Keeping the faith: Leah Sharibu, the girl held on to by Boko Haram

Keeping the faith: Leah Sharibu, the girl held on to by Boko Haram
Leah-Sharibu

Leah Sharibu, a Christian girl remains in Boko Haram captivity since 2018 because of her refusal to convert to Islam. Years after, attention to her plight and others in the same situation is waning. TEMITOPE BADEMOSI examines the issues surrounding Leah’s continued captivity and the persecution of Christians in Nigeria.

The scorching sun hit directly at the men working on the fields and others rearing cattle. The winds blow through Dapchi, a farming and herding community located near the border between Nigeria and Niger Republic, and about 100 kilometres from the Yobe state capital, Damaturu. It is the headquarters of Yobe state’s Bursari local government area, lined with dried trees, grass, brown sand and huts with thatched roofs.

Women gathered, some outside their homes, some under the trees to catch up with events of the day and to escape from the scorching heat. Things seem to have gone back to normal even with the attacks on the community and neighbouring communities. People are going about their activities but with a subtle dread.

It was one of those evenings in Dapchi, back in February 2018, when gunshots rang out across the community and chaos descended, sending people scampering and seeking for refuge in places they considered safe.

If there is one story that best depicts a love for Christ, it is Leah’s story. The fact that she remained resolute and steadfast in her faith and in the face of terror continues to be an inspiration to many Christians across the world till date.

Hours later, the wails faded into the dark night, but 110 girls of the Government Girls Science and Technical College (GGSTC), Dapchi had been kidnapped by Boko Haram, an Islamic sect that is waging a war aimed at creating a ‘pure” Islamic state ruled by Sharia law. It also believes that “western education is a sin”. During the course of the attack, five girls died.

Old and sore memories of that day still linger in Dapchi till this moment and while many have found the courage to move on, the Sharibu family is still waiting for their daughter.

Leah Sharibu and the Christian Faith

After intense negotiations with the Federal Government, Boko Haram released 104 girls and held on to one. Her name, Leah Sharibu; the only Christian girl amongst the group.

As a young teenager and until her abduction, Leah attended the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Dapchi with her family. She was the President of the School Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS) at the Government Girls Science and Technical College (GGSTC), Dapchi.  She was outspoken and stood up against the persecution and mistreatment that Christians had to face in the school where majority of the students were Muslims.

On the Sunday evening before the attack that changed her life, Leah Sharibu was in her dormitory with her fellow Christian students and she asked them a question.

“If you were taken away by Boko Haram tonight and they asked you to renounce your faith in Jesus, would you do it?” she asked.

Some said they would if that would help them get released, and said they would later come back to the faith.

“That is what I’ll never do, no matter what happens! Leah boldly said. (as culled from the book, Leah, hero for Jesus).

Then, it happened a day after, just like she had a premonition.

Comfort*, a Christian girl escaped being abducted that evening. She recalls that the terrorists had a particular motive.

“Where are all the Christian girls? I thought they told us that there were many Christian girls here. Did we come to the wrong school?” one of them asked.

Upon their release, many of the girls recounted their ordeal, saying that they were released because they are Muslims.

Mercy*  one of the girls taken captive says Leah fearlessly stood up to the terrorists, saying that she will not renounce her faith and that she will not put on the Hijab. She says that Leah was separated from the other girls a night before they were to be reunited with their families because she held on firmly to her Christian faith and refused to convert to Islam. She refused to recite the Islamic creed that would have marked her acceptance into the religion.

Leah knew that this would cost her freedom. Her classmates had told her to pretend to accept Islam so that she could be free, but she vehemently refused, maintain that she is a Christian.  For that singular reason, the terrorists decided to keep her as a “slave for life”.

If Leah Sharibu had renounced her religion, will she be free today? Perhaps. But expressing her basic right of freedom of religion is legally protected, thus allowing her to worship in whatever manner she chooses.

Leah’s story has opened the doors for the reality of Christian persecution in Nigeria. She is a current religious prisoner of conscience, placed number 12 on the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) watch list for violation of religious freedom.

“We have read the stories of all those people in the Bible but Leah’s own is in our own contemporary times. This young child at 14 years when abducted alongside all other Muslim girls, courageously refused to renounce her Christian faith in the face of fear and terror; What courage? What boldness. It has given me so much joy and courage and I always ask myself if I was in her position, would I have been able to stand boldly like she did in the face of all these terrorists?, said Dr. Gloria Puldu, the executive director of the Leadership, Empowerment, Advocacy, Humanitarian (LEAH) Foundation set up in honour of Leah.

