Today 1 October 2014 marks Nigeria’s 54th independence anniversary, it also marks 170 days since 276 schoolgirls of Government Secondary School, Chibok were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists close to midnight on 14 April. Today’s also 129 days since the Nigerian government through the chief of defence staff first said they know where they are. Interestingly, it is the 155th day of non-stop daily protests to ensure their rescue.
Earlier that same Monday 14 April of the abduction, at about 6.30am during the morning rush hour, there was a bomb explosion at Nyanya bus terminal, less than 10km from Abuja city centre, killing scores and injuring as many. When the news of the abduction first broke out on 15 April, the Nigerian president was on a jolly dancing spree, first at a politicking event in Kano and later at a birthday party in Ibadan, but not without having given the usual sound bites at the scene of the inferno the previous day. On 16 April, defence spokesman, Major General Chris Olukolade relayed to Nigerians and the world that all “the 129” abducted girls, but 8 were rescued. This joyful news was to be short-lived when the parents thronged the school the next day 17 April only to be told the truth–the military had lied, no single girl was rescued! The school principal, Asabe Aliyu confirmed this on BBC Hausa Service. The defence headquarters was to later retract the earlier issued statement of the rescue. These perfidies marked the commencement of citizens’ advocacy taking on the president, the government and the military via social media especially on Twitter. The first of such notable advocates being Oby Ezekwesili, erstwhile Nigerian minister of education and World Bank vice president, Japheth Omojuwa and Tolu Ogunlesi.
Aside the lies by the military and House of Representatives speaker Aminu Tambuwal who charged the military to do everything to speedily rescue the abducted innocent schoolgirls, that their freedom will be the heartiest and most cheering news especially to their parents that Easter season; there was no word from the Nigerian government, as if nothing had happened. It will be recalled that earlier in February, 59 shoolboys of Federal Government College, Buni Yadi had been murdered in their school dormitory by the very same Boko Haram [western education is forbidden, officially Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad)], the government kept mum as if nothing had happened, up till this day. In March, 20 schoolgirls were abducted, equally same treatment, no word, no action. Now, close to 300 hundred had been abducted and the same script was about to be played. It is this utter disdain for citizens and the life of the Nigerian by the government, the lack of accountability, with increasing daring and boldness of the terrorists that sparked the angst which started first the online advocacy demanding an end once and for all this cycle of infamy.
The social media campaign had had as many hashtags as were campaigners, but on 23 April at the opening ceremony of the UNESCO event honouring Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital City 2014, Mrs Ezekwesili during her emotionally charged speech demanded the Nigerian government to “bring back our daughters”, “bring back our girls”, and led the entire assemblage to shout demanding same. Ibrahim M. Abdullahi who was watching the event live on TV immediately tweeted “Yes #BringBackOurGirls #BringBackOurDaughters declared by @obywzeks and all people at Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014”, which she shortly after retweeted. 6 hours later she tweeted “Earlier today @ the celebration of Port Harcourt as World Book Capital 2014 WE collectively STOOD & ASKED the FGN to #BringBackOurGirls.” And 40 minutes later, “Lend your Voice to the Cause of Our Girls. Please All, use the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to keep the momentum UNTIL they are RESCUED”. Thus was born the hashtag and rallying cry #BringBackOurGirls.
At this time Hadiza Bala Usman who had been having sleepless nights since the news of the abduction broke out and incidentally was unaware of the online activity met with a senior friend, Mariam Uwais, an influential lawyer and wife of Nigeria’s former chief judge who was concerned and advocating on the same matter, also Saudatu Mahdi towards organising a street protest in Abuja. These 3 with Ezekwesili, along with Ireti Kingibe, Florence Ozor, Bukky Shonibare, Rinsola Abiola and other inspirational women along with the Chibok community in Abuja tapped into their networks making calls, sending emails, mobilising via social media and word of mouth towards a march to the National Assembly– the representatives of the Nigerian people in the government, to awaken the government from the slumber and denial, to immediately rescue the innocent schoolgirls while there was still room, because the earlier the better. The 30 April protests in which thousands of Nigerians marched in the rain to engage with the National Assembly and were received by the senate president and other principal staff of the Assembly marked the beginning of global protests for that same cause: rescue of the Chibok girls. Kaduna the next day, New York, London, Washington DC, etc daily, sequentially. In 7 days from 23 April there had been over 1 million tweets of the hashtag. Celebrities Russell Simmons, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, Ashton Kutcher, Bradley Cooper all tweeted. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, FLOTUS Michelle Obama, David Cameron, the Vatican and so on all tweeted to demand #BringBAckOurGirls. So did CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and the other networks who also gave coverage to the events. Tuface and other artists sang about it.
Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan first spoke publicly on the abduction on 4 May, a clear 20 days after. In a TV broadcast that Sunday, he said he didn’t know where they were but everything was being done to find them. Then the UK, US, France, China, Canada, Iran, Israel, etc joined in helping the Nigerian government in the rescue mission. Sadly, 150 days since the president gave his word they haven’t been found and brought back. The blitz of the campaign to bring them back has waned, life has moved on but the movement itself hasn’t, today marks 155 days of a daily advocacy. What’s the secret ingredient driving this movement, the longest sustained of any kind in Nigeria’s history?
Hope. Unity. Motivation. Affability. Nationalism. Integrity. Transparency. Empathy. Equity. Discipline. Sacrifice. The core values that drive the #BringBackOurGirls movement and strict fidelity to them, without which the movement would have been dead a long time by now like the many other good endeavours before it. Hope, that untiring, unrelenting optimism, sometimes against verifiable reality and logical reasoning which persists that, because the Chibok schoolgirls are alive; they can and should be rescued. That unwavering faith that given a chance, they would become a symbol of overcoming oppression, adversity and torment to become great, thereby serve as inspiration to all oppressed and disadvantaged peoples around the world, especially women and children. This hope is the strength that keeps the movement going.
From observing the movement’s activities online and during their daily protests at the Unity Fountain, Abuja and elsewhere around the city, Nigeria and the world; among other things, I have never seen a more united group of diverse individuals, ever. Primarily, what knits these is that bond of shared humanity, the fact that we all are first human before being male or female, Muslim, Christian or whatever; the blood in a Caucasian not being any different from that in a Negro or Asian. Religion, ethnicity, politics, class, age, gender, and so on which are used to divide rather unite and strengthen this “family” as they call themselves.
If you asked each of the 60 on the average who attend the daily protests at the Unity Fountain why they keep turning out, you’re sure to get at least 60 different reasons. Each has their motivation; the strong convictions that drive them. Each has their story/stories. Then the aspect of conscience, how can it be said that one was alive when close to 300 schoolgirls trying to get an education where kidnapped, who could be rescued but weren’t and one went on as if nothing had happened? This conviction and conscience drive powers the courage it takes to pursue this cause.
Speech, conduct and choice of words are strictly regulated. It’s very important that this equally traumatised people have set protocols in place to show respect and consideration for each other and others in the course of engagements, and come across as pleasant as possible. The men gladly give the women their seats, first timers are made warm and welcomed with smiles and celebration. Anyone too passionate; and using strong words is gently told “core values” with a smile.
A common reason almost all members I spoke to share is their love and passion for the fatherland. Loyalty, devotion and duty to the honour and glory of their country would simply not allow them be there and do nothing. This much was corroborated by the honourable Justice Abubakar Talba of the FCT High Court who in his ruling in the suit filing by Dino Melaye against the Nigerian police, the then inspector general of police and Abuja police commissioner, that the #BringBackOurGirls movement is a nationalist movement whose protests are in the public interest and further gave a consequential order to the defendants to issue a written apology to the plaintiff in any 2 national dailies of their choice. They hope that by this modest effort, they’re doing what can salvage to the nation. Perhaps if they had done so in the past, the abduction wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
On one occasion a member relayed felicitations and an anonymous donation from an associate of his, a serving minister of the federal government who supports what he termed “a genuine cause”, but for obvious reasons can’t openly identify with it. He was nicely reminded that the movement only accepts gifts and contributions in cash and kind from members; membership being simply by openly identifying with the cause. The greetings were heartily appreciated and well-accepted; the cash politely declined. All business of the movement, donations, activities, plans, and so on are discussed right there in the open. Among their favourite maxims is “lies have a short expiry date”, as all the lies and calumny against the movement have been unsustainable. Marilyn Ogar, the spokesperson of the state security service, SSS had lied that the movement is a Boko Haram franchise, that they solicit funds and also operate bank accounts. Challenged to publish the accounts and name those from whom the movement sought money, she had to eat humble pie and remain silent. Doyin OKupe, presidential senior special assistant on public affairs had disparaged the movement, insulted, lied about the movement and its leaders also made personal attacks on them, but in the end has had to bury his head in shame, recently has had to openly apologise for promoting the obnoxious #BringBackJonathan2015 hashtag which the presidency later said was offensive and lied that it had been unaware of its existence and use. Were the movement the least opaque or not operating by the highest ethical standards humanly possible, it’d have been decimated by the government a long time and/or would have imploded from internal contradictions.
