In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, Professor of Political Science, African & Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY and one of the founders of the Bring Back Our Girls NYC campaign, to discuss the fifth anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the 276 Chibok girls and gender-based violence in Nigeria.
- Bring Back Our Girls
- Bring Back Our Girls NYC
- Oby Ezekwesili is the original founder of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria
- The Murtala Muhammed Foundation (MMF) is a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting victims of Boko Haram’s violence
- GJC’s blog post #BringBackOurGirls: Five Years Later
- Overview of Boko Haram’s activities since 2002
- Five years later, 112 Chibok girls are still not rescued
- Abducted after the Chibok kidnapping, Leah Sharibu is held captive for refusing to convert to Islam
- Boko Haram executed two female aid workers who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross
- April 14, 2019 commemorative event in Abuja, Nigeria
Transcript: #BringBackOurGirls: Five Years Later
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Hello, and welcome to "That's Illegal," a podcast by the Global Justice Center.
Today we’re joined by Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, Professor of Political Science, African & Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY and the co-founder of the Bring Back Our Girls NYC campaign. Born in Nigeria, Dr. Okome has worked on international development issues as a consultant for the United Nations and USAID.
Five year after the Chibok girls were kidnapped, we are discussing national and international responses to Boko Haram’s mass targeting of women and girls in Nigeria and the challenges of providing holistic care for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Hello! Thank you so much for joining us! To begin our conversation, would you like to give us some background on what happened on April 14, 2014 in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Chibok is in Borno State. Like you said, it’s in the northeast of Nigeria—very close to Cameroon. On the night of April 14, the insurgent group Boko Haram went to federal girls’ secondary school in Chibok. There were girls who were preparing for an exam. They abducted 276 girls. They pretended to be Nigerian Security Personnel and came to save them from being abducted. So they were able to take away 276 girls. They went into the Sambisa forest with the girls.
The community found out soon after and alerted the Nigerian government that the girls had been abducted. But the government did not respond for about three weeks. They were saying that it’s a lie, and it didn’t happen. That gave Boko Haram a head start in taking away the girls. As they were taking them away, 54 of the girls managed to escape and jumped down the truck that was taking them away. Some got badly hurt as a result. The rest of them were taken into the forest. Some of the parents were tracking them, trying to get the government to help with the rescue. Because there was this nonchalance, nothing serious was really done. Initially, only the ones who were able to escape made it out of captivity.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: To better understand why Boko Haram targeted women and girls in this case: do we know what Boko Haram stands for or what are the causes of the insurgency?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Many people know Boko Haram by the popular translation or interpretation of what their name is said to be. Actually, the group doesn’t call itself Boko Haram. They believe that Western education is abominable or unacceptable. They target students who are in educational institutions for this reason.
I think it has a multilayered meaning. The core of the group is that they’re the Kanuri people from northeastern Nigeria. The Kanuri people had a kingdom called Kanem-Bornu that was actually famous and powerful in the era before the coming of the Fulani Caliphate. The Fulani Caliphate came as a jihad in the 19th century—in the period preceding Nigeria’s colonization. As a result of the effectiveness of the Fulani jihad, there was an overthrow of many Hausa rulers, who were an ethnic group in that area. Some of them were Muslim, and some of them were non-Muslim.
The critique of the Fulani jihad was that the Muslim ones were not practicing the most virtuous Muslim. They were mixing Islam with what—the Hausa Fulani said—was Paganism. They were not devout enough, so they were bringing a renewal of Islam that was more virtuous and more devoted to Allah. After the collapse of the Kanem-Bornu kingdom, there were people who had never forgotten and want a revival of that empire. Some of the people in Boko Haram are irredentist in this way. They want a coming back to power of the Kanuri Empire.
There is also a jihadist element. They are making a critique about immorality among Muslim leaders—also, about collusion between government and these leaders to exploit and oppress the poor. Part of what they also say about Western education is that if you’re poor, and your children go to school, then it’s no use. They’re not going to be able to do anything with that education. They won’t get jobs, so what’s the point of sending your kids to school.