Religious Freedom in Nigeria

Open Doors, a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in the world, estimates that more than 340 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith globally.

In Nigeria, Christians and Muslims are almost evenly distributed with a little fraction practising other religions. Majority of the Muslim population are in the north while majority of the Christian population are domiciled in the south. Most of the attacks against Christians have happened in Northern Nigeria, especially the north-east and the north-west.

The freedom of religion is a fundamental human right backed by the Nigerian constitution. Section 38 (1) of the 1999 constitution states that:

Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

But Nigeria ranks 9th on the 2021 World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. The report states that many Christians in some parts of northern Nigeria, face discrimination and exclusion in their day to day dealings. Christians with a Muslim background also face rejection from their own families and pressure to give up Christianity.  The Nigerian Criminal code specifies a penalty of two years imprisonment for insulting a person’s religion.

Leah’s case is only one example of the kind of violence and oppression Nigerian Christians face every day. She represents the worldwide struggle both for freedom of religion and belief.

Four years before Leah’s abduction, 276 schoolgirls, most of them Christians, were abducted from their school in Chibok, a predominantly Christian community in Borno state. While many of these girls have been freed, many others still remain in captivity till date.

Since Boko Haram began its campaign of terror in the early 2000s, several predominant Christian villages have been targeted as well as other Muslims who do not agree with its brand of Islam.

“Terrorist groups and militia operating in Northern Nigeria have claimed that their main focus for carrying out their attacks is to ensure that a puritanical Islamic state is established in the north with their sight on the entire country in the long run. If we have decided to be Christians, then we should be allowed to practice the religion.  Nobody should force us to convert, nobody should terrorise us, nobody should kill us, nobody should abduct our daughters, nobody should force us to abandon our religion and to follow their religion. The statistics are out there on a daily basis, international committee on Nigeria has a record that gives all the killings of Christians across Nigeria. It is called the silent slaughter,” said Dr. Gloria Puldu.

According to the U.S Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “vulnerable religious communities are under attack” and the “Nigerian government has not done much to prevent this violence and bring justice to the perpetrators.” The U.S also considers Boko Haram and ISWAP as entities of particular concern for engaging in severe, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom within its areas of control.

Over the years, Christians in Nigeria have been persecuted for their faith at different levels. Most times this comes off in a violent way, at other times, it may be subtle. As explained by Rev the Yobe State Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria Rev. Yohanna Audu in an interview for this piece, religious freedom in Nigeria is said to be present, but it is not visible, existing or even actualized.

“There is wide spread violation of freedom or rights as regards to religious activities. There are cases of abduction and forceful conversions of minors and ill-treatment for people who stand for them especially pastors.  People have been denied their rightful and deserving entitlements because of their religion. In Yobe state, lands are not officially or publicly sold to churches and sometimes to Christians. Certificates of Ownership are not issued.

“Building permits too are not given.  Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK) is not officially taught in public schools. CRK teachers are not employed intentionally. In Yobe state there is no Christian that is a commissioner, no single permanent secretary and even those as directors are few and some of them have no portfolios. Does it mean Christians are not qualified for such?” he said.

According to the Country Director of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN)’s Symbol of Hope project, Rev. Emmanuel Gabriel, “the particular challenge that Christians in the north are being faced with is, even in the north, the Christians are seen as second-class citizens. If they want to tell you that a president should come from the north, they will never tell you that a Christian should come from the north. You cannot become a governor in some areas in the north no matter how eligible you are.”

In 2020 and for the first time, the  United States placed Nigeria on a religious freedom blacklist for engaging in, or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom, a ranking that did not go down well with Nigerian authorities. But in November 2021, it removed Nigeria from the list of countries that violate religious freedom, a move that has earned it knocks from the Christian Association of Nigeria.

A report by Human Rights Watch, detailing the accounts of Boko Haram abductees, gives details of the abduction of Christians and the mode of operation in the north east especially as it relates to Christian targets and forced conversions to Islam.

Dapchi after Leah’s abduction

Dapchi, the headquarters of the Bursari local government area of Yobe state is a small town where the majority of the people are Muslims.  Mercy* recalls that Christians were often called names (being called ‘infidels); overlooked for benefits and mocked for their faith amongst others.

But Kachalla Bukar, the secretary of the abducted Dapchi Schoolgirls parents’ group says Christians and Muslims in Dapchi have been living peacefully for years.

