by Adesewa Josh
In the middle of the night on April 14th 2014, Boko Haram militants raided a local secondary school in Chibok town, Borno state, North East Nigeria. More than 200 teenage girls were abducted from the school dormitory; it took about 48 hours before the incident was reported in the local media.
“What we heard was something like a bomb blast and rattling gunshots at about 10:30 in the evening,” said Dr Manasseh Allen, the spokesperson of Chibok community, in a telephone interview. “That was how we knew we were under attack. But the school was on the outskirts of the village, so we didn’t hear about the abduction till the following morning.”
On hearing the news, parents of the missing girls and other members of the community sent out on a search and rescue mission. However, weeks of rigorous search proved futile as conflicting accounts of the incident raised questions about the abduction.
Even so, four days after the abduction, on April 18th, the former Minister of Education, Dr Oby Ezekwezili, was attending a book launch in Port harcourt, the capital city of River state in Nigeria’s south
region. In a stirring speech about the girl-child education in Nigeria, she made reference to the abduction of the Chibok girls. At the end of her speech, she asked everyone in the auditorium to get on their feet in solidarity with the girls, in demand of their release. In unison they chanted “Bring Back Our Daughters!” “Bring Back Our Girls!!”
A lawyer, Abubakar Ibrahim, who was apparently present at the book launch, tweeted with the hashtag “BringBackOurGirls” for the first time on social media. His tweet gained traction as more people retweeted the hashtag. This phrase eventually became the call to action mantra of the movement.
“I’ve been tweeting on so many hashtags that didn’t fly,” said Ibrahim. “But when I used the phrase ‘bring back our girls’, many people retweeted. If you think about it, everyone has a girl in their life. It felt as if something had been stolen from all of us that needed to be brought back.”
Word spread quickly about the credibility and sophistication of the movement and by April 30th, the group took their demands to the nation’s capital, Abuja. They converged on one of Nigeria’s most strategic and symbolic locations: The Unity Fountain—which showcases the country’s unity, with states depicted in an alphabetical order. They marched from the fountain to the National Assembly chanting “Bring Back Our Girls” and carrying placards with the same inscription. With determination, the protesters stomped the streets of Abuja; moved with the rhythm of a heavy downpour, which only toughened their resolve to take their demands to the lawmakers.
“We were united on the basis of our shared humanity,” said Ezekwezili, who led the defiant protesters to the National Assembly. “When we returned to the Unity Fountain, there and then we decided this must continue until the girls are brought back and everyone agreed.” The Unity Fountain eventually became the movement’s meeting site where sit-ins are conducted even today.
In a country factionalized along ethnic and religious lines, the BBOG movement defied all odds. It provided a united front for many Nigerians, home and abroad, to protest the belligerence of the Boko Haram sect beyond the usual ethno-religious and socio-political sentiments that many similar civil campaigns have been subjected to in the past. It was one of the very few moments the country has been united over a social issue.
“As a mother, I feel deeply connected to the pains of the parents of the Chibok girls,” said Evon Idahosa, a legal practitioner from Nigeria’s southern region. “I saw the abduction as a war on girls’ education, not as a northern problem. It was simply a national disaster.” Idahosa, who is based in New York City and is an activist against gender-based violence, has been at the forefront of organising rallies and protests in the city.
Back home, voluntary participation proved effective enough to sustain the movement for months. Protests sprang across states like Lagos, Edo, Borno, Kaduna, Kano, Zamfara, Oyo and Jos. The various protests began to collaborate with one another to form an entity and to unify their claims. They include workers, middle income earners, civil servants, students and many self-employed people. They adopted the colour red for the movement, one which they wear at every rally, march, and negotiation with the government.
They made lapel pins; wristbands, head gears, T-shirts and other items with “BringBackOurGirls” printed on all the items, wore them to work and to the rallies in solidarity for the movement. Those who could not physically join the protests were encouraged to wear any of the BringBackOurGirls items to identify with the cause. This continued as the movement gained momentum on social media as celebrities and social influencers home and abroad continued to tweet about the abduction using #BringBackOurGirls or #BBOG. The globalization of the movement simply began on social media.
“I was happy to see that someone was finally listening to us.” said Ibrahim whose desire to have Boko Haram brought to justice was apparent throughout our phone conversation. “This time, not just the Nigerian government but the rest of the world.”
