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Leah Sharibu’s Nightmare Six Years in the Making

At Her 21st Birthday She Remains in Terrorist Captivity

By Steven Kefas

Leah and her baby born to terrorists commander in captivity. Photo credit: The Para-Mallam Peace Foundation/X
Leah and her baby born to terrorists commander in captivity. Photo credit: The Para-Mallam Peace Foundation/X

(Kaduna), As Americans celebrated Mother’s Day on May 14, the plight of one young Nigerian girl gained renewed global attention. Leah Sharibu turned 21 years old – marking a solemn sixth year in the captivity of the terrorist group known as Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP). Abducted from her high school at age 15 in 2018, Leah has suffered unfathomable cruelty for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.

Torn from her family, school, and freedom, this bright student with dreams of becoming a doctor, Leah has endured immense suffering. She has been forced to bear three children from serial rapes by the different terrorist commanders. Setting herself apart from most of the girls captured in Dapche in 2018, Leah refused to renounce her Christian conviction, therefore ISWAP made her a public example: they vowed never to release her.  Yet, her spirit remains unbroken, an inspiration to all who cry out for her release and the thousands of others who remain in captivity.

Survivors Sound the Alarm

On Leah’s 21st birthday, a multi-faith global prayer session was organized in her honor by Nigerian human rights groups such as The Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, Leah Foundation. Survivors of the notorious Boko Haram and ISWAP terrorist groups shared harrowing first-hand testimonies at the event, offering a window into the atrocities still being inflicted on innocent Nigerian civilians

“Karl,” a formerly captive girl, emotionally recounted being held with Leah for over a year. Karl, abducted in 2019, said she spent over a year with Leah before her miraculous escape in May 2023. She reemphasized the urgent need for action to secure freedom for Leah and the countless others still held by the terrorist groups, subject to abuse, forced labor, forced conversions, and forced marriages on a daily basis. In 2019, the Nigerian government confirmed that Leah was alive in captivity.

Another survivor, given the pseudonym “Vanice,” revealed the staggering statistic that 95 percent of women and girls in terrorist captivity in the North-east part of Nigeria  are Christians. She gave recounted the hellish  serial rapes, hard labor, and other tortures the women are forced to endure.

Most chillingly, Vanice reported that “some white people” make regular visits to the camps, the reasons for which remain unknown and uninvestigated. The implications are deeply disturbing – are foreigners potentially aiding, emboldening, or even profiting from the terrorists’ actions?

A Failure of Government

In a powerful speech, British House of Lords member Lord David Alton marked the solemn occasion of Leah’s birthday by recounting his promise to Leah’s mother, Rebecca, to continue advocating for her daughter’s freedom. He lambasted the Nigerian government’s failure to secure Leah’s release, despite constitutional obligations to protect all citizens regardless of “gender, culture, or religious belief.”

“Instead of celebrating this important milestone surrounded by friends and family, she will be marking this day in captivity,” Lord Alton stated. “Leah has been in captivity ever since, enduring multiple and severe violations – including her right to freedom of religion or belief, her right to be free from discrimination…and her right as a minor to be cared for by her parents.”

He urged the new Nigerian administration to “spare no effort” to bring home Leah and the potentially thousands still held captive, finally ending this nightmare for both the victims and the nation.

The Global Outcry

Flyer of the global zoom prayer organized for Leah on her birthday, May 14.
Flyer of the global zoom prayer organized for Leah on her birthday, May 14.

The global chorus of voices demanding Leah’s freedom has grown louder on this solemn 21st birthday. Numerous international figures, human rights groups, and government bodies have added their voice in condemnation of her unconscionable treatment and the Nigerian authorities’ failure to act decisively.

Lord Alton posted a video on X commemorating Leah’s birthday. 

“When I met Rebecca Sharibu here at Westminster I promised her that at every opportunity I would continue to raise Leah’s case until she is free. Well today is her birthday. She is 21 years of age on the 14th of May. She is entering adulthood.” Alton said.

The Reverend Dr. Gideon Para-mallam, President of The Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, who has been a frontline advocate for Leah said “It is extremely disappointing and heart-breaking that six years on, we are still talking about Leah in captivity. Leah ought to have been released by now, but here we are.”

Beyond Nigeria’s Borders

The scourge of groups such as Boko Haram and ISWAP extends far beyond Nigeria’s porous borders. They are part of a broader extremist threat that has metastasized across the Sahel region, destabilizing fragile nations and exacerbating humanitarian crises on an immense scale. Resolute action within Nigeria is crucial but cannot succeed without a regional strategy and international partnership. The possibility of a coalition led by the U.S. -endorsed Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to tackle Islamist insurgency in the Sahel looks bleak:  military juntas that overthrew elected governments  in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have pledged to join forces to fight jihadism more effectively.

For too long, the world has averted its gaze from this slowly unfolding but utterly preventable tragedy. As threats like ISWAP grow more emboldened through inaction, they will inevitably extend their reach and ambitions. Allowing this scourge to fester any longer is a risk the civilized world cannot afford to take.

The choice is clear, and the stakes could not be higher. For Leah, for the potentially hundreds like her still held in the pit of humanitarian horror, and for the future stability of a region of global strategic importance, bold and decisive action is needed before more irreparable damage is done.

For all our sakes, and theirs, prayers are no longer enough. On this solemn 21st birthday, we must mobilize the resources and political will to finally make the nightmare a reality no person should ever have to endure.

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Steven Kefas is a conflict reporter covering the Middle Belt region of Nigeria

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