today by the Wall Street Journal alleges that the Chibok school girls that have been rescued from Boko Haram captivity and relocated to the US have been exploited by several Non Governmental Organizations. Read the article below
Four years ago, on a truck barreling toward the forest hideout of Boko Haram, teenager Kauna Bitrus made a desperate move to avoid the fate of the more than 200 other schoolgirls abducted from Chibok, Nigeria, that day.
When Kauna landed, months later, in the pine-shaded town of Grundy, Va., she was among the lucky few Chibok students awarded full scholarships and sanctuary at Christian academies in rural America.
But here too, Ms. Bitrus and six of her classmates found themselves hostage to forces they couldn’t control. Thrust into the media spotlight by a prominent Nigerian human-rights lawyer, they say they were forced to relive their trauma to raise money and further political agendas in Washington.
Eventually, they passed word in secret to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with an urgent plea: We are Chibok students, held captive again. Get us out of here.
By now, the story of the schoolgirls abducted by the Islamist insurgency in Northern Nigeria on April 14, 2014, has passed into the realm of legend. Millions of people, Michelle Obama and Pope Francis among them, joined the #BringBackOurGirls cause. There are still 112 missing.
Meanwhile, a dozen young Nigerians found themselves in small-town America, shadowed by the celebrity of a night they wanted only to forget.
The experience of the Chibok students who made it to the U.S., never fully reported, featured a former White House adviser, evangelical lobby groups and a cowboy hat-wearing congresswoman. Along the way, say many of those involved, the truth of what really happened became embellished as they fell into the custody of a local sponsor, Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian human-rights lawyer and authority on what he termed a “Christian genocide” in his home country. The young women say he told them they could be shipped back there–and harmed—if they didn’t do what he said.
“There were too many lies,” says Ms. Bitrus, who shuttled through schools in Virginia, Oregon and the Bronx before settling in a snow-covered New England town. “It’s like we were prisoners again.”
The Wall Street Journal heard from several of the Chibok students in America, as well as their teachers, counselors, and families, along with officials from the DHS and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Journal reviewed two reports written by the American schools they attended, as well as two undisclosed Nigerian governmental investigations that allege Mr. Ogebe and his Nigerian associates fraudulently exploited the ex-hostages for tens of thousands of dollars.
“Mr. Ogebe generated a lot of money through these activities and never spent a dime to care for their well-being,” said one of two undisclosed Nigerian government reports accusing him of fraud, citing interviews with the young women and their caretakers. “The girls…accused him of using them as money minting machines.”
Mr. Ogebe denies the accusations against him and says the young Nigerians have been turned against him by other actors eager to exploit them, ranging from Nigeria’s government, biographers looking to publish their story and a former adviser to George H. W. Bush who took two of them to meet President Donald Trump. He says the Chibok saga ultimately left him poorer.
“This was a dirty operation and they did a lot of havoc and subterfuge,” he said in an interview. “It’s heartbreaking to a philanthropist and humanitarian when you see how heartless people can be.”
Mr. Ogebe hasn’t been charged with any crime. The FBI in 2016 probed allegations he committed financial fraud, but didn’t pursue charges. Investigators found Mr. Ogebe had likely been keeping or misappropriating money he raised in the name of the Chibok students, but that he also spent some fraction of that money housing and transporting them, according to people familiar with the inquiry. That made it difficult to prosecute the case, the people said.
Mr. Ogebe’s central counter-accusation—that some people in the U.S. are looking to milk the Chibok students for their story—rings true with the young women themselves who are looking for a community that will regard them as individuals, not symbols of global religious strife.
Over and over again, they say they have been asked by Mr. Ogebe and others to recount an escape most wished to put behind them—a painful telling many feel does little to free their classmates and instead provides emotional release to the tearful audiences who put donations on the table to hear them.
This month, four began attending Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College. For some, it is their fifth school in four years.
“We hate when they call us Chibok girls,” says Ms. Bitrus, who has chosen to stay in her remote New England hamlet. “I am Kauna.”
The First Escape
Weeks after their breakaway from Boko Haram in 2014, dozens of students from the Chibok Secondary School began a scholarship at an elite college in northeast Nigeria, the American University of Nigeria, training grounds for some of her country’s most privileged. The campus’ smart buildings and manicured lawns contrasted life in Chibok, where their red tin-roofed schoolhouse had been torched.
A few weeks into their new university life, a man came to the gate.
In Washington, Mr. Ogebe helped shape U.S. policy toward Africa’s most populous country. His calmly narrated accounts of Boko Haram murders of Christians—he rarely mentioned the sect’s more numerous killings of Muslims—won him friendships with powerful contacts. Republican Congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Chris Smith met him often, as did congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Miami Democrat known for wearing colorful cowboy hats.
