11 September 2015
Today, 11 September 2015 marks 500 days of consistent daily advocacy for the rescue and safe return of our Chibok schoolgirls. 276 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists from their Government Secondary School, Chibok on the night of Monday 14 April 2014. That day and a few more after, 57 of them managed to escape on their own, but 219 are still with their abductors for 515 days today.
As soon as this news broke the next day, Tuesday 15 April, the advocacy for their immediate rescue commenced on social media platforms. Then came a release on the 17th of April by the Nigerian Army that it had rescued 121 school girls and still looking out for remaining 8 of their peers still with the terrorists. These numbers as well as the news of triumph sadly turned out to be false by the next day when parents of the girls and the school authorities contradicted the Nigeria Army and asked for evidence of the rescue. This forced the military to recant its victory press statement on the 18th and subsequently withdrew into silence without updating the parents or public on whether any rescue operation was launched and continuing in search of the school girls.
Citizens who continued advocating for the missing school girls were perplexed at the grave silence on the part of the military and even worse, the Federal Government on the state of the abducted schoolgirls. Finding the obvious lack of responsiveness by the government, unacceptable, the social media advocacy escalated even more culminating in a speech phrase of the 23, April 2014 which birthed the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The hashtag became a rallying and clarion call by Citizens demanding immediate rescue action for the abducted girls who also appeared to have been abandoned to their tragic fate by their own government. One week after the massively and globally popular hashtag #BringBackOurGirls was launched, Citizens rallied, assembled at the Unity Fountain in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital and embarked on the first street protest to the National Assembly on 30 April, 2014 which was 15 days after the schoolgirls’ abduction.
Although assured by the leadership of the National Assembly which had been painfully silent on the issue of the abducted girls; the protesters were not persuaded. So, even though the National Assembly leaders promised to engage with the President and to provide feedback few days after the meeting, the crowd of protesters unanimously resolved to continue with civil protests until tangible action produced results of the schoolgirls’ rescue. And so, daily since that first march and “Sit Out” by diverse Nigerians of disparate religious, ethnic, social, economic and political beliefs, these Citizens bonded with the schoolgirls by shared humanity have held up the cause of these victims for 500 days today. The #BringBackOurGirls call resonated with people all over the world and triggered hundreds of similar protest marches in many cities. Humanity was collectively outraged at the fact that close to 300 schoolgirls could be abducted in Nigeria and nothing visible was being done to rescue them.
During the days following April 30th meeting at the National Assembly, the emerging Movement of Citizens subsequently met respectively with the then National Security Adviser, the then Chief of Defence Staff and the Governor of Borno pressing for successful search and rescue operation and updates on the abducted schoolgirls. Shockingly, none of these meetings produced any tangible results or provided any persuasive evidence of focused effort to rescue the schoolgirls.
The world was particularly numbed by the silence of then President of Nigeria, Dr Goodluck Jonathan whose almost 3 weeks silence on the abducted girls was as puzzling as it was fatal. The denials, delays and tentativeness of that administration in responding to the tragic saga proved terribly costly for the poor school girls. By the time on 6 May 2014 that the Federal Government constituted Presidential Fact-Finding Committee on Chibok School Girls Abduction finished its “investigation of the veracity of the abduction” finished its work and submitted 6 weeks later on 20 June 2014, it validated that terrorists had indeed taken 276 schoolgirls captive and 57 had escaped leaving 219 still missing; a lot of time had been lost further damning the prospect of their rescue.
It was those many weeks of unresponsiveness that strengthened the resolve of the #BringBackOurGirls Citizens’ Movement to persist in the advocacy demanding for Federal Government led rescue action. Buoyed by the global solidarity that the Movement’s advocacy was receiving from citizens and governments of many countries of the world which pledged support in tracking and rescuing the girls; our Movement was non- retreating. Our humanity-founded resilience came under assault from supporters and institutions of the Federal Government. Our members and the Movement were severally physically attacked and maligned. The height of the oppressive and repressive reaction of that administration was when the then commissioner of police of the Federal Capital Territory issued a statement “banning” our Movement and cordoning off our Unity Fountain daily protest grounds. It was a triumph for our widely acknowledged as disciplined and civil group, when we sued contesting the unconstitutional and undemocratic actions of the Government and won.
