LONG READ: What the #BringBackOurGirls movement says about all of us

For four years since 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped in a federal government secondary school in Chibok, Borno by Boko Haram terrorists, a group of concerned Nigerians have gathered under the aegis of the #BringBackOurGirls group to force pressure on the government and its officials to do right by the citizens they serve.

The #BBOG movement was born out of necessity.

As the country watched the Goodluck Jonathan administration sit helplessly and disinterestedly while the terrorists put considerable distance between their captives and any possible hope of freedom, the #BBOG group, outraged by the passivity of government and the audacity of the terrorists, started a campaign to demand action.

As Nigerian preoccupations go, the #BBOG movement has been useful, if not entirely successful. Activities steadily gained momentum both online and offline and the result was an overwhelming global outpouring of support for a single cause, a phenomenon unusual in these parts.

Former United States first ladies Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton joined the #BBOG chorus, so did Hollywood royalty Angelina Jolie and Anne Hathaway. Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize winner who was shot by the Taliban for attending school, sought kinship with the abducted girls and visited President Buhari in Aso Rock.

Led initially by former minister of education, Obiagaeli Ezekwesili and Hadiza Bala-Usman – now managing director of the Nigerian Ports Authority – the #BBOG group organised daily sit outs advocating the release of the missing girls. Attracting thousands of people and spawning similar gatherings and protests across the country, the #BBOG group of concerned citizens kept the pressure up and forced the world to pay attention.

L-R: Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili and Hadiza Bala-Usman

This advocacy has had the group engage severally with government officials, forcing commitment and maybe the slightest tinge of empathy out of different administrations that turned out to be merely two sides of the same coin.

The #BBOG campaign has been impactful, sustaining hope alive on behalf of parents who would otherwise remain voiceless. Over hundred girls have been returned to their families and the annual Chibok Girls Lecture has been institutionalised to keep the issue on the front burner of (inter)national discourse. The Goodluck Jonathan administration fell, partly because of its hapless handling of the Chibok tragedy and paucity of competence in prosecuting the war on terror.

Burning passion and sexy hashtags are great while they last but alas, are not enough to keep an issue on the global stage past its sell by date. Four years after, the #BBOG group has remained consistently focused on a single demand, that every one of the missing girls be brought home, alive preferably. Members have come and gone, as the political atmosphere changed. Sit outs have dwindled to the Abuja and Lagos cells but the core message has remained.

Aisha Yesufu, co-covener, BBOG

The idea that people unrelated by any medium other than a shared empathy for fellow human beings scarred by loss, can band together to speak up and demand action from everyone concerned is the one indelible lesson of the #BBOG movement. And it is a worthy and life-affirming one. It is also one that flies in the face of a consensus, built over decades of unyielding hardship and damage to the collective psyche, that the average Nigerian has a short lifespan and encouraged by groupthink, is primed to move on to the next major source of outrage as soon as soon as one is unveiled.

The ability to see matters through to a thorough and logical conclusion is a quality that tends to elude even the most well-meaning of citizens, brought up on accepting compromises, making excuses and a general aversion to the rigour of excellence. This may partly explain why our universities and research facilities are merely breeding grounds for ill-equipped students, nurtured by half-formed lecturers. It may be why even the most basic of government policies are birthed with fanfare but dumped as soon as they meet the first wall of resistance, why scaling up local businesses remains a nightmare, and why genuine leaders, especially in the political space are so hard to come by.

In societies with a deep and abiding respect for human life and the rights of every single citizen, the #BBOG group would at best, be supported and encouraged to thrive. At worst they would be ignored, largely left to their own devices.

Show of shame

Advocacy isn’t glamorous work and while members of the #BBOG group may have expected challenges like supporters fatigue and doubting Thomases bent on ridiculing their efforts, it is doubtful anything could have prepared them to expect hostile treatment from the government, from security institutions as well as from the very Nigerians whose interests they have been advocating for.

The continued deployment of armed police presence to the #BBOG sit outs has been particularly distressing and does not reflect positively on the leadership of the police force, or the government. In a just world, these nameless, faceless activists – and their more famous leaders – who find time to show up daily, come rain or shine, would be regarded as national treasures, and appreciated for their service to the nation.

Obiageli Ezekwesili delivers a speech to the police wall

Instead, they have suffered for their efforts.

While the world’s gaze was still settled on Nigeria, four years back, a show of shame unfolded at the Unity Fountain, Abuja that in retrospect, was merely a primer of things to come. Unknown elements, surely hired hands of anti-democratic agents stormed the protest grounds and with the subtle collusion of policemen in uniform, went about causing havoc, and pouncing violently on the #BringBackOurGirls protesters. Arriving in SURE-P buses in uniforms tallying suspiciously with the government’s short-lived #ReleaseOurGirls message, the obviously rented crowd of mayhem makers went on a spree of breaking bottles, seizing cameras and petty thieving.

Deeply suspicious, Jonathan and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) tended to dismiss the #BBOG group as the advocacy arm of the then opposition All Progressives Congress (APC). After both parties traded places in 2017, the situation got even worse. The Buhari administration tried to engage with the protesters, going as far as inviting representatives to join government officials on a search sortie to Sambisa forest.

L-R: Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili, Aisha Yesufu and military officers during the Sambisa search sortie

When it became clear the movement wouldn’t be wished away until every last girl has been accounted for, government moved towards the hostile end of the spectrum and security officials were drafted in to obstruct the regular sit outs. Undeterred, the group continued to peacefully go about their activities, at risk to health and life. They have suffered push backs, arrests, violence and tear gas attacks while an uninterested nation watches helplessly.