“He frames himself as a go-to-guy to talk about the insurgency,” said Jacob Zenn, a widely-cited Boko Haram expert who has testified on congressional panels with Mr. Ogebe. “He knows the trigger words to say that will get attention to his issues in Washington.”
Now, Mr. Ogebe was in Nigeria and in a hurry, said two people who met him at the entrance to the school, and was making demands of the school’s administrators. He was accompanied by parents and pieces of paper demanding the school give him four Chibok survivors for weekend meetings in Abuja, the capital. The school reluctantly agreed. The girls never returned, the people said.
All told, Ms. Bitrus and nine others flew to Virginia where they were meant to study at the Mountain Mission School, a boarding school in Appalachia.
After a few days, Mr. Ogebe drove her to Manhattan. “He told us ‘We are going to New York, to see New York because New York is beautiful, it’s like the biggest city in America,’ ” she said.
On arrival, he brought them to a conference room full of journalists. Before a phalanx of cameras, she and another student stuttered through a retelling of their escape.
Afterwards, Mr. Ogebe appeared overjoyed, Ms. Bitrus recalls. “He was like, ‘Girls! I’m so proud of you! You can speak English! I’m really proud of you.’ ” Later that night he asked her to retell her story to his wife.
Mr. Ogebe denies this happened, and says he doubts the young women’s English was very good at that point.
The students split up into two groups, both sent to Christian boarding schools in rural America: the Canyonville Christian Academy, a Canyonville, Ore., school run by Doug Wead, the former White House adviser; and Virginia’s Mountain Mission.
In the months to come, Mr. Ogebe and Mr. Wead would repeatedly clash, accusing each other of using the young women for personal and political gain.
Mr. Wead says the students evaded one tyrant in Nigeria only to fall into the hands of another in the U.S.
“This is a tale of girls being passed from Muslim predators in Africa to Christian predators in America,” he said.
Mr. Wead says he never pressed the young women to tell their story, but did tell them people would lose interest if they didn’t shop their story to filmmakers soon. He compared it to water evaporating from a glass.
Ms. Bitrus’s group studied in Virginia, returning to high school for the first time since the night of their escape. They shared dorms with around 20 other students. Ms. Bitrus liked to watch Nigerian soap operas on DVDs.
Within days of the students’ arrival, Mr. Ogebe took some of them for speaking engagements around the U.S., and later, abroad. He was their guardian, he said, even though their visas showed the schools were responsible for them. On Sundays, Mr. Ogebe would often bring one set of Chibok students or another to a church, where donations poured in for their education, the young Nigerians say.
One online fundraiser alone—by the Jubilee Campaign, a Virginia NGO to help religious minorities—raised about $66,000 in the first five months of their time in the U.S., according to the Nigerian government investigation. The Jubilee Campaign declined to comment.
Mr. Ogebe insisted he be the custodian of that money—a request the Jubilee Campaign felt breached financial reporting rules for nonprofit organizations, according to a Nigerian government report. Mr. Ogebe, who didn’t work for Jubilee, was also raising funds for himself, Jubilee complained, according to the Nigerian government report. Mr. Ogebe denies he wanted to control the funds.
By January 2015, the charity and Mr. Ogebe broke ties.
In one May fundraiser, a raucous crowd of hundreds of evangelical Christians applauded him after he flipped through a slideshow of the Chibok students, and gave his charity $7,039 “for empowering those girls!” an announcer exclaimed, according to a video shot of the event.
In the video, Mr. Ogebe told the crowd he had just received a phone call from former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, an assertion he made in other public speeches: “He thanked me for what I am doing for the girls.”
A spokesman for the former prime minister says “Mr. Brown is absolutely not in contact or communication with this person.”
The women cycled through reams of journalists, retelling what they say were coached versions of their harrowing escape. Nearly each time, they wore face-obscuring sunglasses. Photos and videos of the interviews showed many of the young women slouched over in obvious discomfort.
Ms. Bitrus said Mr. Ogebe wanted one of the students to become a star “like Malala,” the Nobel laureate who became famous after being shot by the Pakistani Taliban on her way home from school, she says.
Mr. Ogebe says the media appearances were necessary to make people understand the evil of Boko Haram. “When people say you put them in the media too much, that’s the kind of thing dictatorial or autocratic rulers do, they shut down access to information,” he says, “Why do they not want this message out, about this abduction?”
Legally, because the students were 18, Mr. Ogebe had no authority over them. Their visas were sponsored by their U.S. boarding schools, the schools say.