Behind Nigeria's 'Bring Back Our Girls': Can we allow sex slaves in 2014?

INTERVIEW: Jibrin Ibrahim is a founder of the #bringbackourgirls campaign, and says the shocking boldness of Boko Haram's kidnapping of 300 girls spurred him and others to action.

Darren Staples/Reuters
Fans of Nigeria held up signs referring to the Boko Haram kidnapping during their 2014 World Cup Group F soccer match against Argentina in Porto Alegre, Brazil, June 25, 2014.

When Jibrin Ibrahim helped start the Nigeria-based hashtag movement "Bring Back Our Girls" in late April, he had no idea it would leap Africa's borders to become a global icon, gaining the attention of, among others, US first lady Michelle Obama.

Mr. Ibrahim, who runs an NGO in Abuja, the nation's capital, was stunned at the scale of the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls by the extremist group Boko Haram. He was moved to action by the outcry of the mothers and fathers who came to the capital to protest the abduction of their daughters as they took school exams in the remote town of Chibok.

In a Monitor interview, Ibrahim comments that: 

In recent years we saw two, three, five girls taken -- but it suddenly jumped to 300 and we were shocked. The implication is that if things get even worse, you lose a generation of girls willing to go to school.

We were horrified that in 2014, in this century, that young girls are being kidnapped in large numbers with the stated intent of turning them into sex slaves, and that this is happening inside a modern democratic state. That calls us out. It is unacceptable. We just feel that somebody should turn up and say “no” to that. The objective is to force the state to do its job. The state is not securing the security of Nigeria.

The result was a cyber-civic group whose hashtag, #bringbackourgirls, went viral in April and by May began to spawn street protests in London and New York.

 After five years of insurgency and thousands of deaths at the hands of Boko Haram, Bring Back Our Girls is demanding the government better protect the people.

The unexpected intensity and breadth of the outcry pushed Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to break what had been a full month of silence about the kidnappings and to acknowledge a problem. The concern about the scale of mayhem in Nigeria by Boko Haram spurred US President Barack Obama in his recent West Point address to announce plans for counterterrorism assistance to Nigeria and Africa. 

Yet the movement emerged, Ibrahim says, not out of any grand design but out of simple resolve and persistence.

Nobody knew there would be a movement. Someone sent out e-mails. We marched on the National Assembly. At the same time the mothers of Chibok demonstrated. That wasn’t coordinated. We then agreed to come back the next day, and then the next day, and then the next and the next. We had no plans. We had concerns. We didn’t have a “change the world” mentality, but we did feel like we could be in some ways a conscience for the nation.

As the hashtag movement got attention, its steering committee started feeling they were part of some larger effort.

We first came out to support the local mothers of Chibok. But a number of us started to feel this is not just the mothers of Chibok, or the mothers of Nigeria, but that we were supporting something bigger, that extended beyond our country.

None of the Chibok girls have yet been found or rescued, and many in Ibrahim’s group say they feel exhausted. This week, as many as 91 more women and boys have been taken by Boko Haram, which says it wants to create an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria, where it operates. Separately, bombs went off Wednesday in a shopping mall in Abuja. That has brought some rallying in the ranks, says Ibrahim.

We are telling ourselves it is no time to disband. The insurgency is growing. More people are being taken. The stress and the threats are higher.…Yes, going to rallies every day is extremely difficult and very tiring. It impinges on people’s other commitments. But the challenge has deepened the commitment of many. They say our suffering is not comparable to the girls and families.

Ibrahim himself attended his first protest of any kind in 1969, demanding the reinstatement of his high school history teacher. The experience taught him that sometimes decisions must be challenged. 

He was teaching us about revolutionary movements, but also how to understand history not from the standpoint of the oppressor who writes history but from the standpoint of the oppressed who have to suffer the consequences. Our coordinator for #bringbackourgirls is the daughter of that history teacher….

This spring, the kidnapping of the girls proved too large a human rights violation to ignore, though the Army has played it down: The day after the girls were abducted, the military claimed to have rescued all but nine of the girls. But the next day, the school principal told the press she wasn’t sure how many girls were abducted, but that none of them had been rescued. 

The mothers' role

The Bring Back Our Girls campaign began two weeks later, when mothers of the victims planned a march on the capital to demand government action.  #BringBackOurGirls and #ChibokGirls began trending in Nigeria.  The mothers were joined by activists in red, carrying signs that said “#BringBackOurGirls.”

Initially dubbed a “Million Women March,” the first protests attracted hundreds of people, jogging in the rain and singing “All we are saying is bring back our girls,” to the tune of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” 

The Bring Back Our Girls campaign approached lawmakers and leaders, bringing marches to security officials and the governor of Borno State, where the girls were abducted.  At every stop, officials greeted protesters with sympathy and promises.  Everything that could be done, they said, was being done and the girls would be rescued.  Even then, Ibrahim was skeptical.   

We took this to the national assembly, to the national security adviser, to the chief of defense staff, to the governor of Borno state, and finally to the president. We’ve not found success in the return of the girls. But we have more knowledge about how the government is dealing with the issue. We found in fact that as our concerns became more visible in the rest of the world, the Nigerian government was spending more energy dealing with the pressure we were putting on them, then in actually trying to rescue the girls. That keeps us motivated. 

Two months later, activists still rally daily in Abuja, outside the Hilton Hotel by the  “Unity Fountain," which bears the names of Nigeria’s 36 states. The numbers are smaller now, and they bring chairs and mats to sit on. But the message remains: Inaction is unacceptable. 

Robert Marquand in Boston contributed to this story. 

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