When the group first emerged, it was led by Yusuf Mohammed. It was a group that was doing a lot of good work. It was preaching against excesses of people in power. It was feeding people. They were giving people assistance with medical care. The government of Nigeria was not doing this for the people. They saw Boko Haram as an alternative. This was before Boko Haram started the killings. There are allegations that some of the people who are responsible for the rise of Boko Haram are also Nigerian politicians from the northeast. They wanted to use Boko Haram against their political enemies to threaten them. Part of what happens in Nigerian politics is that violence is used against opponents. Some of these were using them to intimidate their political opponents. It spiraled out of control because they could no longer pick and choose whom Boko Haram could attack.
There is also the element that Boko Haram was becoming so strong. The governments of northern Nigeria were not able to control them. Kano was one of the places where things came ahead. The government of Kano state went against Boko Haram and tore down the biggest mosque—actually, arrested a lot of their members. There were these confrontations where the government of Nigeria wanted to restrict the power of Boko Haram—since it was growing to become this movement that was saying that it was pro-poor. Of course, the majority is the poor people. State governments decided to eliminate them. This backfired. Yusuf Mohammed, the original leader, was detained. Many women and children were also detained. It was alleged that people were tortured. Yusuf Mohammed was shot in the back while in police custody. This was when the group got really radicalized and began to use violence—not only in terms of attacking schools but attacking governments and prominent Islamic rulers.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Since the 2014 kidnapping was not an isolated incident, can you explain how gender norms played into the treatment of the Chibok girls?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Northeastern Nigeria has the lowest indicators in education. When it comes to girls’ education, the figures are atrocious. There is no strong support for girls’ education. There is a gendered aspect in access to education. There is also class. Wealthy people educate their girls because they don’t have to make the choice. Sometimes with the wealthy, even if the girl is educated, they can be married at the age of 14, which is considered the age of puberty. With those wealthy girls, there would be an agreement with the spouse that the marriage is not going to stand in the way of the girl’s education. That girl might end up going as far as she wants with her education. Some of such women have higher degrees. I have colleagues who married very early and became professors, doctors, and lawyers. Child marriage is also another issue. But that’s not the force here. The thing about child marriage is that it ended up also manifested in this case. In an environment where people are poor and they’re weighing how to put scarce family resources, they’re going to put it on boys’ education rather than girls’ education. Their understanding is that the girl will get married into another family and would not be able to help her natal family. So they invest in the boy—then he has a responsibility to the family.
There is also not enough understanding about the fact that this is an area that has a strong minority Christian presence from way back. Many of the girls who were abducted are Christian girls. This abduction further discourages people from sending their girls to school—I think it’s a justifiable perception that this is not safe. There is not enough security. Why would you want to go and endanger your child when you know that someone will swoop in and take them?
There is a gendered element to it also. A lot of times when you have an ethnic conflict, people are interested in using violence against women to make a point that challenges the masculinity of the other group. There are a lot of masculinist tropes about women as the weak ones. They are the symbol of ethnic pride, so men go to war to defend women and children. If people can swoop in, then they make a point that you are impotent.
In terms of girls going to school: if you want to challenge the commitment to education, all you have to show them is that your children are not safe. We can do anything to your children. That sent this message to the community and the families. If you also want to say that we are the ones in charge and the Nigerian government is weak, then this is another way in which you demonstrate that. They’re going to federal government’s college and high school. We are the ones who say what matters here.
There has also been some analysis that shows that these kind of insurgent groups want girls because they can use them for multiple tasks, like keeping records and other support activities for their group. Plus, it gives them additional prestige. These are valuable girls. There are people who also blame Bring Back Our Girls for making these girls high-profile because this has made them more valuable to the group. These are girls that somebody cares about. The argument that these people are making is that this has further endangered the girls. In any case, there are serious gendered elements.
With captivity, what these people said very clearly in their propaganda is that they have captured these girls and they’re going to marry them. They even named the amount of dowry—the bride price they were paying. As far as they’re concerned, they have married the girls. They are ready to pay this bride price. This is not marriage. This is brutality. It’s holding somebody against their will. It’s a human rights abuse. What they are doing is inflicting sexual violence on these girls. They are also used for domestic servitude. They have to do all the cooking and cleaning. They are assigned to Boko Haram members as wives—and have to do anything that involves. It is torture and brutality. It’s exploitation. It’d just wrong on many levels.
