Has Nigeria abandoned #BringBackOurGirls?
In a nation where jaw-dropping scandals make front page headlines day after day, there is one that does not. But day after day, every day, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign meets in Abuja.
It’s eight months since I’ve been here, but all through that time, a resilient gathering of die-hard humanitarians have taken two hours each evening, as the sun sinks low over the rooftops of the Nigerian capital, to remember the 219 missing girls from Chibok.
Their protest at times has the feel of a wake, but no-one has told them whether, after more than 300 days, those whom they mourn are dead or alive. The government of President Goodluck Jonathan has promised again and again to bring the girls back, but the Nigerian Army has failed to bring back even one. Nigeria and Nigerians have moved on.
The last time they were seen was in a video posted last May by Boko Haram, one month after they’d kidnapped more than 276 teenaged girls from a government school in the small town of Chibok, in the troubled northeastern state of Borno. Fifty-seven later escaped. The insurgent leader said those still held captive would be sold into slavery. Nothing has been heard of them since
And now, even the star-studded global #Bring Back Our Girls campaign has pretty much fizzled and died.
It was very moving to be back at Unity Fountain, Abuja, where the sad daily vigil is held. In this country of 200 million people, only around 50 people ever make it. Not a single government minister has supported them. The president sends troops to block their way when they’ve tried to march on his villa. The education minister won’t even reply to their letters.
To the Nigerian Government, they’re cast as subversives. An embarrassment. But they say if they did not come here each day, the girls from Chibok would be completely forgotten.
‘The greatest pain is that I don’t feel my government did the best that it could do’
A source close to the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, told me that the he’s “deeply pained by the girls’ plight.” But he said: “The Chibok issue is used as a cane with which to whack the president on a daily basis. The Bring Back Our Girls group is a hostile force. They do not represent the girls. They are an opposition group.”
The campaign group’s leader is unapologetic and scoffs at this. Oby Ezekwesili is Nigeria’s former Education Minister, a World Bank economist and founder of the anti-corruption group Transparency International.
“We need to know where these girls are,” she says. “We really need to. You know, for me the greatest pain is that I don’t feel my government did the best that it could do for these girls. The regret that I have in my spirit concerning that failure is so profound.”
Tears well in her eyes as she vows that the Chibok girls will not be forgotten. “We cannot just carry on as if they don’t matter,” she says. “Just the thought that this is because they are poor, it makes me even angrier, because education is what enables you to conquer poverty.”
Boko Haram’s relentless rampage has forced one-and-a-half million northern Nigerians to run for their lives. Thousands have been massacred and the virulent jihadi insurgency’s spreading; the armies of neighbouring states have joined this African war against terror. As each new atrocity eclipses the last, the plight of the girls from Chibok feels like history.
The threat posed by Boko Haram has even been blamed for the postponement of this week’s presidential election.
By the time the speakers have finished the sun is setting over Unity Fountain and the mosquitos are out in force. Oby Ezekwesili, dressed in bright orange, is closing proceedings.
“Where are we from?” she shouts. “Chibok,” comes the reply. Again she shouts into her microphone: “Where are we from?”
“Nigeria,” the reply. As campaign workers begin to untie the banners from the branches of shade trees, their leader brings day 301 to a close. “God bless you all,” she says. “We will stand with these girls. We will stand with them. We will stand with them.”
Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter: @millerC4