*‘Our struggle in the face of intimidation’
By Clifford Ndujihe, Dapo Akinrefon & Charles Kumolu
Former Education Minister and leader of the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign, Mrs Oby Ezekwesili, visited the Lagos Head office of the Vanguard Newspapers, last week, with some members of her group in what can be described as a sustained move to rescue the over 219 Chibok school girls, who were abducted on April 14 by the Boko Haram insurgents. Ezekwesili, who cried for over five minutes during a chat with Vanguard senior editors, said she and her group would not stop the campaign until the girls were rescued. She dismissed as balderdash insinuations that joblessness is responsible for her campaign, and the campaign is politically-motivated and being funded by opponents of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Federal Government. With her during the visit were Mrs Wonu Folami (former Lagos State Attorney General), Mrs Sekinat Yusuf (former Lagos education commissioner), Maureen Iyasele, Dr M. Adefeso and Debola Williams among others.
How bring back our girls campaign started
To get our young people under policy issues I have to interact with them in a language they understand, so I am much into social media. In April, I tweeted on Monday morning, Monday was the 14th , on what could be done to contain the Boko Haram insurgency and by the evening over 500 suggestions had been tweeted. And so the next morning, people continued to tweet. It wasn’t until about 1 O’clock that I saw something on BBC saying over 100 girls were abducted from a school in Borno. And I thought this had to be a joke. So I then tweeted on that news and I said, ‘is anyone out there in Borno able to confirm whether this report I am picking up from BBC is accurate?’ And then people began to respond and said yes, they heard that some abduction happened.
So I started tweeting and saying can the Federal Government, can the military, can our security confirm whether the girls have indeed been abducted in Borno state? There was no word. That was all of the 15th. The 16th I continued tweeting, it wasn’t until the 17th that we got a press release from the military. The press release said some number of girls were abducted, we have rescued some number of them and only about eight are missing. And I was like over the moon, I praised our military, I rejoiced and congratulated them. And then some of these young ones on twitter said ‘Aunty, what are you congratulating them for? It is not true.’
I said, ‘what do you mean it is not true? Have we become so down as a nation that you don’t even believe our institutions like the military?’ They said, ‘Aunty, which military? We don’t believe it is true. Aunty stop celebrating, they haven’t rescued anybody.’ I was so angry at the young ones.
Part of why I am on twitter is this whole engagement on the matter of engaging in public policy, you must do it on the basis of verifiable evidence. I teach public policy through my twitter account and most of them follow it. I couldn’t commit to doing this in the classroom setting as I was asked. But my son said, ‘Mum, you can use your twitter account and you will teach more people than can come into the classroom.’
So when these children were very cynical and unbelieving, very distressful of what they’ve heard, I picked on them and I said, ‘our social capital cannot be allowed to derogate so badly that you cannot believe one of the most important institutions. Don’t let your distrust get to this point.’
They said, ‘okay we hope you don’t get to regret this.’
It was like they were right. For the next two days, there was no word. By the19th there was word from the Defence headquarters and the word was basically we are wrong, we are sorry, this was a wrong information. It was so embarrassing.
But guess what, to show you the spirit of the engagement on this matter, I immediately picked up on that and said, ‘all right, maybe we can come back to this later but I think everybody ought to support our military to go in full force to find our girls. They need to trace these girls and to bring them back, that is the most important thing right now.’
And I began to tweet encouragement to inspire to say we must just go after this people and get the girls back. Then after that, the embarrassment was a bit too much. No word again, everything was quiet. I continued to tweet on the matter. In fact, I established a new # tag and I called it ‘Where are our 85 daughters?’
I said we must stand in solidarity with these Chibok girls that have been missing for almost 10 days and there is no word on their rescue and that we must all stand. And they stood. I said to the whole world, ‘please join us in declaring bring back our girls and that is how bring back our girls went virile on social media.
So, we agreed to do the march on April 30 and on that day, we were out at Unity Fountain, Abuja and people came. People just read about it and walked up to become part of it. That was the genesis of the bring back our girls. On that April 30, we had more women but a number of men also came and we marched to the National Assembly.