The most painful part is the initial nonchalance, ineptitude, and a lack of organized, focused response by the Nigerian government. That really is heartbreaking. It’s not only gender. Like I said, it is class. If these were rich people’s children, there would have been immediate action. I don’t think we would be here—five years down the road—still saying that there are 112 of these young women still in captivity.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Going back to the response, do you want to give us some detail about what is the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign? As a co-founder of Bring Back Our Girls NYC, do you want to talk about what the Nigerian community in New York has done to advocate for the girls?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: #BringBackOurGirls was founded by Nigerian women and men in Nigeria. Actually, preceding the abduction of Chibok girls, on February 14, 2014, fifty-nine boys were all killed in a federal government secondary school in Buni Yadi, which is a village in Yobe in the northeast. There were protests by Nigerian about this. It didn’t receive as much attention because a lot of times international news about Africa does not get enough coverage.
Many of the people who came out to protest were women’s rights organizations; men also joined. When the abduction of the girls happened, initially, there wasn’t clear cut information even from the Nigerian media. There was also miscommunication. It was announced that they were found and are now in government’s custody. That didn’t happen. The groups that had protested the massacre of these young men reconstituted and said,” We are going to insist that these girls must be rescued.”
They came up with the hashtag. One of the members of this group used to be the Minister of Education in Nigeria. Her name is Oby Ezekwesili. The remarkable thing about Bring Back Our Girls is that many of the women who were the founding members are women who are middle class, wealthy, and prominent. They are from all over Nigeria. All religions were represented. There were also young people and men as well. This was very remarkable.
As a Nigerian woman who believes in women’s rights, immediately I heard that the movement was founded. I asked, “What can be done to help?” We had this online group where we would be talking. At the time, there were two protests in New York City: one was organized by a South African woman at Union Square; another one was organized by an African-American woman at the UN. I go to demonstrations and protests. But you find very few professors out on the front line. As a matter of fact, a lot of people said to me that the most effective thing to do is to write an op-ed and position papers.
I’m a mother and a Nigerian woman. I have children. I have expectations in terms of my children’s well-being and safety. I went to a boarding school in Nigeria. Also, my three sisters are in Nigeria, and they have children. At the time, one of my sister’s children was in a boarding school. I had to think as a person of conscious about what is the right thing to do. A South African woman organized a protest. It was a one-time thing. An African American woman organized a protest. So, what kind of moral authority do I have, as a Nigerian woman, to sit and say, “Well, I’ll just be writing position papers?” As a matter of fact, some of my colleagues told me, “These girls are never going to be found. You’re wasting your time.” I said that I’m ready to actually waste my time. If this was my child, would I be just writing position papers?
I decided that a group should be formed. I called together some of the people who came to the protests. We formed a group Bring Back Our Girls NYC. It wasn’t just Nigerians; it was open to everybody. There were Americans from all religions and walks of life. A lot of the problems in this world are over religious disputes. It’s only inter-fit dialogue and inter-fit peace-building that would help us to solve this problem and convince people that there are other ways of negotiating conflict than targeting innocent people. That’s why I led the formation of the group.
Also, my children were asking me, “What are you going to do, mom?” I felt that if you are a person of conscience and are espousing values, when something like this happens, you have to actually step up. You have to focus on helping to solve the problem.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: You’ve also done some groundwork in Nigeria. You’ve interviewed some of the girls that have returned and done work with the internally displaced peoples. Do you want to speak about what you learned?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Although I was impatient with people who are talking about op-eds and doing research, I also believe that it’s important. The kind of research that needed to be done is not the straightforward, objective, and scholarly research that does empiricism. It’s research that tries to prioritize the voice of the people who are affected and traumatized in this crisis.