A Divided Polity
At first, local authorities questioned the veracity of the claims that 276 girls could be kidnapped from a school compound in an operation that reportedly lasted 4-hours, according to eyewitness accounts. Sceptics questioned the logic of the scale of the abduction, including how it was possible for the insurgents to escape from the town into a forest, hundreds of kilometres away from the village without being noticed or accosted by security personnel. The news was perceived to be a hoax until parents of the missing girls began to protest.
“The logicality of kidnapping 276 girls all at once raised questions about the abduction,” said Bukky Shonibare, strategic team member for the #BringBackOurGirls Movement, in a telephone phone interview. “These are not bottled water or match boxes you count and stuff in a car and drive away, we are talking about human beings and till today many still find it hard to believe that such massive abduction could have happened in the country.”
The confusion continued in the first two weeks of the incident because of the opposing claims by the parents of the girls and the Chibok community on the one hand, versus the military and the government on the other hand. The military, in a press release, said some of the girls had been rescued, while the media, based on their findings from the Chibok community, insisted that only a few of the girls had escaped from the terrorists. This led to a dilly-dallying of a proposed military-led rescue effort by the federal government.
“One of the reasons for the lukewarm approach of the government to rescuing the girls was because the kidnapping was perceived as a political distraction perpetrated by the opposition ahead of the 2015 general elections,” said Shonibare.
Weeks went by, and yet no one could tell the whereabouts of the girls, including the federal government. By this time, Nigerians began to feel that the government was incompetent and irresponsible and that it was treating the abduction and recovery of the girls with kid gloves. Supporters of the incumbent president even alleged the abduction was a political move to deter President Goodluck Jonathan from getting re-elected.
“The president was too busy fending off the opposition ahead of the elections,” said Ezekwesili. “The Chibok parents needed their government to be responsive but their cry fell on deaf ears”
The Chibok girls’ abduction appeared to be the final straw for many Nigerians in the series of attacks by Boko Haram, which had claimed thousands of lives since the group first struck in 2002. The restlessness of advocacy groups comprising parents, guardians and concerned citizens over the government’s trivialization of the issue—in some cases politicization—at the expense of the testimonies of the parents of the missing girls resulted in the massive street protests.
Provocation and Validation
It wasn’t all cozy and rosy for the BBOG movement– like every movement demanding accountability from the state, it faced its fair share of resistance from the government. Resistance came in form of discrediting the leaders of the movement as a decoy group sponsored by the opposition.
“The Jonathan administration called us unimaginable names,” said Ezekwesili. “They hired a Washington-based PR company to hurl dirt at us in the media, but we remained resolved”
On September 6th 2016, under the Buhari administration, protest was disrupted by the Nigeria police while members marched to the presidential villa from the Unity Fountain. Shonibare, who led that protest, presented the permit obtained from the police ahead of the demonstrations. The police cited security reasons and refused the protesters access to the villa. The Buhari administration was finally becoming weary of the demands from a movement that would stop at nothing.
On Oct. 16th 2016, news broke that 21 of the missing Chibok girls had been released through a negotiation brokered by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Tears of joy and songs of jubilation pierced the air as the parents of the released girls and those of the ones still in captivity shared a moment they had dreamt about many times for more than two years since the kidnapping.
“Everybody knows what Boko Haram is capable of,” said Allen. “But to see the girls re-unite with their mothers after being forced to live with those savages for more than 2years is a moment I cannot begin to describe to you.”
The re-unification was televised. It was an opportunity for many who doubted the abduction to rethink their cynicism. Seeing the mothers and the girls weep and hug one another defied any premeditated theatrics. Finally, the scenario won over many sceptics.
“We are vindicated, and no longer will anyone challenge our claims that 276 girls were abducted on April 14th,” said the leader of the Bring Back Our Girls Movement. “This is partial victory for the movement because we vowed not to stop till all of them are released.”
On May the 6th 2017, 82 more Chibok girls were released. They were re-united with their parents after undergoing a rehabilitation program put together by the Buhari government. More than 100 of them are still in captivity. If anyone still doubted the story of the missing girls or the legitimacy of the movement, they did so in the privacy of their homes.