By then, we had written the leadership of the National Assembly to say to them, ‘have you not heard that some girls are missing?’ Nobody was speaking from government and nobody had a clear cut of what we were up against.
The National Assembly leadership was open to receiving us but when we marched and the crowd was much, they decided to come out and meet us. It was a day in Abuja that it rained cats and dogs and both ourselves and the leadership of the National Assembly led by Senator David Mark that came to meet us were soaked beyond measure. But people were motivated and said we will not let this pass again and so, they engaged and promised us that they were going to meet with the president that evening and that they were going to raise all the concerns that we brought to them.
Afterwards, we all marched to the Unity Fountain and I said to the crowd that there were two options we had.
Option one was to say that we have spoken with the leadership of the National Assembly, they have promised that they will go and talk to the president, we can all go home and see what will happen. Then, once we have information, we can send to all of you.
The second option was we could come back tomorrow and basically identify other important points in our security apparatus and find out what exactly was going on. The people said, ‘we are coming back tomorrow until the girls come back.’
Basically, that was how those who came on April 30 came back and we began to identify key agencies that we could engage in. We wrote the Chief of Defence Staff, we had meetings with them. We wrote to the presidency in order to have a meeting with them but the presidency delegated it. That was the process and frankly speaking, the engagement of the citizens, for me, was amazing. One thing became our common bond, the Chibok girls and that was how we became a movement.
Part of what I believe made everyone stick with the issue was that even though April 30 was nearly three weeks after the abduction, there was no ownership of that problem by our government. There was a complete lack of interest. There was no expression of concern. There was indifference, The next thing that was appalling was that the blame game was going on and that made the Citizens Group to say we are going to stay on this matter until action is taken.
My summary is that that period of engagement, we considered to be our phase one engagement because that phase was to create awareness that these girls are missing. If people are not realising it, those girls are missing, parents were coming forward to say their children that they sent to school, were missing. So surely, the girls were missing.
Secondly, if people have got that consciousness that these girls are missing, it was important that the entity that has the power and authority to do something about it, should be compelled to act in order to rescue the girls. That first phase enabled us achieve that awareness creation, both within and without our nation because the rest of the world bought into it.
The second thing was the pressure for our government to engage, awaken our government to engage. Now the second phase is where precise action is being taken to ensure our ultimate objective, which is that 219 girls, as validated by the Presidential fact finding committee, to be missing from a secondary school in Chibok, to be rescued. What specific action has our government taken?
As we are doing this, nobody is paid to do anything. We are simply expressing this sense that we cannot be a society that would move on when 219 human beings that could be saved are out there in the den of terrorists. The rest of the world wondered about us, many people could not believe that as Nigerians, we were just carrying on with 219 children held up in the den of terrorists.
Why we are visiting Vanguard
Our visit is to engage the Fourth Estate of the realm other than the three arms of government that are known in any democracy. We are here on a media advocacy. The key issue is that these girls are out there in the wild with people that endanger their existence every second that we waste and we think that there is a sense of urgency that these girls are the primary focus of our government.
In the course of our engagement, we were able to collate a 10- point action on the citizens’ solution to end terrorism.
We came out of compassion and that is one of the reasons we are here. If the media performs its role in enlightenment and getting people involved, it will not be difficult because we do not have the capacity to get as many people involved as the media. We are hoping that what propelled us to come out will propel others to come out.
I’m not jobless
One of the strangest things that I said to myself was, am I ready to pay the cost of advocating for these girls? I know that I am prepared to pay the price for this project. I have heard some people say that I am jobless. I am not jobless. Oby Ezekwesili is not jobless because I work as an economic adviser to a number of African governments. I go to their countries and I live in their countries on a quarterly basis. I had to put it on hold for it not to be said that over 200 girls went to school and disappeared and I just carried on as if nothing happened.
