Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram refuses to convert to Islam

Dapchi, Yobe State, Northeastern Nigeria. March 22, 2018. Aisha Bukar Kachalla, one of the recently released Dapchi girls in warm embrace during family reunion.Abuja—Fifteen year-old Leah Sharibu likes biology, hanging out with friends and wants to be a doctor – but for the moment, she's also the only girl kidnapped a month ago still being held by Boko Haram – because she refused to convert to Islam.

Now, there's growing fury in Africa's most populous nation: A growing backlash against the government and Boko Haram has spawned a day of prayer, threats of court action and even a new hashtag going viral – #DapchiGirls.

Nigerians, quite simply, want Boko Haram to bring back the girl.

"It's unacceptable that the girl is yet to return to her parents," said Esther Mzaga, housewife in an Abuja suburb, as she expressed dismay over the inability of the Nigerian government to secure Leah's release. "The government must do everything to bring her back."

In mid-February, militants from Boko Haram, which loosely translates as "Western education is forbidden," raided the Government Girls Science Technical College in Dapchi in the northeastern Yobe State of Nigeria and took 110 girls hostage.

The extremists returned most of the girls to the town – about five reportedly died – dropping them off in the middle of the night in town under an agreement with the government that included withdrawing Nigerian soldiers.

But they kept Leah, says her father Nathan Sharibu.

“My daughter is alive but they wouldn't release her because she is a Christian,” said Sharibu. “They told her they would release her if she converted but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also overjoyed because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”

Now the pressure is growing intense for the group to release the student – or at least the government to do something about it.

Olapade Agoro, chairman of the National Action Council, an opposition political party, threatened to drag President Muhammadu Buhari to the International Criminal Court in The Hague if the government doesn't secure her release. He says he believes that the government's negotiations favored Muslims – Leah was the only Christian student taken.

“President Buhari should engage his negotiating machinery to get Leah released unconditionally… since it is obvious that the federal government negotiated to get the other Dapchi students released," he added. "Nigerians deserve to know, if it was part of the negotiation that only those who are Muslims or ready to embrace Islam would be released by the Boko Haram."

He also offered to switch places with Leah.

“It is unfortunate that Leah is being subjected to further physical and psychological trauma because she insisted on holding on to her religious faith," added Agoro. “It has now become a crime to be a Christian in Nigeria.”

President Muhammadu Buhari, meanwhile, is already under fire for the kidnapping: He has for almost a year said Boko Haram was defeated. Now, he said he would redouble the government's efforts to bring back Leah including declaring an amnesty for those who surrendered from the militant group.

"Leah Sharibu will not be abandoned," he said.

Still, hopes were dashed over the weekend after Nigeria's chief of police said Boko Haram was going to return her. They didn't.

As a result, churches across the country marked Sunday as a day of national prayer for Leah's release, with more special prayer days planned if she isn't returned.

“We are concerned that the negotiators engaged by the federal government could not secure the release of Leah Sharibu because she insisted on not renouncing her faith and converting to Islam," said Rev. Samson Ayokunle of the Christian Association of Nigeria, adding that Christians must be fervent in their prayers in churches so that God may answer and facilitate her return.

The kidnapping was reminiscent of one four years ago when almost 300 girls were taken from their school in nearby Chibok, sparking the worldwide #Bringbackourgirls campaign that also attracted celebrities and former first lady Michele Obama to speak out.

Although the majority of those girls have rejoined their families, are still missing.

Now the #BringBackOurGirls campaign says they will sue the government for more information, also on the Dapchi kidnapping.

"Our immense pleasure at the return of most of our #DapchiGirls notwithstanding, the questions we posed to the government of Nigeria still stand, as well as our notice to commence legal action," said Sesugh Akume, the campaign's spokesman.

Her parents, meanwhile, can't forget how their hopes were dashed last week when Leah was not among the girls returned.

“My heart was broken when I searched through the released girls and could not set my eyes on my dear daughter, Leah,” said her mother, Rebecca Sharibu, as tears streamed down her face. She fainted soon after and had to be hospitalized.

She recounted what happened according to Leah's classmates the last time they saw her – just as they were being released.

“What her school mates told me was that my daughter was told she must recite the Kalima Shahada (the Islamic profession of faith), and said she does not know how to recite it, that she was not brought up as a Muslim…so they told her that if she didn’t know how to recite it, then she should come down from the vehicle," she recalled. "She had already boarded alongside others that were ready to come home. They said my daughter would only be brought back home the day she knows how to recite Kalima shahada."

Her parents, meanwhile, also liked to reminisce about Leah, the eldest of two children, and how she loves bright colors, especially gold, and is an affectionate, lively, happy child who adores reading and chemistry.

She also loves to help with chores, said Rebecca Sharibu, as she sat within her compound – a small fenced off home fenced in a corner of Dapchi — with two cooking pots steaming next to her on charcoal stoves.

“If Leah were home, she and her little brother would attend to everything in this compound – she would not let me do anything," she said.

But she wants answers now, as well as her daughter.

“My concern, question to the government is that since we were told that the negotiation was done for all the schoolgirls, why did government accept that only my daughter be left behind when others’ were freed and even brought home," she asked. "So I am begging the federal government, if they negotiated as if they loved all the girls as their own, then they should do everything to help release my own girl."

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

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