Then comes that expression of love that compels one to put themselves in the shoes of the other, to feel what they feel, and Putting oneself in the position of the Chibok girls, their parents; the ravaged, trauatised, displaced peoples of the north-east who’re now refugees in Chad, Niger, Cameroon and internally displaced people, IDPs in Nigeria living under sub-human conditions they share in their anguish, pain, sorrow, hopelessness, trauma, and what-not. With this, there’s that compulsion to act and keep trying to do something. What’s more, when they see that had the girls had certain surnames, this wouldn’t have happened, or if it did, they’d have been rescued immediately, with consequences for those who ought to have prevented it in the first place. Amnesty International confirms that the security forces were warned a clear 4 hours before the abduction, but did nothing, and there haven’t been any consequences. This is the same country where a federal executive council meeting was officially cancelled because the vice president lost a brother. The impartiality, the conviction that no one is more human than the other, no single life more important than the other, no Nigerian’s more Nigerian than the other compels.
On 28 May thugs sponsored by the government beat up the protesters, broke their chairs, broke video cameras, stole their phones, pilfered their handbags before the very eyes of a detachment of policemen deployed to oversee that, who stood aloof unconcerned. In all this, the protesters stood quietly without retaliating, not because they couldn’t but because they were asked not to by their leaders to do so. That’s discipline! They exemplify this down to picking up their water bottles, tissue papers or whatever trash they make after every protest.
Disrupting one’s normal course of life, shutting a day down as from 2.30pm towards a protest at 3 or 4 o’clock every day for 155 days is no joke. Having to reschedule or cancel personal, family and work plains earlier well-laid out for the year, enduring suntan, literally being in the rain, being lied about, beaten by thugs, harassed by the police, scorned by the public, and so forth is tiring, frustrating even. During one planning session towards the usual 10-day milestones to commemorate the abduction on a certain protest day, the session facilitator broke down in tears, she was fed up planning events; all she wanted was the innocent girls back to a normal life. The meeting had to go into a recess, the crying, the consoling each other, then the pep talks that they’re the girls’ last hope, if they keep quiet, they’ll be gone forever. They later came around, wiped their tears, sang solidarity songs and continued. The daily protests continue because it’s important for the Chibok parents, and indeed the peoples of the war-torn northeastern Nigeria to know they aren’t alone. That’s the comfort they say they get whenever they learn of a #BringBackOurGIrls activity in New York, London, Abuja, Kenya, Tokyo, etc. The protests continue in defiance what one writer terms “Amnesia Nigeriana”–that negative character of Nigerians to blank out national tragedy, live in denial and move on with life as if nothing ever happened. They have vowed, not this time, not on this issue.
Criticisms of the movement are rife, from name-calling by the president Goodluck Jonathan deriding them as “psychological terrorists” to characterising it a “hashtag diplomacy” that won’t bring back the girls by former US presidential candidate Gary L. Bauer, to referring to it as “elitist”, “insular”, unwilling to accept funding and sponsorship from anonymous benefactors, being a single-issue advocacy–not caring about other pressing and very important dilemmas like the general insecurity in the country, the insurgency in the northeast, the previous and ongoing abductions, and so on; accused sabotaging the military’s effort, fighting the person of President Jonathan and hindering his second term presidential ambition, and so forth.
