LAGOS, Nigeria — On the first anniversary of the kidnapping by Islamic extremists of hundreds of girls from a school in northeast Nigeria, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari said Tuesday that he cannot promise to find the 219 who are still missing.
“We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued. Their whereabouts remain unknown,” Buhari said in a statement. “As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them.”
The statement by Buhari, a former military ruler of Nigeria who was democratically elected on March 28, is a marked departure from President Goodluck Jonathan, who, after his administration initially denied there had been a kidnapping, made hollow promises that they would be rescued.
But a year after the April 14-15 mass abduction at a school in Chibok, a town in northeast Nigeria, hope has dwindled. Activists are marking the anniversary with a change in their slogan from “Bring Back Our Girls — Now and Alive” to “Never to be Forgotten.”
“We hear the anguish of our citizens and intend to respond accordingly,” Buhari’s statement said.
“This new approach must also begin with honesty.”
Several dozen girls managed to escape as the kidnappers were taking the hostages to the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria, but 219 remain missing. They may have been split up and some eyewitnesses said some were taken across the border into Cameroon.
A hopeful message addressed to the captives from Pakistani activist Yousafzai Malala promised the girls scholarships and saying they must never lose courage.
The 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate — who has stood up to the Taliban — chastised Jonathan’s administration and the international community, saying neither have done enough to rescue the girls. The activist for girls’ education spent her birthday in Nigeria in July, meeting with the parents of the kidnapped girls.
She said she and millions of people around the world stand in solidarity with the girls who have come to be known as “the Chibok girls.”
They were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed they had converted to Islam and been married off to his fighters.
Their kidnapping sparked international outrage around the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. In New York City, the campaign said the Empire State Building will be lit up Tuesday night, over the hours the girls were snatched, in its purple and red colors symbolizing its call for an end to violence against women and girls.
At least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the start of 2014, and many have been forced into sexual slavery and trained to fight, Amnesty International says.
Hundreds of boys and young men also have been kidnapped and forced to fight with the extremists, or slaughtered for refusing to do so, it said.
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