Many people don’t know that the crisis in the northeast displaced from 2 million to 12 million people. Some of them are in internally displaced persons’ camps; majority of them are not. Those who do not have family to shelter them are out in the open, making do however they can. Nobody is taking care of them. They’ve fled from home. In the journey, trying to escape, they also go through a lot of trauma. Originally, when people told me there are internationally displaced people in Abuja, they gave me a low number. By the time we got there, that group had exploded. More people had arrived. They were in half-completed buildings. The landlord of one of the houses had given them permission to squat there. Then this community had exploded almost three to five times.
There are no services provided to them. They don’t have means of livelihood. Some of them end up going and begging. The ones who have skills try to be day laborers, doing odd jobs to make ends meet. When I saw the place where they were, there were so many children. There were so many heartbreaking stories. Some children died on the way because of snake bites. There is an amount of pain and trauma of people having to just take off and leave everything to find safety elsewhere. That was very heartbreaking. The woman I was staying with worked with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. So I was able to ask the Ministry to help this community. But there was an inadequacy of resources.
The situation in the camps is also not ideal. Many of the camps are overcrowded. There are insufficient services. Some of the officials who are responsible for the services are not ethical. In some situations (I don’t think it’s isolated to Nigeria), you have people who are extorting sex in exchange for services. There is an inadequacy in terms of education, health care and adequate, nutritious meals. There is overstretch, inefficiency, unethical practice happening. I am not sure how secure those camps are. A few times Boko Haram has sent suicide bombers to some of the camps. Some of the children, who are without their parents, may be subjected to trafficking and abduction in the camps.
When people have gone through trauma, the camps should also have psychosocial support. So far, a lot of the humanitarian assistance and psychosocial support is given by international agencies. The original Nigerian government—the Goodluck Jonathan administration—is no longer in power. Goodluck Jonathan lost the presidential election to Muhammadu Buhari, who is now the president of Nigeria. When Muhammadu Buhari was campaigning for the 2015 election, he said that he was going to prioritize the rescue of the girls. He actually met with Bring Back Our Girls. I went to Abuja for that meeting. I was very impressed. When presentations were made, he took notes. When we spoke, it was clear that he was listening. He made the commitment that the girls are going to be rescued. Some of the parents and members of the Chibok community were there. This impressed me. Somebody who is the president met with the group and the parents and showed compassion. I have to say that under his watch is when the majority of the returned girls were rescued. Under his watch, the negotiations for release were made. But, as far as I’m concerned, as long as any of those young women and thousands of Nigerian women and girls that have been taken captive by this group are still in their custody, the struggle continues.
If, as President Buhari promised, it’s true that he’s committed to prioritizing the rescue of these girls, he’s still on the line for that. He still has to rescue each and every one—not of just the Chibok girls. After Chibok, Boko Haram also went to Dapchi high school and abducted 105 girls. To give this administration credit, they were able to rescue a majority of them. One of those girls is still held by Boko Haram. Her name is Leah Sharibu. Boko Haram said that it was only going to release the girls if they converted to Islam. She was the only hold out who said that she wasn’t going to convert. They are holding her. This has energized a lot of Christians who are saying, “We must rescue Leah.” This is admirable.
However, I think any woman, girl, child, man that is held captive by Boko Haram must be rescued. There is no life that is more valuable than any other life. Religion ought not to matter. All of us are human beings. Prioritizing somebody’s pain because this is my child or this is my sister or somebody from my ethnic group or religion is wrong. My issue goes beyond the Chibok girls to all the captives. I really want peace in northeastern Nigeria. So many lives have been disrupted, and so much pain has been inflicted. This is totally unnecessary.
The challenge is one that belongs to the Nigerian government. The reason why government exists is to ensure safety and security of people. The Nigerian constitution says so; all constitutions have this principle. The Nigerian government has the primary responsibility. If it’s not able to dispatch this responsibility, then it should ask for help. This administration has been better in that regard than the previous one. The previous one kept saying, “We don’t need help. Nothing is happening. It’s a lie. No girls were abducted.” There was so much disinformation by the Goodluck Jonathan administration that not only did they not seriously look for the girls, but they were able to convince many Nigerians that it’s a lie—girls were not abducted. Many Nigerians chose to believe the Nigerian government, which is normal. You trust you government.