Whether the criticisms are valid or not will best be ascertained in retrospect later or by future generations. But the fact remains that an advocacy can’t be rightly termed a “hashtag diplomacy”, “hashtag activism” or what-not when people meet offline every day to protest, have physical engagements with those they hold accountable and allies to the cause, have publications in hard copy and so on. I personally don’t know any effort anywhere in northeastern Nigeria, Nigeria at large or anywhere in the world where daily, briefings and analyses from around the world of the crisis in the northeast, the insurgency, insecurity in Nigeria and by extension the world especially as it relates to Nigeria, are taken and action thereof. The #BringBackOurGirls movement right from the onset coordinated and came up with the citizens-sourced 10-point “Citizens Solution to End Terrorism’, which pundits admit to be seminal, but which Nigeria’s government won’t touch with a long pole. Just 10 days ago they were at an internally displaced persons, IDP camp of IDPs not from Chibok by the way, where they spent time interacting with them, spreading love and cheer, making them know they aren’t alone in this trying time, where they also distributed a van full of clothes, food, toiletries, medicine, and other supplies pack in giant-size bags. It was disheartening to see that the kids at the IDP camps knew school was resuming the next day, but they couldn’t because their parents were unable to pay the nominal fees. Also about elephantiasis, the very preventable and curable disease ravaging them with no succor in view. Even though a single-issue campaign, the movement has had to look at the big picture, and be compelled by empathy to act.
‘I’m good at being bad!’
When the close to 300 schoolgirls were abducted and the public-spirited people felt sitting at home, complaining wasn’t it, and chose to do something no matter how little or inconsequential in hopes of preserving the dignity and sanctity of human life; they did so because doing nothing emboldens the cowards, it allows the government continue in its nonchalance and lack of accountability in keeping to its part of the social contract. Keeping quiet also deadens the conscience and humanity, converting normal humans to beasts without feelings.
The #BringBackOurGirls movement has faith that everyone deserves an equal chance to succeed, to be the best they possibly can, no matter their background. That’s why in a picture of 15 Chibok schoolgirls who escaped the terrorists through their self-effort, with Atiku Abubakar, founder of the American University Nigeria, AUN, Yola, whose elite AUN Academy has given them an opportunity to be back in school; one of them wore a T-shirt with the bold print ‘I’M GOOD AT BEING BAD’ bears a lot of meaning. They look happy, cheerful and confident, beautiful teenage girls with sparks in their eyes. This picture can only be appreciated if one saw these same girls when they were in Abuja months ago: frightful, unsure, would startle at the slightest sound, one still nursing the sore of a wound she’d sustained escaping the terrorists 3 months prior. They now look so different in the picture, with hopes that it can only get better. A late dictionary entry and definition of the expression “bad” means: “excellent, extremely good”, not as the opposite of “good”. Even if she didn’t mean it that way, only a youngster at heart would prefer a T-shirt with such an audacious font size. And that’s the point. Children should be allowed to be children, free spirited, fun-loving; quirky at times, not having a care in the world, having dreams, goals and aspirations no matter how idealistic and working towards them. The hope’s that in the process of rescuing the 219, the government would consciously or not have put itself together to annihilate the terrorists, and also recreate a normal society where these and all others in the crisis-torn zone can return to a normal life as once was. Hope that these will become beacons of hope and inspiration, models and example of overcoming adversity of any magnitude. That’s why the movement spares nothing in expressing their disappointment with the Borno State government’s shoddy treatment of the 57 who escaped by their own devices. For instance, the state commissioner of health, briefing the movement of the state’s plan for the girls’ post-traumatic rehabilitation and reintegration during one of their daily protests who kept referring to them as “these girls” much to the chagrin of those present, had to be influenced to use the expression “our girls” instead of “these girls”, which indicates taking ownership of them and the situation.
In the president’s Independence Day broadcast today, there wasn’t any mention of the Chibok girls or any assurance of an effort to rescue them, which says so much about the government’s attitude towards the issue. Whatever the obstacles, they have vowed on their honour to end the #BringBackOurGirls movement only when each and every one of the remaining 219 daughters is back and safe. Only time will tell if this will be so or not.
Written by: Sesugh Akume (@sesugh_akume on Twitter)