By Ekene Okoro Snr Correspondent, Lagos
The news of the abduction of over 200 girls from Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, North-East of Nigeria, on Monday, April 14, was too much for one day.
It came just less than 24 hours after Nigerians were trying to recover from the bomb blast at Nyanya park in the outskirts of the Federal Capital, Abuja, which claimed at least 80 lives, with over 120 injured.
Not many Nigerians had anticipated the magnitude of neither the abduction nor the dimension it has so far taken. Many even doubted from the onset, whether the girls were abducted, while government was accused of treating the news of the abduction with kid-glove from the onset. The military however did not help matters with a false hope it created, when it alleged that all the girls had been rescued, however retracting its claim 24 hours later.
Nearly one month after, with the whereabouts of the girls still unknown, series of protests in Nigeria and across the world has prompted government to action with the international community standing in solidarity with the nation.
The abduction of the girls has been hugely embarrassing for the government and had at some point, threatened to overshadow the just concluded World Economic Forum for Africa, which was hosted by Abuja from May 7 to 9.
When the news first broke, the bone of contention was more on the number of girls said to have been abducted. First, reports had it that it was 100, then 103, and then 200. Even till now, government is finding it hard to give the accurate figures of the number of girls still in captive.
The Nyanya blast however seem to have taken more attention. President Goodluck Jonathan held several meetings with security chiefs, governors of the Peoples Democratic Party, before convening an extended meeting with the 36 state governors of the federation. The agenda was the growing insecurity in the wake of the surge of the activities of insurgents coupled with the deadly strike in Nyanya.
One week after the abduction, there was yet no word from the federal government on what it was doing to secure the release of the girls. But it took the bold and courageous move of the former Minister of Education, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili at the opening ceremony of the Port Harcourt World Book Capital, 2014 to speak out about the need of the government to intervene and rescue the missing girls.
A few attendees at the ceremony went ahead to post her remarks on a social media platform, twitter with the hash tag, #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters. Ezekwesili had also tweeted, “Lend your Voice to the Cause of our Girls. Please All, use the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to keep the momentum UNTIL they are RESCUED”, same day.
This was thus, the beginning of a campaign that has gone viral on all social media platforms across the world, with millions of posts on facebook, twitter and Instagram from across the world, including international celebrities from across the world joining their voices to demand the release of the girls.
Wife of America’s President, Michelle Obama, teenage education activist, Malala Yousafzai as well as award winning artistes, Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, Keri Hilson, Wyclef Jean and Angelina Jolie are among international celebrities who have shown solidarity with messages via their twitter handles and pictures of themselves holding up the #BringBackOurGirls banner.
As at May 7, the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag had received 1.5 billion impressions and reached 440 million people worldwide with approximately 574 million tweets have been sent out globally, trending in seven countries and over 50 cities across the world.
The campaign on social media a few days later, metamorphosed into protests on the streets. Ezekwesili, taking the lead again, led women in a protest at the Fountain Park in Abuja, a move that has gingered Nigerians across the world to take to the street daily to raise their voice, protest, sign petitions in an attempt to mount pressure on government to intervene swiftly.
International community lends its voice
This was certainly not the first time, the Islamic sect, Boko Haram were carrying out nefarious activities. In February, the sect carried out a deadly attack on Federal Government College in Yobe state where about 50 children were massacred. Protests followed the attacks, but in days, the momentum fizzled out.
Nigerians looked to divine intervention, hoping that the government will find a lasting solution to prevent wanton loss of lives and properties. But hope dimmed day by day as the sect attacked Yobe, Adamawa and Borno states, week in, week out.
Till date, over 3,000 Nigerians have been killed by the series of attacks carried out in northern Nigeria as well as in the federal capital since 2010. But the kidnap of the girls seemed to have been the last straw.
The cry by the international community seems to have been fired up by a 57-minute video which filtered in that the abductors of the girls had hatched plans to sell the girls out as sex slaves and wives to Islamic militants for about N2000 at local markets.
The news, though from unconfirmed sources, sent chill spines to the nerves of many, especially the parents of the abducted girls, as the possibility of such development, could mean they had finally bid their girls fare well.
Their fears were however confirmed recently when the leader of the sect, Abubakar Shekau, in a video where he claimed the group was responsible for the abduction of the girls, boasted that the girls will be sold at local markets.
