For many months after the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls, Nigeria's military and security agencies assured the world that the situation was under control.
Military leaders boasted repeatedly that they knew the location of the 219 missing girls and would soon rescue them from their Boko Haram captors. "Our troops are smoking the terrorists out of their hiding places," an official said in May, 2014. "Very soon we will have good news," another official insisted six weeks later.
In reality, the troops failed to liberate any of the schoolgirls over the next two years. And when 21 of them were finally freed this week, it was a negotiated deal with the radical Islamist militia that holds them. The girls were simply handed over. The army did nothing except provide a helicopter to transport them.
The Chibok saga has laid bare the painful weakness of Nigeria's military. Even with international support, including South African mercenaries, British special forces and state-of-the-art U.S. surveillance technology, the Nigerian army was unable to rescue even a single one of the 219 girls.
Few Nigerians believed their government when it insisted on Thursday that it did not pay any ransom or release any prisoners in exchange for the 21 schoolgirls. Unable to rescue the students with military tactics, the government was forced to negotiate with Boko Haram, and a heavy price was undoubtedly paid.
If it was not already obvious from the long struggle to defeat Boko Haram, the Chibok story has shown that Nigeria's military has been enfeebled by corruption, a lack of resources and a preference for brutal violence instead of careful planning.
It is a stark warning for the world's humanitarian agencies as they try to deliver food to 4.5 million people in the Nigerian states that have been devastated by the Boko Haram insurgency.
The number of people who need food aid has doubled since March. An estimated 75,000 are on the verge of death from famine. And as many as two million of those needing aid are in regions that the relief agencies cannot reach – because the Nigerian military has still failed to secure them. It's one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes, and it is heightened by the army's inability to defeat a ragtag group of poorly trained rebels.
The crisis has spilled over the borders into neighbouring countries: Chad, Niger and Cameroon, with Boko Haram active in all of them. It has become a "vast human tragedy" across the entire region, according to Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who visited the region this week. In total, about 6.3 million people in the four countries need food aid.
Some officials at United Nations agencies have said the hunger crisis in the Boko Haram territory today is the worst in the country since the Biafra conflict in the late 1960s. Farmers are unable to work their land, food prices are rising and hundreds of children are dying. An estimated 250,000 children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year in one Nigerian state, Borno, alone.
While the world celebrates the freeing of the 21 Chibok schoolgirls this week, their release should not overshadow the humanitarian disaster that Nigeria faces. As relief agencies search for secure routes to reach the hungry and the starving in Boko Haram territory, they will remember that the military was so ineffective that it took 30 months for the government to win the freedom of just a small fraction of the abducted girls.
Analysts have warned for years that there cannot be a purely military solution to the Boko Haram conflict, especially with an army as trouble-plagued as that of Nigeria. Its corruption is well documented: Millions of dollars have been diverted away from weapons and salaries by corrupt commanders, leaving the soldiers poorly equipped. Hundreds of soldiers have deserted, afraid of dying in battles because they lack weaponry.
Hobbled by the absence of proper training and equipment, the Nigerian military has instead used the crude tactics of illegal killings, aerial bombings and arbitrary detentions. This has only driven more people into the ranks of Boko Haram, seeking revenge.