Dead inside

The Nigerian reality for decades has been that governments fail at both primary and secondary purposes. The Chibok girls saga is merely a continuation of this ugly tradition. It takes an incredible amount of cynicism to function in Nigerian society and everyone regardless of station in life is afflicted. Politicians talk a good game during election cycles but once victory is secured, do everything else possible under the sun except make living easier for the electorate.

This chronic detachment by politicians and government officials from the reality of the average citizen has sadly come to be imbibed and even accepted by generations of Nigerians such that those who make the barest minimum of efforts are celebrated as leading lights.

Before Chibok, there was Buni Yadi. On 24, February 2014, at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, 59 students of the Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, a community in Yobe, were slaughtered in cold blood. Terrorists attacked the school late at night far from the gaze of security operatives, and destroyed all of the school buildings. The Buni Yadi massacre was considerably more violent than Chibok and should have been enough to make a country protective of its vulnerable population reconsider its internal security strategy.

Media reports were followed by sufficient citizen outrage but there was as usual, silence from government quarters. In his first media appearance following the massacre, President Jonathan spent the greater part unveiling plans for a centenary celebration and plugging his national conference. Before long the dead boys were forgotten, consigned to history. There was no one to demand justice on their behalf.

This would have been the fate of the Chibok girls had the #BBOG group not stepped forward to force government’s hand. Nigeria has sadly become that country. One where human lives are considered expendable and each fresh tragedy is greeted with a shrug. These days, a half-hearted condemnation, usually from an aide is the best government response one can hope for, then it is back to other pressing manners.

Some governments respond to tragedies like Buni Yadi by humanising the victims and keeping their stories alive, others demand some ball dropping official’s resignation while paying visits to the bereaved. The really functional ones ensure no stone is unturned as the perpetrators are brought to face the wrath of the law.

For Nigerians, there is a lack of conviction from the government so heinous it really should be criminal. For the better part of three years, the middle belt region has been a theatre of violence and bloodletting. Murderous villains have been on the prowl travelling from one village to the other, causing death and destruction in their wake. The nation wakes up almost daily to clashes between farmers and herdsmen.

Some of these clashes are multifactorial with social, religious and economic dimensions yet no lucid response from government that hints at an understanding of the big picture has emerged. Security forces have no way of anticipating or thwarting the next attack and continue to provide limp responses.

Like Jonathan, like Buhari, like Obasanjo

Whenever President Buhari is bothered enough to be rallied to commiserate with victims, his words offer little hope, his body language even less. Coming on the heels of a Jonathan presidency with security as its Achilles hill, Buhari has turned out to be yet another Commander-in-Chief incapable of securing lives on his watch.

Little wonder his Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris had no qualms flouting a presidential issue directing him to move to Benue, where killings have gone on uninterrupted. There has been no repercussion. The Minister of Defense, Mansur Dan-Ali appears to be hopelessly overwhelmed, the army doesn’t quite understand terms of engagement and the slaughters have gone on largely unchecked with families of victims resigned to the reality that the pain and the deaths have all been in vain. No one talks about fighting with their last blood to bring perpetrators to justice.

There is some precedence to this kind of behaviour. In 2002, Olusegun Obasanjo went to the Ikeja military cantonment in Lagos, site of explosions that killed over 1,000 persons and displaced many more. ‘’Must I be here?’’ the then President of the federal republic mocked the rightfully bad-tempered victims. Twelve years later, Jonathan danced at a Kano rally hours after a bomb blast in Nyanya killed 75 people. Buhari has not taken any responsibility for the security issues in the country’s middle best and in April didn’t let a Benue attack stop him from a campaign-related visit to Bauchi.

It is one thing to blame the politicians for constantly dropping the ball but surely, they are a merely representative of the larger society. People deserve the leadership they get and the truth is that government folks wouldn’t behave so irresponsibly if the people didn’t make it so easy for them to get away with such behaviour.

Occupying Nigeria

If there is one lesson to be learnt from the #BBOG, it is that Nigerian lives must matter irrespective of socio-economic class, tribe or religion and only Nigerians can demand this right for themselves. The political class has proved it is incapable of caring for anyone except for themselves. So it is up to regular citizens to come together to demand to be treated with decency. Danger to one citizen is danger to everyone and the society has to evolve to a place where everyone understands this clearly.

The #BBOG group has taken on one of the most difficult jobs to follow through on Nigerian soil, advocating for some of the least powerful persons in society. But for the team to see through their mandate, Nigerians have to rally round to provide much-needed support.

Not everyone is going to show up daily at Unity Fountain, or at Falomo roundabout and it would be unreasonable to expect any different. Not everyone is going to march with the group to keep government officials on their toes even though it is important that this continues to happen. But as many people as possible can keep the faith in the littlest of ways.

#BBOG does not accept donations, rightly so as money isn’t likely to be useful in ultimately delivering the missing girls home. But the media has a role to play in shining a light on the group’s activities even when nothing newsworthy happens to be going on. The fact that four years on, the group continues to be resolute in their demands, despite a hostile response from government and security operatives is in itself something of a win. And it busts the myth that Nigerians have a short attention span when it comes to focusing on social issues. Sustained media coverage, through all the activities is hugely important.

At its core, the #BringBackOurGirls group reinforces the best of the human spirit, and that spirit is Nigerian. There is plenty to be despondent about Nigeria today, but #BBOG throws up just as many reasons to be hopeful. The uncompromising demand that no one be left behind, the peaceful but forceful demand for accountability and transparency, the unwillingness to bend the knee to intimidation and the fearlessness in speaking truth to power. With  #BBOG, citizens stepping forward to advocate has never seemed so important. It is a good thing they aren’t for turning.

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