The United Nations did not take his words lightly. UN human rights spokesman, Rupert Colville speaking in Geneva warned the sect that attempting such was a crime against humanity, which attracts several years of jail term.
Colville also went on to urge government at all levels to put aside political differences and work hand in hand for rescue the girls.
Just as he warned the sect, the UN spokesman was quick to sound a note of caution to intending buyers as they would also be made to face the wrath of the law, as the abducted girls, according to him, are likely to be exposed to “continuous physical, psychological, economic and sexual violence” and that forced marriage can have a “devastating” impact on victims.
Major international media have also been beaming their searchlight daily as well as providing updates to the unfolding developments, while the whole world waits to see how it would play out.
Mr. President’s words of assurance
Perhaps gingered by the widespread campaign and agitations across the world, President Goodluck Jonathan swung into action. The president announced the setting up of a fact-finding committee on the abduction of the Chibok girls.
A day later, he held a closed door meeting with delegation from Borno Stat including the state governor, Kashim Shettima, deputy governor, Commissioner for Education, local government chairman of Chibok, the principal of the school, security guards at the school and others stakeholders. The meeting afforded President Jonathan to get first hand information from the Borno delegation ahead of his scheduled media chat.
Last Sunday, President Jonathan for the first time since the abduction of the girls, spoke to Nigerians when he hosted a 90-minutes media chat, fielding questions from panelists on several national issues. What Nigerians were however waiting to hear from the president was how far the military had gone in trying to locate the hideout of the abductors.
Jonathan in his response assured that his government was doing everything within its capacity to ensure the release of the girls, but however regretted that their present location was yet to be ascertained.
During the week, President Jonathan while inaugurating the Presidential Committee on the Rescue of the Abducted School girls chaired by retired Gen. Ibrahim Sabo, at the Presidential Villa, Abuja reassured the international community that the Federal Government would do everything possible to ensure the rescue of the abducted school girls.
“Let me assure the families and our dear daughters that in conjunction with international community, that government will do everything possible to get our girls back. We share your pain and suffering and we are with you in prayers. We urge you to cooperate with the investigations in spite of your understandably difficult situation.
“We employ you to remain strong. I assure all Nigerians and our esteem guests, especially delegates to the World Economic Forum of a safe and conducive atmosphere.
The President’s words of hope to the nation and especially the parents of the missing girls, many however criticized as coming three weeks since the abduction.
But Presidential Spokesman rose to the defense of his boss stressing, “Before now, the President and the governor meet regularly. This is a security operation and at this stage, it is not every detail of the efforts of the Federal Government that will be put into public domain, particularly that there are indications that those responsible for the abduction have been issuing all kinds of threats.
“What is clear is the determination, the commitment and the resolve of Mr. President and the governor to make sure that these girls are brought back to safety”.
Knocks and more knocks for Mr. President
The Federal Government despite its efforts and continuous assurance to find the girls has come under serious backlash for what some describe as a lack of wherewithal to address the challenge of insurgency.
The silence from the Presidency for about three weeks, until the social media campaign raged and seemed to have forced the president to speak publicly for the first time since the incident, political analysts see as enough reason score the president low and show its desire to secure the lives and properties of its citizenry.
The New York Times, in one of its editorials described President Jonathan as leading a “corrupt” government while it said the president was “shockingly slow and inept at addressing this monstrous crime”.
The Economist of London didn’t also spare the federal government’s handling of the situation.
In an article published on May 2, titled, “Where is the government?” on May 2, the magazine posited, ” The reaction of the Nigerian government to the abduction of more than 200 school girls by suspected Islamic militants began with confusion and has become increasingly shambolic, creating chaos that in other countries would see senior heads roll.”
National Coordinator of the Islamic Welfare Foundation (IWF), Aliyu Badmuse, also said the federal government was not showing enough commitment to securing the release of the abducted Chibok girls.
Former Minister of Aviation, Alabo Tonye Graham-Douglas, also revealed that the post of Vice President was foisted on Jonathan as the latter was not prepared to take on the job from where he became President of Nigeria.
“Our son Jonathan was not prepared for it. But by the divine intervention, by the special grace of God, our efforts got crowned with success and he emerged as Vice President”, Graham-Douglas had said recently in Yenegoa.
World powers unite with Nigeria against terror
Long before the abduction of the girls, there was series of calls from several quarters on the federal government to seek international aid to curb the activities of the Boko Haram sect.