I just put myself in the position that if my daughter had been abducted; I do not have daughters, I have three sons; if my child was part of the girls missing, would I just move on? Not everybody can enter into this conversation the way we have entered. Rather than the people who don’t care about this issue saying “thank God there are some who care”, they spend their time attacking those who are showing empathy. Why is that so?
What I say to people is ‘should it ever happen to you, based on this decision we have taken, we would come and stand for you and your child. We will do it over and over again. It is simply a statement that no longer should be a Nigerian society that will say the other person’s pain is their pain, let them deal with it. How can we be a nation like that? It is the absence of empathy that creates the basis for the kind of policy choices that end up impoverishing the people.
So you can widen that conversation as much as you like but the loss of empathy as a people is essentially what we are challenging. These girls cannot be another event that occurred in Nigeria.
On weak foreign assistance
We have been told often by the countries that have offered to assist (US, UK, China, France, Canada, Australia and Israel) that this is a Nigerian problem. It is your government that must give the status report of the rescue operation.
They only came to assist, they did not come to take over the problem. I think the only important group that needs to keep pressing this point is the media. You cannot abdicate your responsibility to another country.
In international relationship, other countries come to support, especially on matters that have humanitarian implications. Terrorism is a global scourge, there is no border that closes against the terrorist any more, people feel that you must share in the problem. That does not mean that these countries will now take over a Nigerian problem. So, when we ask them for updates that is the response they give.
Then, the group (anti-bring back our girls protest) that was asked to come and move us out of Unity Fountain; that was one of my saddest days in Nigeria. It was an incredible mix of people. For me, the pain was that the parents of these Chibok girls were of the same social class. They began to dance around and called us Boko Haram. And then, I saw young men who came to beat up our group. When they got close to me, there was something that restrained them. So, they could only push, took handbags and broke chairs that we used.
But afterwards they started fighting because those that were supposed to come and give them money had taken off with most of it.
Is your group politically motivated, if not how have you tried to insulate politics from what the movement has been doing?
There is absolutely no political motivation in the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. That is why I took time to explain to you how it emerged. There was absolutely no conversation concerning politics. As many of you would know, I am not a politician. I am so politically neutral. My focus has been that the political class alone, has a major role to play in how it has engaged in matters of governance in this country. That has always been my premise. Some of you engaged with me when I served as a minister in the government of today’s ruling party. I was the same person. Even within the government of this same party, I was considered a renegade because of my views.
Coming up with due process was sort of an irritation to the political class. They called me names in the past. So there is nothing different with the same names they are calling me now. It was simply because I dealt with a challenge that was the prevalent orientation and attitude then.
So, there is no conversation and nothing political about this movement. It is an orchestrated attempt or perhaps an orchestrated strategy to malign a compassion-driven advocacy by citizens.
We have tried to insulate it from politics by being the open movement that we are. It is as open as you can imagine. Anybody that walks into the Unity Fountain, is automatically a member of the Bring Back Our Girls campaign. So how can that be a politically manipulated group? Maybe it is such a strange thing for people to connect with the fact that there are Nigerians among us, who are ready to challenge what is happening. I am very analytical so, I don’t get into spacious conversations.
What is needed to say, is what is the cost that Bring Back Our Girls needs to incure to necessitate funding? We have not received any funding and we are not planning of receiving any funding. It is purely citizens-driven. There is no need for fund. And even if there were need for fund, it will be contradicting to the ideals of the movement to solicit for funds. It is not something that has happened and not something that can ever happen. It is just a campaign of calumny purely targeted at a citizens’campaign for the release of the girls.
The way out
In asking us the question of what to be done since the girls are reported to have been scattered, you are encouraging the government to abdicate its responsibilities. It is our government that has the absolute monopoly of coercive apparatus. It is our government that has the command and control of the security infrastructure in this country. The citizens are not the ones to provide intricate details of how to rescue the girls.
What we know is that there three options in an abduction situation. You either militarily rescue the girls or you engage in a negotiation and dialogue that could be on the basis of multiple objectives shared between you and the party that abducted the girls until you come to a place of agreement about bringing your targets out of activity. The third one could be a mix of the two, which is military and dialogue.