Also, the people who were protesting and advocating were presented to the Nigerian public as anti-Nigeria, unpatriotic, and as damaging the reputation of the government for no reason. This divided the unity that said that these girls needed to be rescued. But this administration has won another election. There is no reason for them to think this is going to get on the back-burner. These young women must be rescued. The people who were already rescued—I must give this administration credit—have started school. They happen to be in this American University, which was established by Atiku—one of the two candidates for presidency. Some people may have seen those girls in the American University in some documentaries. They go to a good school, and they have a therapist that’s working with them. They are given support to bring them up to par, so they can compete with peers in school.
One of the issues with one of the girls at the American University is that she came back with a baby. She was told that her baby couldn’t stay with her at the school. I think that makes absolutely no sense. It increases the trauma. It’s hard enough to be brutalized and forced to become a mother. You’re bonding with that child, and they take that child away, saying that you should concentrate on your education.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Do they see the child as a member of Boko Haram?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: They see the child as an impediment to her education. It’s hard for her to be able to concentrate, so send the child away to her parents. Your parents might take care of the child better. That might actually be true; the parents have more experience with child rearing than a young woman. But separating this young woman from her child makes no sense. Also, there is stuff about how many times the parents can visit and all kinds of restrictions. I think that’s absolutely unnecessary and ridiculous. It challenges ensuring their psychosocial well-being.
Let’s put that aside and realize that it’s not only the Chibok girls that are traumatized. We know about them because so many girls were abducted at once. Let’s be clear: before they were abducted and after the abduction, there had been other abductions. Some of the women and girls in the internally displaced persons’ camps may also be Boko Haram victims. If Boko Haram can go into the camps and send suicide bombers, then there are people who are living under constant fear of what might happen to them. There are probably people who have been sexually assaulted and subjected to gender-based violence. There is a need to take care of them.
As far as I know, it’s international organizations that are doing this with the cooperation from the Nigerian government. I don’t think that whatever is being done is organized enough. We don’t have a framework that realizes how huge this problem is. It’s not like you’re going to talk to people for three week and teach them how to sing songs and dance. This is a long-term commitment. I would like to see them put the same kind of commitment if that was the president’s daughters affected. When I look at what’s happening to the people, what I want for myself is what I want for the next person. This is what it means for people to feel like they are valued by their government.
The world is saying it in the Sustainable Development Goals. We are looking for human dignity, security, and social protection. These are not just words. You need to put policies in place, train people to deliver, show citizens of Nigeria (this is directed to the Nigerian government) that they are valuable. Their plight, hopes, dreams, and aspirations are important to the Nigerian government. The international community can help the Nigerian government to ensure that this is a reality.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: In terms of the international community and the commitment they have shown or lacked, do you think Nigeria can possibly apply the UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security to protect its women and girls from violence under the conditions of this armed conflict?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: The problem that I have with Nigeria is not about whether or not laws, resolutions, and conventions exist. It’s about implementation. The Nigerian government has signed a whole lot of international treaties and conventions. It’s not just Resolution 1325. There is also CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Nigerian women’s rights organizations have campaigning to domesticate CEDAW and integrated into Nigerian law in a way where all the provisions would apply to Nigerian women’s life in a meaningful way. There is also the African Women’s Charter or the Maputo Declaration. It also talks about rights that women have and the conditions that should be made available to women. 1325 is not the only one. There are about eight of these resolutions that the Security Council has passed. What I want is implementation. In order to implement, there is a need for domestication, training the personnel, and demonstrating—through an efficient delivery of services and implementation of policies—that they’re serious about this.
By the way, Nigeria is part of the Education for All initiative, and we have approximately 12 million children out of school in Nigeria. I think it’s about the largest number of children out of school in the world. What is the point of being part of progressive efforts to say that you care about social protection and committed to justice, equity, and human rights? You are not seriously putting consciousness in place that you are ensuring things are realized. These are the responsibilities of any serious government. What I’m saying about the Nigerian government might as well apply across board in the continent. Africans are sick and tired of having people in government that are just going to sit there and sign all kinds of undertakings that they have no capacity or will to implement. Enough is enough.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: In terms of accountability, I want to go back to the negotiations that took place to return some of the girls. What happened there?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: I wish there was transparency about this. The one who would know is the International Committee of the Red Cross. They participated in the negotiations. If they would say what happened, then we would know. The Nigerian government was also party to this, so they could say something. But there hasn’t been transparency in saying what happened.
