On April 15, 2014 an estimated 200+ girls at the Chibok Government School in Borno state of Northern Nigeria were abducted by armed militiamen suspected of being members of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram. The girls had just returned to school to take their final physics exam following school closures across the region after targeted attacks by Boko Haram. Almost 20 days after the incident, over 200 16- to 18-year old girls are still missing, with about 50 escaping and returning to tell their harrowing tale.
Accounts from nearby village inhabitants, who witnessed a mass wedding taking place indicate that the girls may likely have been “married off” to the militiamen, have left parents and relatives at wits end. There are also fears that the girls may have been trafficked into neighboring Chad and/or Cameroun. Their parents received this information when they ventured into the wilderness with bows and arrows in search of their daughters.
Two weeks after their daughters were abducted, distressed parents, relatives and concerned Nigerians took to the streets to beg the Nigerian government to do more. The main message is to bring back the girls alive.
A social media campaign dubbed #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters was started on Twitter and has contributed to raising awareness on the situation. The campaign’s Facebook page currently has over 24,000 likes and is frequently updated with news articles and information on protests and rallies being organized globally.
A number of petitions have also been set up – one by Nigerian Ify Elueze which is addressed to President Goodluck Jonathan currently has over 230,000 signatures while another by Women Thrive petitions the Nigerian Inspector General and US Secretary of State John Kerry. A more recent petition on the official White House website implores the Obama administration to “work with the UN and the Nigerian Government to bring back the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram”.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed America’s support to help bring back the girls, as did Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Pakistani girl’s rights and education activist Malala Yousafzai – who stood up to the Taliban – also expressed her support for the Chibok girls, saying:
However, this flood of support and concern seems to have come two weeks too late. Questions and criticisms have arisen over why the international media took so long to give the Chibok incident much needed coverage; or at the very minimum, the same coverage granted the missing Malaysian plane and South Korean ferry collapse. As CNN opinion writer Frida Ghitis rightly states:
“If it had happened anywhere else, this would be the world’s biggest story”
The initial response from President Goodluck Jonathan’s government and security forces also comes under stark criticism, with many Nigerians online frustrated at their government’s apparent incapability in dealing with Boko Haram. One Ghanaian blogger asks, “why is it so hard to bring back the Chibok 200?”; speculating about religious dynamics and stereotypes at play in the government’s “lackadaisical response to this crisis“.
Initial statements from the military which indicated that the girls had been rescued, turned out to be false. On May 2, President Jonathan announced the establishment of a presidential committee to look into the Chibok incident. Following much pressure to provide answers on rescue efforts, President Jonathan addressed the nation on May 4 in an attempt to reassure Nigerians and the world:
“Wherever they are, we’ll get them out.”
The questions of how, when and where remain unanswered. Furthermore, while everyone assumes the abductions were initiated by Boko Haram, President Jonathan doesn’t appear to believe so, calling the abductors “nameless” and indicating that – contrary to some reports – no negotiations are being held with Boko Haram . He echoes sentiments initially expressed by Nigeria’s permanent education secretary MacJohn Nwaobila in an interview with Al-Jazeera where he describes the culprits as “faceless”. The President also called for parents and families to support security forces in their efforts to find the girls; the names of 180 Chibok girls have since been released amidst some concerns over how it could potentially affect the girls’ security.
In the lead up to his address, acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie shared on “the president I want”, saying:
“I want President Jonathan to seek glory and a place in history, instead of longevity in office. I want him to put aside the forthcoming 2015 elections, and focus today on being the kind of leader Nigeria has never had.”
But following his address, many Nigerians online seem less assured, describing their leader as clueless, confused and buckling to politics. Concerns around security in Nigeria are at a head after two bomb blasts in Abuja, a mere week apart, which have collectively resulted in over 70 deaths. Although the President made assurances that the security situation is not worsening, many are skeptical, particularly in the lead up to the World Economic Forum due to take place in Abuja this week from May 7 to 9.
In a video released on her youtube page, Nigerian actress Stella Damascus called on President Jonathan to accept international assistance in finding the girls and quelling Boko Haram’s terror, and questions where the $20 million already provided by the US is going:
“Mr. President, if this issue is beyond you, there’s no shame in it. Go out and ask for help…Are we took ashamed to ask for help? Or are we worried that they might discover that we have mismanaged the funds that have been given to us to train the people that will combat terrorism?… If the federal government is not asking, the citizens are asking, the parents of those girls are asking: We need help.”
Like Wole Soyinka, many Nigerians and West Africans believe that a regional or international effort is needed in order to effectively address the threats that Boko Haram poses.
However the eerie silence of African leaders and organizations – notably the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and leaders of Nigeria’s neighbors Cameroun and Chad, raise questions about whether the urgency and extent of the matter is appreciated in the sub-region. No official statements have been recorded thus far from the African front.
As Nigerian writer, art historian and photographer Teju Cole highlights on his Twitter timeline, the economic and political price Nigeria might have to pay if it accepts standing offers of assistance from western partners to rescue the Chibok girls and take on Boko Haram, could be high. But then again, can Africa’s largest economy afford not to accept help, considering that 200+ lives at stake?
Ultimately, it comes down to whether the Nigerian government considers a search and rescue mission worthy of all the risks it will entail, whether it is willing to put politics aside and recognize the situation for the human rights issue it is. The dice has been cast, the stage has been set, the ball is in Nigeria’s court.
|Photo Source: NewsRescue Facebook Page|
Watch video below for a recap of events as well as my thoughts on #BringBackOurGirls:
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.