Despite Boko Haram attacks and government inaction, the resilience of the Bring Back Our Girls Movement shows that citizens can consistently demand accountability in a non-violent way.
Bring Back Our Girls is a women-led mass-based social movement in Nigeria. Despite its success in pressuring the Nigerian government to account for the 276 school girls abducted from Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok in 2014, many were once again thrown into tears over the killing of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) member, Hauwa Liman, on 16 October 2018. This has come barely a month after the murder of Saifura Khorsa, a midwife and ICRC staff member. Hauwa, Saifura and Alice Nhaddah were abducted in March from Rann village in northeast Nigeria. School-children – and adult women– continue to be soft targets for Boko Haram’s attacks and abduction, with more than 910 schools destroyed between 2009-2015 and 1,500 forced to close.
Boko Haram’s terrorism
Boko Haram is led by a philosophy that prohibits western education and requires strict adherence to the teachings of Prophet Mohammed. According to Judit Barna, the movement’s attacks began in 2002 when its founder mobilised his followers to protest against corruption in Nigeria. The movement has since targeted security formations, government establishments, schools, prayer houses, markets, motor parks and gatherings with large turnouts. The growing sophistication of the attacks suggests assistance from international networks, especially al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Amidst Boko Haram’s activities, women and girls have been subjected to rape, early marriage, sex slavery and wartime labour. Many have been forced to bear children, evident in the appearance of some released Chibok girls either pregnant or with babies. The aim is to inflict collective terror on women and girls, creating fear of violence and sexual abuse. Thus, women and girls continue to be trapped at home and prevented from engaging in important economic activities, with the girl child unable to acquire education.
The government’s response
The Government of Nigeria is faced with a humanitarian crisis arising from the activities of Boko Haram in the northeast region. In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council reports that “over 15 million people have been displaced, and at least three million have been affected by the insurgency in north-east Nigeria.” With lingering corruption in the public sector and an estimated external debt of USD 22.08 billion as of 30 June 2018, it has become extremely difficult for the government to respond to the crisis effectively.
President Goodluck Jonathan and President Mohammadu Buhari have both been accused of failing to address the security element of the crisis and its underlying socio-economic problems. The government has been criticised for failing to keep schools safe. Some of its response to the insurgency was brutal and counterproductive. The military is also criticised for playing a major role in the ongoing power struggle and political interplay, which has affected the leadership of the security forces. Despite being one of the most powerful in the continent today, the Nigerian Army lacks both the technical and operational capacity to deal with the insurgents. For example, the governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima, claimed that Boko Haram is better equipped and more motivated than government soldiers. There are reports of soldiers fleeing from encounters with Boko Haram. Other allegations include torture, extortion and corruption in the military. A failure to address these issues has emboldened terrorists to stage further attacks and contributed to the rise of a social movement to demand greater protection of women and children.
The rise of Bring Back Our Girls
Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) was conceived by Obi Ezekwesili, the first chairperson and former Nigerian Minister for Education, who took to social media with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. It emerged strongly on social media in response to government inaction and silence following the abduction of 276 school girls in April 2014.There was so much silence and denial from the government about the abduction that citizens felt the need to mobilise and march to the National Assembly to demand the rescue of the abducted girls.
From something that was meant to last for a few days, the movement has moved into long-term activism and has lasted for over four years. BBOG has used several strategies to mobilise and carry on its activism, including social media. As of April 2018, the movement’s online presence was at 219,694 followers on Facebook and 26,300 followers on Twitter with 231,030 likes. The movement has also held several protest marches in Abuja and Lagos, skills enhancement training and international campaigns. It includes issues such as soldiers’ welfare in Northeast Nigeria and abducted policewomen and university lecturers.
As a result, BBOG has become the country’s strongest and longest-lasting women-led social action movement and has spread across all regions. It has attracted Nigerians from all walks of life and across age, gender, religion and social status, providing a strong base for harvesting citizens’ voices to demand accountability. It has also empowered many women and girls to speak out on national issues through awareness-raising and street protests. Today, the movement meets daily at the Unity Fountain in Abuja at 4:00pm to ensure the issue of abducted girls is kept on the agenda and that the government is pressured to rescue and re-unite them with their families and community.
Accountability in Violent Settings
Four years after the April 2014 abduction that sparked the movement, more than 100 school girls remain in captivity and insurgency has since been on the rise. The government is not serious in fighting Boko Haram and does not show empathy nor outrage regarding terrorist attacks. For instance, a few months after the Chibok kidnapping, the government went ahead with its planned rehearsal for Nigeria’s centenary celebration. BBOG criticised the government for partying at a time when children they had sent to school were slaughtered and some taken away.
BBOG will remain vital in the fight against Boko Haram and government inaction. BBOG’s resilience over the past four years shows that citizens have the power to consistently demand accountability from government in a non-violent way.
Dr Plangsat Bitrus Dayil is a lecturer with the Department of Political Science in the University of Jos. She is the Acting Director/Coordinator of the University’s Centre for Gender and Women Studies. She presented at the IPSA World Congress 2018 in Brisbane.
This paper presents data collected for Partnership for Social and Governance Research as part of an international research programme – Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) – funded by the UK Department for International Development.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.