What was important is that some of the girls refused to be liberated. There is a lot of speculation why. There is probably Stockholm syndrome and shame; they feel they have been violated. There is also apprehension about not being accepted. I don’t think that apprehension is unwarranted. There are cases where girls have returned with children produced as a result of being captive and subjected to sexual assault. People in their communities label these children as Boko Haram and dangers to the community because they’re going to become like their fathers. People are ostracized and verbally abused.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: The girls are seen as radicalized and sexually tainted, right?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Sexually tainted, radicalized, the enemy within, and all kinds of uncharitable ways of responding to people who are already traumatized. These responses would fester when there is no attempt to help. Part of what needs to happen is peace building. Part of the reason these people are responding this way is that Boko Haram has killed their family members. Boko Haram has taken everything they own, burned their houses, and subjected them to violence. There is a need to foster meaningful peace in the community.
If we leave people to their own devices, you cannot blame somebody for feeling that the people who came and killed my children should not be allowed to come in here. There is a need to find ways of helping people to re-embrace and incorporate those who have been turned away from their communities in this violent way. Something also needs to be done with the people who have been traumatized to help them get back to some kind of normalcy. You cannot just say, “You’ve been rescued. You’re fine.”
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Freedom is not problem-free.
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Yes. I am so concerned about the future. Even after this conflict ends, its effects are going to be with us for a long time. If we don’t do the work of helping people to find peace and recover, then we’re going to have other kinds of violence. We might enter into a cycle of violence. There are also young boys who have become combatants. They’ve been traumatized. Some of them are recruited under horrific conditions where you are made to kill people you are related to—to toughen you and make you violent. There are drugs used.
When you say that the conflict is over, what are you going to do with those people? You have to help them to recover their humanity and integrate them into communities. Nigeria has a huge task on its hands. You don’t wait until crisis spirals out of control before you start building strategies that would help. Trauma is complex; there has to be an understanding that when people are traumatized, it’s also the responsibility of the government to help to develop a framework that will help people find healing and peace. There is the external peace and the internal peace.
The Committee on the Status of Women meetings just ended. The focus was on social protection. There were delegations from Nigeria talking up a storm. There is no social protection if we have all these people in the country who are traumatized and dislocated and at their wits end about the future. Nigeria is to get to work. The challenge is huge but it’s doable.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: If you look—as an outsider—at the media coverage, there is this misconception when we hear the word “rescued.” Some of the girls were rescued, and the news coverage is over. We’re over it. But that’s not the case. The fifth anniversary is right here, and we don’t see as much coverage. We remember Michelle Obama posing with the image of Bring Back Our Girls.
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: That was gratifying. I have to commend everybody that has spoken out. It’s a struggle that is not a short-term thing. It’s not a new cycle. It’s a challenge that continues. 112 of those girls are still in Boko Haram captivity. Like I said, Leah Sharibu is still captive. Three humanitarian health workers were also abducted. Two of them were slaughtered by Boko Haram in a very public way. One of them Alice Loksha is still held captive. Those are the ones there is most attention on. Together with them are thousands of other women and children. They are also boys and men. They must be rescued and reconnected with their families.
Then the challenge begins of making them whole and helping them to feel an inner peace. Help the communities to feel peaceful about the fact that some have been part of the pain that was inflicted on others and help the innocent children that were produced as a result of this violence to be incorporated into loving communities. If Nigeria can do this well, the country will gain tremendously. If we don’t do it well, we’re going to be facing trauma in perpetuity.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Going back to the trauma, could you talk about what the girls who have returned experience? What kind of long-term symptoms do they have?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Fear. There is also survivor’s guilt. Some of the girls who are now free are not happy because their friends—they refer to them as their sisters—are still in captivity. They know how hard things are. The girls who were interviewed at the American University in Yola, Adamawa said that they’re sad—although they are free and they’re going to this posh school. They know what the conditions are in the Sambisa forest. It’s a rainy season now, so these are girls who are exposed to the elements. They are sexually abused on a consistent basis. There may be insufficient food. If they are sick, there is no access to medical care. Many of the girls who are safe are still traumatized by this.
