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Inside a #BringBackOurGirls protest

On 22 August 2014, the #BringBackOurGirls advocacy group, acting as a nation’s conscience against poor political will and citizens’ forgetfulness, organised a protest to mark the 130th day since the 276 schoolgirls taken by Boko Haram were stolen from their families, their education and their lives, in Chibok, Borno State. A change of government and 736 days later, the girls are still missing.

The centre of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Abuja, the Unity Fountain, represents a conundrum. It is shadowed by Transcorp Hilton, arguably the capital’s best hotel and largely regarded as the venue where Nigeria’s high-ranking political class meets, lobbies and pontificates on matters of state. This is where important decisions are made. Ironic, then, that 130 days after more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped, and with the hotspot of the rallying cry for their release in such close proximity to this alternate seat of power, no ‘important decision’ has been made.

Unity Fountain is also surrounded by propagandist posters and billboards. One of them is a picture of a beaming President Goodluck Jonathan, inscribed with the message that the President will be the best-loved ruler of Nigeria in all our history and that he has been doing a good job thus far.

The campaign certainly does not agree with this sentiment. In stark contrast, theirs is a picture of desperate dissatisfaction with the government. On the day of the protest, people gathered on the Unity Fountain’s lush green lawn to mark the fact that 130 days have passed since the disappearance (officially 219 girls are missing) and to demand that the government tells the truth about its rescue mission, if there is any.

Chibok-Mothers seeing their daughters, watching a 'proof of life' video obtained by CNN recently showing some of the girls still alive. Photo Credit- Stephanie Busari (CNN)
Chibok Mothers seeing their daughters, watching a ‘proof of life’ video obtained by CNN recently showing some of the girls still alive. Photo Credit- Stephanie Busari (CNN)

The protest kicks off

It is obvious why Unity Fountain was chosen as the home turf for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign The fountain depicts the forging together of Nigeria’s many, diverse peoples into a strong and unified force. It pays tribute to Nigeria’s history of internecine wars and the long road travelled from those turbulent times. The campaign asks that Nigerians disregard all ethnic, religious and socio-political divisions to unite as one, amplified voice against the continuous indifference of the government towards the girls’ rescue.

A cavalcade of police trucks is present and genial-looking policemen are milling about. In the far distance is the impressive Zuma Rock, partly covered by clouds. The sun is mercifully mild. Protesters and members of the campaign, in flaming red shirts, are trickling in. There is a sense of camaraderie– old faces of the campaign have returned, and new ones have joined. There is much laughter, greetings and hugs. A public address system is soon rigged and a song fills the air.

Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former education minister and former Vice President (Africa) of the World Bank, takes the microphone and starts marshalling the protesters into lines of six. Red and white banners are unfurled and placards are held up. ‘Would you be silent if your daughter was missing?’ one banner asked. Others proclaimed: ‘Any of the Chibok girls could be your daughter!’ and ‘We are the giant of Africa – t oo big to fail our Chibok girls!’

Ezekwesili announces that the campaign is marching to the Federal Secretariat, the civil service nerve centre of the capital, and back to Unity Fountain. She whips up the mood, shouting, ’What do we want from our government?’. The protesters holler in response: ’To bring back our girls NOW and ALIVE!’ The march commences.

A protester member of the daily sit out addresses the Bring Back Our Girls group. Photo: Afolabi Sotunde Reuters

How the movement was born

The #BringBackOurGirls movement was born on what has become an increasingly important platform for organising dissent against the government: the Internet. Two women took the decision that the matter of the kidnapped girls would not be ‘business as usual’. Shocked by the government’s indifference, Hadiza Bala Usman and Maryam Uwais started a chain of e-mails, mobilising citizens – m ostly women – to take tothe streets, vent their frustration and pressurise government to act with greater purpose in their rescue mission.

They were soon joined by Saudatu Mahdi, the Secretary-General of the Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (W.R.A.P.A.) In addition, Obiageli Ezekwesili had been tweeting up a storm, directing pointed questions about the girls at high-ranking government officials and security agencies. She raised widespread awareness and fanned the flames of heated inquiry directed at the government.

These women took the decision to consolidate their reach and resources and so the #BringBackOurGirls movement was born.

On 30 April 2014, these four women lead the first charge, when the movement marched for the first time in Abuja,in torrential rain. Their destination was the National Assembly, the legislative arm of the state and the hallowed chambers of those elected to represent the people. The leadership of the National Assembly met the protesters halfway, assuring them that their grievances would be communicated to ‘higher powers’.

This march left the movement dissatisfied and considering two options: to shelve protests and leave the matter in the hands of their representatives, the National Assembly, or to continue marching and speaking out until decisive action was taken. They opted for the latter and since then the movement has held daily ‘sit-outs’,. However, ‘decisive action’ on the part of government remains unforthcoming.

But my anger is increasing because I thought the government [would] do something

Hope versus hecklers

‘It is not possible to be in the same high spirits as at the beginning, especially after 130 days. Even our membership has started to shrink. We are human; flesh and blood must be tired. But my anger is increasing because I thought the government [would] do something,’ says Tsambido Hosea Abana,chairman of the Chibok community in Abuja and a leading campaigner in the Bring Back our Girls movement. He attends the sit-out every day and marches in every rally.. His weather-beaten face tells a story: Three of his nieces, two cousins and five of his childhood friends’ daughters are amongst the girls who were abducted. He has been warned by family members in Chibok that he is now a target of Boko Haram. They have identified him as an enemy for speaking out against their pillaging and plundering of town after town in the north-east of Nigeria. He has lost relatives in this war. Exuding an air of quiet wisdom and even quieter resignation, Abana says, ’I still have hope that the girls will be returned. Where there’s life, there’s hope. But I fear they will not be returned in a good number.’ …”

People who chanced upon the protest have parked their cars on the sidewalk and joined in. It’s a slow, deliberate procession. One gets the feeling that everyone is here out of a determination to not turn the other cheek; to speak for the girls who are pawns in Boko Haram’s deadly game of terror, in which score iskept in blood. The growing number of protesters is a small victory for the campaign. ’Nigerians have this notion that when something is not your problem, why go looking for it?’ says Aisha Yesufu, a co-ordinator of the campaign’s daily sit-out.’But if we hadn’t been coming out every day, these girls would probably have been forgotten.’

As the protest swells, the police vehicles and policemen on foot accompany the marchers, shielding them fromoncoming traffic. It has not always been so. In the campaign’s early days, it faced off against the police several times. On one occasion the police, wielding weapons, ordered protesters off the Unity Fountain premises. Obiageli Ezekwesili, especially, was not cowed. Staring down the barrel of a gun, she refused to move.. The police caved in and left. On another, thugs attacked protesters while the police watched, doing nothing to intervene.

On reaching Bayelsa House, in the heart of the Federal Secretariat, an especially determined heckler can be heard above the din of the campaign’s public address system: “Go and meet Boko Haram! Boko Haram is with your girls!” One protester loses her cool and shouts back, gesticulating wildly at the heckler. Ezekwesili, not even looking at the heckler, thunders, ‘Will we be distracted?’ The protesters reply with a hell-raising ‘No!’

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