Politics and Society
Three Years Later: Nigeria Still Awaits Return of the Chibok Girls
As Nigeria marks the third anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 students from a government girls’ school by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, Anne Mucheke reflects on what has changed for the activists – and the government that promised to rescue them.
On 14 April 2014, 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a government secondary school in Chibok, Northern Nigeria. 57 of them escaped, 21 were released and four were found. That means that 197 are still missing.
The Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) Movement, which has for the last three years been agitating for the Nigerian government to rescue the girls, held a two-hour vigil at the Falomo Roundabout in Lagos, Nigeria, on Friday, 14 April 2017.
In Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja, plans are in place to host the Inaugural Annual Chibok Girls lecture, where the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido, has been invited to be the guest speaker. The Emir of Kano has been a vocal proponent of the value of education for girls, and has asked wealthy individuals from northern Nigeria to help fund the education of girl children rather than building mosques. A press conference to mark the third anniversary of the girls’ disappearance is scheduled to be held at the gates of the presidential villa on the same day.
BBOG has declared this year’s theme to be “Three Years too long: #NoMoreExcuses”. In a press statement, the movement expressed its disappointment at the government’s handling of the tragedy, saying it was “at a loss at the emotional disconnect and insincerity that have defined the words and actions of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and his government on this matter”.
When the BBOG group was formed, the organisers called for immediate action in finding the girls and did not think their advocacy campaign would be one of Nigeria’s longest running causes to date.
We did not expect to still be here
When the BBOG group was formed in 2014, its organisers called for immediate action to find the girls. Their number was larger then. The girls had just been reported missing, there was great deal of international media attention, and a historic Nigerian presidential election was looming. The opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), which is now in power, capitalised on the inability of then President Goodluck Jonathan’s government to act quickly and rescue the missing girls while they were still in sight.
On 25 March 2017, two weeks before the movement’s third anniversary, there were about 15 women and four men at the Lagos sit-in. Many of those are members of the Chibok community in Lagos. Organisers did not expect that their advocacy campaign would be one of Nigeria’s longest-running causes to date. The group’s co-founder, Hadiza Bala Usman, told those gathered on that day: “We didn’t think we would be here three years later.”
The voices for the BBOG group are loud and powerful, and have remained so, partly due to their status in society. Lawyers, business leaders, and humanitarians from international bodies are all part of the BBOG movement.
Read: Nigeria prepared to negotiate with bonafide Boko Haram leaders over Chibok girls
The Abuja Chapter of the group holds daily sit-ins at the Unity Fountain, where members discuss various issues of importance to the nation, but mostly that of the Chibok girls. The presence of former education minister Oby Ezekwesili and businesswoman Aisha Yesufu, who are the organisation’s most familiar faces, is almost certain. The Lagos group meets every Saturday, with lawyer Aisha Oyebode leading the charge there.
Has it been worth the investment of time and advocacy for a cause that is seemingly seeing little or no results? Oyebode thinks so. “I am still speaking passionately, but more importantly, hopefully, three years later,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Look at what has happened in the last year: First we found Amina, with a baby, after two years of no news and so little hope. Today we have found 23 additional girls and the hope of negotiating the release of another 100, so we have made tremendous progress.”
Was Chibok former President Jonathan’s Waterloo?
Many people still believe the kidnapping of the Chibok girls was fabricated, and that nothing really happened. Indeed, the former Jonathan government also believed this, until pressure came from within and outside to find the girls. Some believe the Chibok incident was the former president’s Waterloo.
One of President Buhari’s campaign promises was to ensure that the girls were found once he came into power. “We cannot claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok Girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents,” Buhari said in his inauguration speech.
To Buhari’s credit, Boko Haram has been weakened and security has increased in northern Nigeria, with fewer incidents of attacks being noted. However, it has been a tougher journey than his administration had bargained for, and on one occasion, he admitted rather pointedly that they did not know where the Chibok girls were. The Chibok issue is an inherited problem but one that he has to deal with.
Read: Nigeria: Boko Haram releases 21 of the abducted Chibok Girls
Moving on to bigger things?
In an interesting turn of events, BBOG co-founder Usman was appointed to head the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) by President Buhari in July 2016. Although Usman had been less visible than many of the other activists, the public received this appointment with mixed feelings. Some felt it would water down her role as an activist. Others argued that it proved that the BBOG movement had been a creation to bring down the former government.
How has the cause for the group changed over time? It is certain that they are keeping their hope for finding the Chibok girls alive. The lack of security remains a huge topic for the BBOG group and attacks and kidnappings in private schools in Lagos, and its environs have prompted the Lagos Chapter to extend their efforts to trying to improve the state of security within the local school system.
The activism of the sit-ins has given many women from the Chibok community a platform from which to speak out. The women, often shy, are encouraged to take the microphone, air their views on whatever issue concerns them and together seek a solution or a way forward to deal with it.
At the vigil on 14 April, Oyebode and her cohorts called out the mission of the BBOG, as they do at every meeting:
One of President Buhari’s campaign promises was to ensure the girls are found but it has been a tougher journey than his administration had bargained for.
Leader: What are we demanding?
All: Bring back our girls now and alive!
Leader: When will we stop?
All: Not without our daughters!
Leader: What are we fighting for?
All: The soul of Nigeria!
Leader: Who are we?
All: We are Chibokians! We are Nigerians!
Oyebode says the Chibok girls are a symbol of all the Nigerian women, men, girls and boys who have suffered injustice. Additionally, it is the duty of Nigerians as a collective to rise up and ensure that those in authority will protect all children; in this case, the Chibok girls.
“As our BBOG mantra states, the fight for the Chibok girls is the fight for the soul of Nigeria,” she said. “How do we tell our children that such atrocities happened under our watch and we did nothing about it?”