The calls became louder with the recent attacks of the sect especially a twin bombing at Nyanya Abuja within a space of two weeks.
Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, in a recent interview with an international media posited that the search for the girls is now beyond the capacity of the government and needs international support.
“This is a government which is not only in denial mentally, but in denial about certain obvious steps to take.
“It’s one of those rather child-like situations that if you shut your eyes, if you don’t exhibit the tactile evidence of the missing humanity here, that somehow the problem will go away”.
It is not just a Nigerian problem. I’m calling for the international community, the United Nations, this is a problem, this is a global problem and a foothold is being very deeply entrenched in West Africa”, Soyinka urged.
Chairman, House Committee on Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, former Nigeria Vice President, Atiku Abubakar and Oby Ezekwesili, are among key personalities who have also been in the forefront for the calls for government to seek foreign assistance as the fight against terrorism requires new strategies to nip terrorism in the bud.
Help though seem to be on the way for the abducted girls as the United States of America and the United Kingdom are leading from the front among the countries that have pledged to aid the Federal Government’s search for the girls.
US President, Barack Obama described the incident as awful and heartbreaking, but is optimistic that it could trigger the world to act against Boko Haram.
“Obviously what’s happening is awful, and as a father of two girls I can’t imagine what the parents are going through,” Obama said in an interview with CBS.
In another separate interview with ABC News, Obama said Boko Haram is among the world’s worst local terrorist organisations responsible for some deadly attacks in recent years.
“This may be the event that helps to mobilise the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organisation that’s perpetrated such a terrible crime”.
Obama said the White House is “sending in a team made up of our military, and law enforcement and other experts and we’re very glad that Nigeria’s accepted the help.
”We’ve long sought to work with Nigeria on dealing with them and we’re going to do everything we can to assist them in recovering these young women,” the president said, adding that more work is needed in targeting the group.
“More broadly though, we’re going to have to really tackle a pernicious problem inside that country, an organization that has carried out ruthless attacks and killed thousands of people over the last several years.
Obama’s comments echo those of Secretary of State John Kerry who spoke with President Jonathan affirmed that Jonathan welcomed the offer of U.S. aid.
The United Kingdom through its Foreign Secretary, William Hague also pledged, “Britain is offering assistance, but of course the primary responsibility will rest with the Nigerians, and I hope they will do what is necessary to reunite these girls with their families.
“Using girls as the spoils of war and the spoils of terrorism is disgusting and immoral. It should show everybody across the world that they should not give any support for such a vile organisation’.
British Prime Minister, David Cameron, described the abduction as a “pure act of evil”, reiterating the commitment of his country to lend security intelligence and equipment to find the girls.
French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, told Reuters on Wednesday that “the President has instructed that we put the intelligence services at the disposal of Nigeria and neighbouring countries. This morning he asked us to contact the Nigerian President to tell him that a specialised unit with all the means we have in the region was at the disposal of Nigeria to help find and recover these young girls.”
China became the latest country to pledge assistance to Nigeria on Wednesday in its fight against terror.
Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang promised that his country will make any useful information acquired by its satellites and intelligence services available to Nigeria’s security agencies.
“Mr. Keqiang assured the President that China will support Nigeria’s fight against terrorism in every possible way, including the training of military personnel for anti-insurgency operations”, Abati confirmed.
Canada on its part has pledged to supply Nigeria with surveillance equipment and technical expertise to help Nigeria find the girls.
Nearing the end of Boko Haram?
With the world joining hands with Nigeria to secure the release of the girls, stakeholders are already optimistic that the end of Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria is nearing to a halt.
The Federal Government had insisted on several occasions that it was winning the war against the global trend of terrorism, but the recent attacks has again done nothing more than cast doubts on its claims.
President Jonathan in his remarks at the just-concluded, World Economic Forum Africa in Abuja, was optimistic that the search for the girls will lead to the end of insurgency in Nigeria.
“As a nation we are facing attack from terrorism, I believe that the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria”, the president pledged.
But the nation could do much with the aid being offered from nations that have fought terrorism to a standstill to launch an onslaught to uncover the mystery behind the Boko Haram sect that has held parts of the nation siege for close to five years.
The hope of the parents of the girls, Nigerians and indeed the rest of the world, however, in the coming days will be that the foreign assistance will first translate to the safe rescue of the abducted girls.
But while they wait, yet again, they will be resigned to the option of hoping and praying that the search and rescue party return home with some good news.