Since this abduction in 2014, about 19 parents have died—predominantly from the stress of having their children in captivity. A lot of the ones who haven’t died have conditions that you associate with stress—high blood pressure or even mental instability. Just the thought of what your child is going through can make a person crazy. There are also siblings of these girls. It’s painful. Every time there are these anniversaries, what the Bring Back Our Girls groups in Nigeria try to do is include the family of our girls—to give them comfort and to keep advocating for rescue.
It’s not easy even after people are free. There are psychosomatic symptoms where people are not able to see what the source of this pain is. There is fear and night terror. Some of them cannot sleep with the lights off. There are flashbacks and things like that.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: It affects everybody—not just the girls.
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Not just the girls. It affects the parents and siblings of girls that are still in captivity. Their imagination goes into overdrive about what might be happening.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Do they have any source of assistance?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Some of the Bring Back Our Girls people help. One organization that has helped a lot is the Murtala Muhammed Foundation. It has helped siblings in sponsoring some of their education. It has helped with medical assistance to parents. There is some civil society support. I’ve also read that some of the international agencies have done psychosocial support. But it’s short-term and not coordinated. The need is greater than the available intervention. Plus, I don’t think there is high enough priority on psychosocial support. There is more attention on giving people food and providing them with shelter than taking care of their psychological and social integration needs. In terms of the international community, you wonder how much commitment is there. When we say that we care about things like this, how much are we devoting to it in terms of resources?
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Can you talk about what the US has done? What can the US learn from the kidnappings?
MOJUBAOLU OKOME: Under the Obama administration, Michelle Obama brought high prominence to this issue. President Obama was very compassionate and stated clearly that the American government was ready to assist. The Goodluck Jonathan administration said initially that it didn’t need help. After a while, it decided to accept help. It didn’t go well because there were problems in terms of providing the assistance.
There has been more coordination. This is not something that’s just affecting Nigeria. It’s affecting a part of West Africa—Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger, which is in the Lake Chad Basin. There has been more coordination of multi-national task force that is directed at fighting Boko Haram. There has been American and French technical assistance during the Goodluck Jonathan administration. These countries consider this to be a strategic area because of the oil that is coming from the Gulf of Guinea. There is also the base that America has in Chad and Niger. There is an interest in this region, so there is more support than would have been ordinarily. What is needed is prioritizing the human security of the people rather than doing it for strategic reasons of powerful countries that may coincide with strategic countries of weak countries.
President Trump met with some of the Chibok girls who are in the US. These PR meetings mean nothing. PR meeting are not policy. The Nigerian President visited when the Trump administration began, and there was commitment to fight Boko Haram. As far as President Trump is concerned, this is a Muslim versus Christian thing. He’s going to go and defend Christians. This is a misreading of the whole thing. Boko Haram is killing probably more Muslims than Christians. We can’t have a situation where we have Islamophobia. Many of the people who are criticizing fighting Boko Haram are Muslims. Many Muslims are helping the traumatized people. We should not put a religious reading on this. Because some want resources from Islamophobic people, they play this as a religious conflict and a clash of civilizations. It isn’t that.
If anyone is interested in solving this problem, there has to be an understanding and an inter-religious dialogue. We have to approach people as people. Whether someone is Muslim or Christian ought not to matter. What should matter is that we are all human. We are all deserving of being valued. We’re all deserving of being supported. If we are valued, supported, and allowed to have our basic human needs, it would be easier for us to reach our full human potential. If I deserve it, then the people in northeastern Nigeria deserve it.
MARYNA TKACHENKO: Thank you so much for joining us. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or rate us on iTunes. To learn more about the work of the Global Justice Center, visit our website www.globaljusticecenter.net