The Lost Girls

A Hashtag May Help Rescue Jihadi-Enslaved Nigerian Schoolgirls

After Boko Haram abducted and enslaved hundreds of girls, the Nigerian government tried to pretend there was no problem. A hashtag is convincing it otherwise.

Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters

Three weeks after Islamist militants from the rebel group Boko Haram took 276 schoolgirls from their school in the restive northeast of Nigeria and drove them into the forests bordering Cameroon, the world is mobilizing to demand answers. What has become of the teenagers? Why has the Nigerian government failed to rescue them? Why has it lied? What is it trying to hide? The answer appears to be its own ineptitude.

On Monday, a video hit the Web showing the leader of Boko Haram taking responsibility for the abductions and pledging to sell the girls as wives, of a sort, to the highest bidder. “They are slaves and I will sell them because I have the market to sell them,” Abubakar Shekau told the camera. The girls, 223 of whom are still missing, reportedly have been traded for about $12 apiece. At least two are said to have died.

Instantly, a storm broke on social media the world over. The remote location of the abductions, near the center of the African continent, the contradictory reports put out by the Nigerian government (which claimed at one point that all but eight girls had been liberated) and the thin coverage of this horrific story inside Nigeria as well as out helped it remain under the radar of the international community for weeks.

But the public indignation that was slow to rise at first is now coming on like a tidal wave. Protests have been mounted around the world. In one week alone, the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has collected nearly a million tweets. (A Google hangout Tuesday hosted by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, with participation by The Daily Beast, is just one example of what’s happening online.) Meanwhile on the streets, dissatisfied Nigerians are hoisting signs reading, “Please Find Our Daughters” and “Can Anyone Hear Me?” as they march to government buildings.

“I have gone to the protests and people are angry,” says Ojonwa Miachi, 22, an education activist based in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. People “are tired of hearing the same news about the same attacks on children in school, and people are ready for answers,” she says. “I’ve never seen Nigerians so united as they are at the moment.”

The attention is forcing promises of action from the international community and the Nigerian government, which has fueled the discontent with its silence and its seemingly halfhearted rescue efforts that haven't yielded any rescues. Indeed, the political response to the international and domestic pressure has been bizarre. It wasn’t until Sunday night that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan made his first public statement about the kidnapping. “Wherever these girls are, we’ll get them out,” he pledged, while also criticizing their parents for not fully cooperating with police.

Then, on Monday, First Lady Patience Jonathan allegedly ordered the arrests of two demonstration organizers. Protest leader and government critic Naomi Mutu Nyadar was still detained as of Monday evening, with Nigerian officials saying she was invited for a “fact-finding interview.” Saratu Angus Ndirpaya, who comes from the town where the girls were abducted, was released and claimed the first lady launched into a surreal rant when she saw them. “She told so many lies: that we just wanted the government of Nigeria to have a bad name, that we did not want to support her husband’s rule,” Ndirpaya told the Associated Press.

Indeed the government’s entire approach has been one of denial bordering on fantasy. “They don’t believe that this is real; they live in a different world,” says Nigerian journalist and activist Omoyele Sowore. The country has seen a rapid, spectacular escalation of violence in the past few weeks, with 19 people killed in a bombing in the capital late last week, following on 70 killed in a blast the day before the abductions.

Yet, while bombs are going off in Abuja and girls are being kidnapped and sold into slavery by the hundreds, the government is desperate to put on a confident face as it welcomes a thousand dignitaries to the World Economic Forum summit for Africa on Thursday. “They just want to do the WEF in Nigeria, like ‘Nothing is wrong with us, come to Nigeria and invest!’” says Sowore.

Last week, Kema Chikwe, a leading figure in Nigeria’s ruling party, raised the question of whether the kidnapping even occurred. “How did it happen? Who saw it happen? Who did not see it happen? Who is behind this?” she asked.

It is the government’s “incompetence,” says Sowore, “that has made Boko Haram become so bold and so powerful to do what they are doing now.” There is little question the terror group “is doing very well” at the moment, he said. It can now roam with impunity in the border area where Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad come together, which is close to the town of Chibok where the girls were abducted while studying for their final exams.

The lack of progress in the search has prompted global attention that was lacking before. On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pledged to do “everything possible,” and on Monday U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder offered to send FBI agents to aid with rescue efforts and “to help with intelligence.”

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Miachi, who works as an adviser for an NGO called Connected Development, and serves as a national youth advocate for the United Nations Millennium Campaign, says government and international collaboration is the only way forward. A demonstration of good governance is “our only hope,” she says. A rescue of the girls would prove the Nigerian government is capable of defending its children.

“I want schools to be as protected as government organizations,” says Miachi, calling for the country's security and military forces to work together. And it’s vital for parents to have that reassurance, or the impact of this attack will be for parents to keep their daughters out of school in an area that already has an extremely low enrollment rate for girls.

Miachi was raised in a family that put a premium on educating its five daughters, and she says she feels the need to “speak for all those people who didn’t have the same chance.” But her extended family didn’t share the same beliefs. They “would say…‘We don’t need to spend much on their education, they’re just going to go off and get married,’” she remembers.

Miachi has plans to go for her master’s degree in development next year and later a PhD. For now, she’s taking part in the protests and working on spreading a petition on for better security that she has resulted in 2,000 letters sent to the country’s police inspector general. On Tuesday, the activists plan to march on the Ministry of Defense, and Miachi says she’s not deterred by the risks of raising her voice to speak for the 223 girls kept imprisoned by Boko Haram.

“We can’t keep quiet or sit back or think, 'You could lose your life,’” she says. “Because [we] want to ensure the rights of human beings and women and girls are not violated.”