On April 14, 2014, 279 girls were abducted from Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. Chibok is a small farming community and Borno is in the northeastern part of Nigeria, the region most affected by the ongoing insurgency.
500 days later, a lot of Nigerians still think the abduction was a hoax; that those involved in the #BringBackOurGirls advocacy campaign have ulterior motives and say that all we do is protest and make noise on social media. For those genuinely confused and others just being mischievous, here are some facts.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated the Presidential Fact-Finding Committee on the Abduction of Chibok School Girls on May 6, 2014. While the full report has yet to be made public, during the committee’s report presentation to Jonathan on June 20, 2014, the committee confirmed the following: 276 girls were abducted; none were rescued by the Nigerian Army as was previously announced; 57 escaped on their own and 219 are still missing. The report included the names of all the girls and their pictures. These facts are sacred.
Since that report, 17 parents of the Chibok girls have died from various ailments. Yes, 17! The root cause would probably be a broken heart manifested in a physical illness. Of the 57 girls that escaped on their own, some are in school: in the US (Cosmopolitan Magazine did a feature of four of them in June), at the American University in Yola, and several schools in the South-West. Some of them are at home, their parents refusing to release them to continue their education and some are now married.
In a report released in 2013, the National Human Rights Commission had already flagged the high rate of abductions in the North-East and the effect on farming as people were afraid of going to their farms for fear of being abducted. As such, the Chibok girls were not the first to be kidnapped, neither have they been the last. However, they are the only group that we have a complete list of names and pictures. We know where they were taken from and we know their parents. The #BringBackOurGirls group has consistently maintained that whatever resources are deployed to rescue the Chibok girls will have a ripple effect on all other cases of abduction of Nigerians. The abductions had been happening and we all moved on. 57 school boys were killed in Buni Yadi in February. By April when the Chibok girls were abducted, some of us had heard enough!
While marches and protests have been the most visible part of the #BringBackOurGirls advocacy, we have also engaged stakeholders at all levels: Borno State governor and government; the National Security Adviser; the Chief of Defence Staff; the National Assembly; NHRC; the embassies of various countries including our neighbours – Chad, Niger and Cameroon; the United Nations’ agencies and the presidency. After trying three times to engage the Presidency under the previous administration, we finally met with Mr. President on July 8th.
We have also created tools that we think would be useful to the administration. While trying to channel the despair on social media following the Nyanya bombing and the abduction of the Chibok girls, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili encouraged citizens to share their #CitizensSolutionsToEndTerrorism. In two days, over 1,000 suggestions had been curated. The suggestions were distilled into 10 points and shared with all relevant stakeholders in the fight against terrorism. No agency formally requested a follow up to discuss the ideas. In addition, the #BringBackOurGirls Abuja family developed a Verification, Authentication and Reunification System to help government agencies manage returned victims of the insurgency. In our follow up letter to Mr. President, we asked him to set up an inter-agency committee to ensure that information about the insurgency and rescue efforts is shared effectively between agencies and with citizens. This is yet to be done.
As part of the activities to mark 500 days, we would be presenting to the NHRC a template for a Missing Persons Database as there is no national register to track missing citizens. Nigeria does not even have an official count of those who have died from the insurgency. The numbers usually quoted in the media are from the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based organisation. This is disgraceful! How can a country not know how many of its citizens have died and who is missing? Yes, some could fall through the cracks but it should not be the norm!
All these engagements are driven by people who have chosen to dedicate their time and resources to ensure that the Chibok girls and others like them are not forgotten. Of course everyone knows Oby Ezekwesili, Hadiza Bala Usman, Saudatu Mahdi, Maryam Uwais, Aisha Oyebode, Yemisi Ransome-Kuti and Ayo Obe. These are the well known names. None of them are from Borno – they are from Anambra, Katsina, Kano, Ogun and Oyo. Until the abduction, they had never interacted with people from Chibok.
But there are also the many others that you don’t know – Prof Funke Okome and Ivan Idahosa in New York; Babasola Olalere, Monday, Yemi Oyekoya and Habiba Balogun in Lagos; in Abuja, Maureen Kabrik, Sesugh Akume, Jeff Okorafor, Aisha Yesufu, whose voice you can’t miss during any Abuja rally and Bukky Shonibare, who takes a daily countdown photograph and posts on Twitter; Nanre Maiyegun in Osogbo; Prof Hauwa Biu, who interfaces with the Borno State government constantly for improved conditions for IDPs and Mrs. Dolly Osinbajo who has consistently coordinated relief materials to families in the North-East. These are a few names but there are hundreds more around the country and thousands scattered around the globe.
Pray tell, what do these Nigerians and non-Nigerians have to gain from advocating for the Chibok girls? What is in it for them to leave their families, make huge sacrifices, lend their voices and speak for the voiceless? Through rain, sunshine, ill health and assaults on their character and integrity, they have chosen to put everything on the line to consistently stand for the Chibok girls and other victims since April 14, 2014.
It’s hard to comprehend that 219 girls would be missing and a whole country would move on. Yes, it’s hard for our brains to process such loss; such pain and a natural psychological reaction is denial. Your denial is valid but do not turn it into mockery of those who have chosen to act. As Ngozi Iwere likes to say, if it were your daughter, sister, niece, cousin, friend – would you like her to stay in captivity for an additional day?
We all have various constraints and some won’t understand or believe. However, if you do believe, please find a way to lend your voice. Wear red, tweet, share a post on Facebook, pray, find ways to support those who have been displaced and are in need, attend a gathering or rally in your area (Abuja family meets daily; Lagos and Osogbo meets weekly).
You can’t see the same group of people consistently over a period of time and not build community, relationships, family, really. This is what has happened in Abuja, Lagos, Osogbo and cities around the world where citizens are standing for our Chibok girls. The Abuja family developed a set of core values to guide their actions – hope, unity, motivation, affability, nationalism, integrity, transparency, empathy, equity, discipline, sacrifice. It speaks to the heart of why this advocacy campaign, not only the longest running in Nigeria’s history, has become much more than the Chibok girls. It’s about our shared humanity; our shared love for country; our common belief that Nigeria can and will be better.
In the words of Desmond Tutu, “We are all connected. What unites us is our common humanity. I don’t want to oversimplify things – but the suffering of a mother who has lost her child is not dependent on her nationality, ethnicity or religion. White, black, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim or Jew – pain is pain – joy is joy.”
Mr. President promised results but we haven’t seen it yet. Until we do, we will not stop.