The Department of State Security (DSS) maliciously maligned our movement by referring to us as a “Boko Haram franchise” purporting that ##BringBackOurGirls was a terrorist cell and falsely accused the group of soliciting funds and operating bank accounts, and other malicious accusations. The falsehood was evidently rebutted by our Movement since we were already well known as a non-donor and strictly citizens- members- funded group. The malicious defamation campaign of the government against the group was ratcheted up when the former President issued a statement referring to ##BringBackOurGirls members as “psychological terrorists” for demanding that our 219 schoolgirls should be rescued.
Regardless of the pattern of hostility of that administration to our Movement, we continued to seek platforms of engagement to compel the Government to sustain and focus an effective rescue operation for the schoolgirls. We repeatedly wrote requesting for a meeting with the former President and attempted thrice to meet with him but to no avail as we were constantly barred by antiriot police. Delegated officials who were instructed to deliberate with the Movement on two occasions were as unpersuasive as they were hostile to our demand for evidence of a rescue operation and the results. And so, for 408 days, notwithstanding many promises cloaked with contradictions, falsehoods and tepidness, that administration failed to rescue our 219 Chibok girls.
Following the inauguration of the new administration of President Muhammadu Buhari we wrote requesting for a meeting with our Movement. The meeting request was granted and we marched in our numbers to the Presidential Villa to demand for the rescue of our Chibok girls, and obtain the latest updates and information on the strategy of the new administration for tackling insurgency and finding all abducted citizens of Nigeria.
President Muhammadu Buhari and the inherited military and security team of the previous administration heard directly from some of the parents of the Chibok girls, representatives of the Chibok community and our Movement. He conveyed his concurrence with #BringBackOurGirls on the the urgency of our cause and therefore the need for immediate action to salvage an initially poorly managed rescue agenda for the girls. We presented the President the document “ABC of #BringBackOurGirls Specific Demands” specific as well as tools that we have developed as active citizens namely; the “Citizens’ Solution to End Terrorism” and “Verification, Authentication and Reunification System (VARS)” and “Chronicle of False Narratives and Inconsistencies by the Nigerian Government Over the Rescue of the Abducted Chibok Schoolgirls”.
The President in his response, commended the intellectual rigour of our presentations and acknowledged that the Federal Government failed the Chibok girls and those who are victims of the ongoing insurgency by not responding effectively over the last five years. He reassured the Chibok community that their request for social amenities is their right and not a privilege. He strongly assured our Movement that his administration is resolved to successfully addressing the issue of insecurity in the country emphasizing that although the plans could not be shared publicly, the results would be evident in no distant time. Finally, he expressed gratitude for our tools which he stated would be useful for the administration’s war on terror, resettling victims and rebuilding communities.
This is how the renowned United States Foreign Policy magazine summarized our July 8 meeting with the new administration : “On July 8, Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, did something his predecessor considered unthinkable: he sat down with the #BringBackOurGirls activists who have spent the last 14 months holding daily vigil for the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from their school in Chibok by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. ‘Nobody in Nigeria or outside could have missed your consistency and persistence,’ Buhari said during the meeting, praising the tenacity with which the group pursued their task of making the world care, and keep caring, about the fate of teenagers taken from the northeast Nigerian town. He used the meeting to promise that a regional military force would be in place to fight Boko Haram by the end of the month. The meeting was more than an acknowledgement of what the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which took over the Internet for a brief moment last spring, stood for when it was founded; it was an acknowledgement of what it has become. When the campaign first began, some critics dismissed it as short-lived hashtag activism. But #BringBackOurGirls has proven itself to be a grassroots movement — a collective of over 50 key leaders and a broad-reaching network in the thousands — that has increasingly focused on issues that underlie the kidnapping: a right to security, to education, and protection from terrorists, and calling for an end to the corruption and bad governance that experts have found goes hand-in-hand with protracted violent conflict.It also, more and more, is a model of the kind of organization that is spurring democratic change.”
Our Movement has since that July 8, 2015 meeting welcomed the appointment of the new service chiefs on July 12th. We have also delivered a followup letter to the President in which we requested for certain specific actions that would support a holistic and systematic process of engagement and feedback between the Federal Government and our Movement.
We principally requested for the President to urgently direct the setting up of Federal Government- BringBackOurGirls Citizens Platform for structured feedback and accountability on the rescue operation and terror war which should meet bi-monthly under the Chairmanship of the Vice President. Task-Level meetings of our Citizens Movement with the following relevant stakeholders within the Federal Government: the Chief of Defense Staff, Chief Of Army Staff, Director General of Directorate for State Security, Ministries of Defence, Information and Education. The National Security Adviser, Police, Army, NEMA, National Human Rights Commission, Office of the Vice President (as Chairman of NEMA); will complement the workings of the Federal Government – Citizens Platform.