“In Dapchi, there have been no problems between Muslims and Christians. We have been managing our religious differences.  From Leah’s abduction till date, we have done all the necessary things, we have written an open letter to the president twice, we wrote to the former governor of Yobe state, Ibrahim Geidam, we have also gone to the missionary set up. All these, in order to see that Leah is rescued, all to no avail.

“We are living with those militants not far away.  Sometimes they tell us that Leah has been delivered of babies. Some months ago, they sent some pictures of Leah and her second child. We have been begging them to release her but what they are saying is that she has been married by one of the leaders. Last year, Boko Haram abducted one of the Christian women in Dapchi and she spent three weeks in captivity, she also said that it seems Leah is in Bamako, Mali. We have been praying for three years now, since she is alive, we are not giving up and we believe that she will come back. We have hope that maybe today, tomorrow, next week, next year, she will return home,” he said.

Hope in the midst of persecution

Months after the other girls reunited with their families, Boko Haram released a 35-second audio recording of Leah, begging for rescue.

“I am calling on the government and people of goodwill to intervene to get me out of my current situation. I am begging you to treat me with compassion. I am calling on the government, particularly the president, to pity me and get me out of this serious situation. Thank you,” she said.

That was the last time the world heard from her and years after, Leah remains a captive.

For the Sharibus, the past few years have been nothing short of a nightmare, with them pining for Leah.

Now living about 8 hours away from Dapchi in Yola, Adamawa state, they hold on to a string of hope, waiting for the day Leah will return home.

“We are feeling very bad because of her absence, it has been a long time and I just want to see my daughter. I am proud of her, I am proud that she did not deny Christ. I am pleading to the government to please attend to my daughter’s plight; we want to see her out. I have heard all the stories about her, saying she has become a mother and all; I am not bothered about that. I just want to see my daughter, Rebecca Sharibu, Leah’s mother said.

 “There are many incidences of abduction just like Leah’s case. We’ve advocated, protested and made petitions for her release. Nobody is saying anything about it, but we have gone back to God the one who listens, we are daily on our knees praying and trusting God for her release”, says Rev. Yohanna Audu.

Dr. Panti Filibus Musa, Archbishop of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria (LCCN) describes the situation as unfortunate.

“The experience today is totally unprecedented. When it comes to religious persecution, it is a dimension in our country that has taken so many shapes and it is very regrettable and condemnable that people will be persecuted because of their faith or because of their ethnic difference. Therefore, we will continue to say that this is unacceptable”.

“Leah Sharibu’s case is heartbreaking and many others who are still in captivity. This young lady and many others are still being held because of their faith or one reason or another. We must continue to call on the government to do its necessary part in order to get these people who have been abducted to be reunited with their families, but also to take stern measures so can rebuild our country,” he said.

Call to action

The federal government has made many promises to ensure Leah’s release but she still remains with her captors.

“News from released victims of Boko Haram have been that Leah is still alive with kids, probably one or two but we are not sure about the because of the unreliability of the sources. However, hers is not a singular case in isolation, we have several other cases of Muslim, Christian girls being abducted in mass number. This has unfortunately become issues that have gone beyond a north-east issue.

Leah is Dapchi’s daughter, Leah is Nigeria’s daughter and she remains in captivity.

“What this has further compounded is the fact that the northern part of Nigeria has been lagging behind in terms of school enrollment most especially, girl-child enrollment. The consequences and implications of Leah Sharibu’s case, among several others is that this has further worsened the poor enrollment rate in the country. The government has made several commitments and I believe that they are doing something to ensure that Leah is released and several other captives in Boko Haram,” says peace, security and development expert, Ali Abass.

Dr. Puldu says that the government must be seen to be upholding the freedom of religion.

“We will continue to advocate for the release of Leah Sharibu who represents every woman in captivity. The government should do the needful. They have made many promises, we want to see action, we want to see Leah rescued. Let them do what is it that they have been voted into power to, let them take the responsibility for securing the lives and property of all Nigerians. Let them ensure that girls go to school and that schools are secured. Free Leah Sharibu, free all the remaining Chibok girls.”

If there is one story that best depicts a love for Christ, it is Leah’s story. The fact that she remained resolute and steadfast in her faith and in the face of terror continues to be an inspiration to many Christians across the world till date.

Leah is Dapchi’s daughter, Leah is Nigeria’s daughter and she remains in captivity. Another birthday beckons, another Christmas celebration, another Easter celebration and many more happy times in the Christian faith. Will Leah be reunited with her family?

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the girls. This story was produced with the support of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), in partnership with Code for Africa and Ayin Network.