The Federal Government is constitutionally responsible to bring back the girls. The constitution gives it the mandate and the resources to be able to do that. And schedule 2 of our constitution spelt out the primary duty of government. We have no business talking with the governor of Borno State or the kidnappers.
We are acting on what the constitution said because the command and control of security apparatus does not belong to anybody other than the federal government. When you do an advocacy, you advocate to the person who has the power to do something about the cause you are advocating for. That is the reason. It is not borne out of any malice. Empirical evidence and the constitution deposit the powers to rescue the girls in them (federal government).
Between rescuing the girls and combating the insurgency as a whole
I don’t think there is a conflict between rescuing the girls and the larger insurgency problem. The problems are interwoven. As matter of fact, while we are determined to ask the federal government to rescue the girls is that a successful rescue of the girls will be an awesome signal to the terrorists that Nigeria will not allow them run the country over. That would have sent the sharpest signal ever to the enemies of our country that Nigeria will put its best in ensuring that our territorial integrity and the dignity of our citizens will not in anyway be compromised by everybody. We of the Bring Back Our Girls Movement have decided that we shall not let the matter be.
On the girls not being the same again
Of course, even the 57 that rescued themselves by escaping are not the same. They are traumatised. One of the 57 girls made me cry during the period that Malala visited. During the conversation that she was having with her fellow 17 year old, she said to Malala that she would really want her friends rescued and that there is one important reason they must be rescued. She said there is one that is her closest friend and that she can longer go to see her parents because the parents usually ask why she did not come with their daughter. She said she felt so guilty, adding that she told her to escape with her but her friend was afraid of doing that.
So you can see that this girl is out but she is not the same again. But that should not be a reason to say therefore, let them stay in captivity. They can’t stay there. That is not their home. They belong to their parents and Nigeria. Many of you can understand that as a former Minister of Education in Nigeria, girl child education in the North was a major focus during my tenure. Now, the girls went to school and 200 of them were kidnapped and all we are discussing are frivolous and irrelevant issues. Do we know who we could have among these girls? We could have a brilliant person that could make all the difference. Yet we want to move on without them. How can we move on?
How we fund our campaign and the challenges
At Falomo Roundabout in Lagos, we have flags with the names of all the missing girls. We did that through donations from members but we woke up one morning and found them missing. Before we put them, I called the Commissioner for Environment, who said there was no problem with that. I called him back that contrary to our agreement, the flags had disappeared. He said the government of Lagos State had nothing to do with that. He said that Lagos State government is in charge of that Roundabout, that we should replace them. We did and up till this moment the flags are still there. However, it showed the extent of the animosity certain quarters have against the movement. I have said it that government has the apparatus to investigate the inflow of funds into any account. If there is any evidence of any body taking money, they should bring it forward. It does not have to cost money to do what we are doing. It rather cost us our time. We are concerned because if we were not, we should have been lying down on our beds. We should all be asking about these girls irrespective of our political leaning. Nigerians are not used to having this kind of movement. It is just unbelievable how we have been able to sustain this. A lot of us a re not from Borno, yet we still come out for these girls.
There was also an incident in Birnin Yadi where boys were slaughtered and a set of girls were taken away. And the government did nothing about that. I am here because I don’t think the abduction is right and I want the girls to be brought back. We can’t just sit down and keep praying for the girls to be out. That is not possible because we need to come out and talk. We are doing it out of empathy and we will not stop until our girls are brought back. And then anybody that wants to believe that we are being funded should believe what he wants to believe. No body can fund this. There is nothing to fund, we are doing thing because of our conviction. It is high time that we Nigerians stand up for what we believe in. It is wrong for most reports to focus on the campaign groups. The girls should be the focus. The singularity of our purpose is to Bring Back Our Girls. No other issue matters in that conversation. We feel very bad when people say that we are funded. I feel so when people say that we are being funded, When has it become a crime to ask a question?