Having escaped to the U.S. after the 2014 mass kidnapping, a group of Nigerian students found themselves trapped all over again
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.
But they’d been transplanted into America from conservative northeastern Nigeria, where men customarily made decisions for female relatives late into life. Their parents were cut off by war, and Nigeria’s weak cell reception. Only 200,000 people on earth speak their native language, Kibaku.
“We don’t know, what is the rules in the U.S. and what we can do?” said Ms. Bitrus, eating a pepperoni slice at a small-town pizzeria. “We felt that it was the same as in Nigeria.”
When the young women complained, Mr. Ogebe told them they were shaming their families, they say. He told them he brought them to America and could send them back, and that Boko Haram, who had seen them on television, could come after them, the young women, their handlers and the Nigerian government said.
“They were very scared,” said Jamila Fagge, a Nigerian-American Voice of America reporter whom the students confided in. “It was an ordeal that made them trust no one except him.”
In March of 2015, Mr. Ogebe showed up to the school in Oregon with bad news: One of the students’ parents had died, and he needed to take them all out of school to grieve.
“Instead of comforting them Emmanuel took them around the mid Atlantic giving talks and using them as props,” an internal report by the school said. He kept them out for another two weeks of media engagements after spring break, bringing them to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
Rep. Wilson, who helped get them in, said she didn’t see any signs of fraudulent activity by Mr. Ogebe against the young women. “The only thing I saw him trying to do is help them,” she said. Messrs. Chaffetz and Smith didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
When the two schools questioned Mr. Ogebe, he accused them of endangering the students’ lives—Boko Haram could attack them in Oregon, he told the school there. The principal at Mountain Mission called the police to stop him from entering the school with a BBC camera crew, emails from school officials say.
In May 2015, Mr. Ogebe demanded the Oregon school fly the students to Baltimore, for a brief choir tour.
They didn’t come back. The school reported them missing.
Friends of Mr. Ogebe put the young women with a new set of host families and a new school in Vienna, Va.
By the end of 2015, Nigerian diplomats asked Mr. Ogebe to come to the embassy in Washington, “providing Headquarters with definitive proof that ten kidnapped but escaped Chibok school girls are well and alive in the United States pursuing their education,” including contact information for their parents in Nigeria.
He consistently brought documentation for only five of the students: “In conversations and email exchanges, Mr. Ogebe has been evasive, always making excuses,” said the report.
In time, the young Nigerians themselves began to doubt each others’ survival stories. The accounts had changed so much in repeat tellings they became dissociated from the actual ordeal, one of the young women said.
“We know that they are lies,” one of the students said, adding that Mr. Ogebe and his associates encouraged them to embellish their accounts. “It’s to make the story interesting so that people will like it so much.”
The Second Escape
By late 2015, Ms. Bitrus wanted out. She hadn’t seen her family in two years. She began contacting people she’d met—journalists, caregivers, and a counselor—over the WhatsApp messaging system, plotting her next escape.
Around the same time, another student called Ms. Fagge, the VOA journalist, in tears, asking to be rescued.
Ms. Fagge contacted law enforcement and the DHS began organizing an extraction. She brought it up to staff of President Muhammadu Buhari who visited the U.S. shortly after. Nigeria’s Ministry of Women Affairs began speaking to the students.
For weeks, DHS wondered when to pull the trigger, according to the agency.
Then, on Field Day, the last day of school in May 2016, DHS agents deployed to the campus in Vienna, Va., where Mr. Ogebe had enrolled several of the young women. A simultaneous operation took place in Grundy.
At the Vienna school, a pizza party was under way in one of the classrooms. Two of the Chibok students appeared distracted: They were texting a counselor on their iPads, nervous, sneaking off to a bathroom, according to a person who was there.
Later in the parking lot, a Silver Ford explorer drove up and two plainclothes agents rushed the students into the vehicle.
“I’m with Homeland Security and they’re coming with me,” said one agent when questioned by bystanders, according to two witnesses and police reports. It was, he added “a matter of national security.”
Mr. Ogebe was present, and emotional, according to people who witnessed the scene: “You are wicked, wicked girls,” he screamed at them. “Do you want to see me go to jail?”
After speaking to Mr. Ogebe, school administrators came to believe the students were being tricked by the Nigerian embassy and its co-conspirators, who would send them back to Nigeria and possibly harm them. The school called 9-1-1 to report an abduction.
“They escaped from Chibok, Nigeria,” the caller reported, identifying herself as being with Mr. Ogebe, according to a recording of the call played for the Journal. “They’re famous girls!”
After a brief car chase, law-enforcement officers sorted the matter out and DHS escorted the Chibok students to a suburban safe house, where the FBI was on hand to interview them.
Within days, seven of the young women signed documents saying they no longer wished to be associated with Mr. Ogebe. They also signed an open letter to their families described to the Journal, saying they were no longer “kidnapped.”
“All the things that have been said about our Uncle Emmanuel are true,” said one of the students, speaking in a video made for distribution to the media. “For those of you who gave money to him, we are sorry. There is nothing we can do about it. We forgive him.”
In February, Boko Haram kidnapped a Christian 15-year-old named Leah from a school in the town of Dapchi, sparking a small social media campaign: #Dapchigirl. Her father says Mr. Ogebe has already contacted him by telephone. Mr. Ogebe has in turn confirmed and denied any outreach.
“He told me that he wants to help,” says the father, Nathan Sharibu, “so that my daughter can study abroad and no longer be in Nigeria.”
Wall Street Journal