By Ola Awoniyi
The 219 schoolgirls who marched through Nigeria’s capital on Tuesday said they will never tire of fighting for the rights of their kidnapped “sisters” who cannot speak for themselves.
Each girl carried a placard bearing the name of one of the hostages still missing after they were kidnapped by Boko Haram Islamist militants in the northeast town of Chibok one year ago.
“Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days and we are still calling out loud and clear, stronger than ever,” said Rebecca Ishaku, one of the marchers, who have been dubbed “Chibok Ambassadors”, on the first anniversary of the kidnapping.
“We will not get tired of calling for the release of our sisters,” she said.
The group began its march at the Unity Fountain in central Abuja, where members of the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) campaign have met nearly every day since May.
It was one of several demonstrations held across the world, from a girls school in New Zealand to Paris, with plans in place to light up the Empire State Building in New York later on Tuesday.
The BBOG group, with its corresponding Twitter campaign, was largely responsible for calling the world’s attention to the mass abduction in Chibok, which came to symbolise the brutality of Boko Haram’s six-year uprising.
In the early weeks, the campaign gained momentum through support from US First Lady Michelle Obama, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, world leaders and pop stars.
But even as the initial media firestorm faded, BBOG activists continued to gather each afternoon, demanding action from a Nigerian government accused of downplaying the hostage crisis for political reasons.
They faced violence from police and plain-clothed thugs, who sought to clear them out of the Unity Fountain park overlooked by the Transcorp Hilton, where Nigeria’s political and business ultra-elite gather for meetings.
Maureen Kabrik, a BBOG organiser, said she lay awake last night wondering if the girls even knew it had been a year since their abduction.
“Do they have a calendar that tells them how long they have been taken?… They have spent Sallah (Eid), Easter, Christmas with their abductors. It’s painful,” she told AFP.
Nigeria’s president-elect Muhammadu Buhari on Tuesday cautioned he could not make promises on the return of the 219 missing schoolgirls.
But he has vowed to combat Boko Haram more effectively than outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan whom he will succeed on May 29.
– An ‘assault on humanity’ –
The Chibok ambassadors, ranging in age from seven to 17, all wore red t-shirts synonomous with the BBOG campaign and chanted its trademark slogan.
“Bring back our girls, now and alive,” they demanded as they converged on the education ministry.
After being held briefly outside the gate, they met with ministry officials to restate the group’s core message.
“We ask that the government, as a matter of priority, make education safe in all parts of Nigeria while prioritising the return of our sisters,” Ishaku said.
Tears were visible on the faces of other girls as they recounted their grievances to the handful of officials who met them outside the ministry building, before wrapping up their march back at the Unity Fountain.
Earlier, former French first lady Valerie Trierweiler had gathered with roughly 40 people outside the Eiffel Tower.
“It happened far from our home…but how can we remain indifferent to such violence and such inhumanity,” said Capucine Nielly, one of the organisers of the demonstration.
In Nigeria, the sombre anniversary was being marked by some of the nation’s most prominent voices, including Africa’s first-ever winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka
“We should join hands… to make sure that such an assault on our humanity does not happen again,” Soyinka said at a ceremony in the economic capital, Lagos.
A candlelit vigil was planned for Tuesday evening at the Falomo roundabout in the heart of Lagos’s Ikoyi district, which is flooded with commuters most nights and where placards bearing the names of Chibok girls stood for months following the abduction.