The following are the rest of our priority demands of specific actions that we are awaiting from the Federal Government:
1. IMPLEMENTATION OF THE VERIFICATION, AUTHENTICATION AND REUNIFICATION SYSTEM (VARS)
We propose that a team is tasked with the credible implementation of VARS. The primary task of the team shall be to work with every abducted victims’ families and community to accurately ascertain the true identity of such individuals. Following their accurate identification, the comprehensive program for Recovery, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Reintegration would be made available to them. It would also entail the setting up of a Missing Persons’ Register. The team could comprise: the National Security Adviser; leaders of the Counterinsurgency Task Force; Department of State Security; State Governments of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe; local government authorities and traditional leaders; and representatives of the abducted victims.
The secondary task of the team shall be to keep a public record of those who have been confirmed dead in the insurgency. The current data used for deaths due to the insurgency is provided by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based organisation. The Nigerian government has no publicly available data. The National Human Rights Commission should be given adequate resources and support to create and maintain a database of victims of violence.
As a matter of urgency the Nigerian government needs to create a unified identification system based on a comprehensive database of available data – SIM card registration (NCC), Immigration, National Identity Card, Civil Service Commission, Driver’s License/ License Plates (FRSC), Voters’ Register (INEC) and Biometric Verification Number (BVN).
2. PROTOCOL OF ENGAGEMENT WITH CITIZENS
There has to be a defined protocol for obtaining information and sharing information with citizens. The presence of such a protocol is essential to the protection of Nigerian lives. We suggest a monthly meeting between security operatives and community stakeholders in communities most affected by these acts of violence e.g. Chibok, Gwoza and Bama. We need an alternative that encourages more collaboration and information sharing to bridge the gap of communication.
We would like Mr President to direct relevant Government representatives to work with the BBOG Family to commence work immediately on this Accountability Matrix.
3. COMMISSION OF INQUIRY FOR ACCOUNTABILITY ON ABDUCTION & RESCUE OF OUR CHIBOK GIRLS
We would like Mr President to direct the establishment of a Commission charged with the task of transparently investigating and reporting on the security lapses that caused their successful abduction and the operational leadership failures that led to their long captivity in terrorist enclave.
This Commission will be a prelude to a Truth and Justice Commission that will foster healing and rebuilding of social capital in the affected areas.
4. PUBLIC RELEASE OF COMMITTEE REPORTS
We would like Mr President to direct that the report of the Presidential Fact-Finding Committee of the Chibok Schoolgirls’ Abduction, and the Presidential Committee on Security Challenges in the North-East are made public immediately.
We request that the Government begins, in earnest, a holistic process of proper sensitization and enlightenment to curb this trend of youth radicalization and extremism. The #BringBackOurGirls Family is willing to work with the Government to design the programme.
We wish to use the occasion of this DAY 500 of our Movement’s sustained advocacy for our 219 girls to urgently remind the President of our sustained demands. We especially are anxious about the state of the current rescue operation that the administration has mounted for our girls and other abducted citizens. Our anxiety stems from the recent public statements especially by our President on the intelligence that the Federal Government has so far gathered on their whereabouts.
Although we would admit as most reasonable minds that after 515 days of abduction, it is not unlikely that some of the girls may be scattered around the country and our neighboring countries, we however do not wish to entertain any relapse of an urgent search and rescue operation for our girls. We wish to reemphasise that it is the constitutional duty of our Federal Government to galvanize all possible intelligence resources from around the world to find and rescue our girls and other abducted citizens.
Over 107 days have passed since the inaugural speech when the President persuasively declared “…we can not claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents.” 17 Chibok parents have died since their children were abducted 515 days ago and countless others have been abducted and killed in the same time period. The numbers of displaced persons as a consequence of the disruptions in the North-East run into millions. No excuse can be acceptable for any failure to do so at a time that citizens are most optimistic of tangible results from a reinvigorated Nigeria military and security establishments.
We also today empathise with the victims of the terror attack on the United States known as 9/11 terrorist attack. We comfort the families and the Government of the United States and wish that the world would use this occasion to renew a global commitment to ending terror and violence against women everywhere in the world.
As for our Movement, the advocacy continue. We shall not retreat. We shall not relent. We stay on demanding #BringBackOurGirls Now And Alive!!!!
For and on behalf of
HADIZA BALA USMAN