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Nigerians Urge Leaders: Forget Politics, Find Our Girls Now


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're going to start the program today with a story we've been covering closely for the last few weeks - the kidnapping of more than 200 girls at a boarding school in Nigeria last month. There have been a number of new developments we want to tell you about, including mounting pressure on the government of Nigeria to step up its efforts to find the girls. That pressure coming from the streets of Nigeria, online and in cities around the world.

We wanted to hear more about this, so in a few minutes we'll be joined by NPR Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She will be joining us from Dakar, Senegal. But first, we go to Chika Oduah. She is a freelance journalist with us from Abuja in Nigeria. Chika, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

CHIKA ODUAH: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: It seemed at first that there was some ambiguity about who was responsible for this kidnapping, although fingers - you know, it seemed - all signs seemed to point to the terrorist group Boko Haram. Now that group has claimed responsibility. Am I right? What exactly have they said?

ODUAH: Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the abduction. The leader, Abubakar Shekau, has released a video in which he directly says we abducted your girls. And of course that is a direct reference to the April 14 attack at the school in Chibok. However there is kind of a discrepancy on who is still in charge and who is behind.

The first lady, Patience Jonathan, held a meeting with some of the women who were from this Chibok. This meeting was held yesterday throughout most of the day. And one of the mothers says that the first lady is actually blaming residents of Chibok. She's also saying that perhaps the Borno state governor may have a hand or maybe he knows where the girls are being taken. So at this point, the responsibility has taken a political dynamic so they're - everyone is kind of pointing fingers on who could be responsible. But, yes, Boko Haram has now come out to claim responsibility.

MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about what they said. Did they offer a reason in this video?

ODUAH: There's no reason. All he said was that we've taken your girls and this is, again, just going back to previous messages, confirming previous messages where he says that we're going to increase attacks on schools, on religious facilities and again just throughout Abuja.

Also after the Nyanya attack, Abubakar Shekau came out and said you don't know where we are but we are in your city. So he seems to be restating what he's been saying before. No reason was given. We do understand that some of the girls were from various tribes, both Christian and Muslim. Again, no reason was given, but he has come out to claim responsibility.

MARTIN: I know that you've spoken with some of the families of the girls involved - can you tell us a little bit more about what they have said?

ODUAH: She's saying that they have lost confidence completely in the Nigerian government. Just shortly after the abduction took place on April 14, the defense ministry came out to say that most of the girls had been rescued. They said, no, sorry - made a mistake. So now people are even losing confidence in the government's capability to even rescue these girls.

MARTIN: You were saying that the wife of the president has suggested that the local authorities are somehow complicit in this. I'm going to hear more about this from Ofeibea in just a few minutes. But does anyone credit that? Of the people that you have been speaking with - the citizens who were following this - does anybody credit that? Does anybody think that that might be true?

ODUAH: Of course not. Many people are saying that this - all this we have, the political coloration and the Borno governor - it's important to note that he's coming from a different party from the president. So perhaps there's a political motive there. She outrightly said according to one of the mothers who met with her yesterday that these locals may be involved or they know where the girls have been taken. So this was suggested by the first lady herself.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, we're going to hear more about the international response to this in a minute. But, Chika, could I just ask you how big of a story is this where you are?

ODUAH: This is a huge story. Actually, women in Abuja gathered themselves last week to conduct a protest, a rally, in the rain. And they were able to gather support mostly from young people - young Nigerians.

So they've been holding meetings every single day in Abuja - not just in Abuja - Lagos has joined, Kano has joined. So these Bring Back Our Girls campaign meetings are held every day in Abuja from 3 in the afternoon to 7 p.m. - and this is where they strategize on what to do next. And of course social media is where most Nigerians have gone to feel their angst. So it is a very huge story.

MARTIN: Chika Oduah is a freelance journalist with us from Abuja in Nigeria. Chika, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ODUAH: Thank you.

MARTIN: Let's turn now to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR Africa correspondent with us from Dakar. Ofeibea, thank you so much for joining us.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Yeah, greetings. More on this sorrowful story, and it gets more and more complicated.

MARTIN: Please tell us more about that, Ofeibea. I wanted to amplify something that Chika mentioned, which is now that the wife of President Goodluck Jonathan was suggesting that the local authorities in this region might somehow be involved. Could you tell us a little bit more about what's going on?

QUIST-ARCTON: Apparently, Patience Jonathan - and she is a powerful and influential woman within her own right, although of course she has no political power as such and no formal role - had asked the Chibok mothers, the mothers of these missing girls, to come and see her. And apparently she feels slighted that instead of the mothers, who of course are distraught, anxious, protesting, didn't come themselves but sent a representative to see her - somebody called Naomi Mutah Nyadar - who was one of the organizers of the protest march in Abuja, the capital, on Wednesday.

Now, Saratu Angus Ndirpaya, who's from Chibok, says that she went along with this activist to see the first lady who accused them. First of all, she expressed doubts about the mass kidnapping and accused the Chibok people and the families of belonging to Boko Haram, the insurgent network which has claimed responsibility for the girls' abductions. And Ndirpaya says the first lady even accused them of fabricating the story to give her husband, President Goodluck Jonathan, and his government a bad name.

This is just making the whole thing even more complicated. And as we've heard, Abubakar Shekau, who is the putative leader of Boko Haram has now come out with this video, as Chika has said. And he's using this, almost echoing the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, by saying I've got your girls. He's also said, I abducted your girls. By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace. And of course, that evokes such fear because we're already hearing reports that these young women - aged between 16 and 18 - from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok have been sold into "marriage" - marriage is in inverted commas, in quotes - to their captors, that they're being used as sex slaves and as servants.

So this is going to make it even more distressing for the families. Although, we're told 50-odd did manage to escape. But the numbers have gone up from 200 to 270, almost 300 girls it seems were abducted mid-April, exactly three weeks ago tonight.

MARTIN: This is not the first time that Boko Haram has attacked a school. Is it seen as an escalation? How do you view this?

QUIST-ARCTON: This mass abduction of these schoolgirls is unprecedented. The fact that in the past, some boys have been killed, have had their throats slit. The girls have been told - and don't forget that Boko Haram means boko - in Hausa, the main local language in the north - boko haram, sin or forbidden. So Western education, loosely, is forbidden. The girls have been told go home, get married and give up your studies, in the past. But this time, the girls have actually been trucked by militant extremists who were posing as soldiers in uniforms - and a big question mark about what has happened to them.

This is why President Goodluck Jonathan is under such pressure. Three weeks - how come? The families, the activists, the campaigners who are marching from Abuja to New York, how come, they're saying, that the intelligence that the military should have, they don't even know where these girls are? Nigerians want answers, and they want answers now. These girls are part of Nigeria's elite.

MARTIN: In South Korea, the prime minister resigned over that terrible ferry disaster there, where more than 200 people died, including many schoolchildren. Has there been any accountability within the Nigerian government for the failure to address this so far?

QUIST-ARCTON: Nobody has offered to step down, if that's what you're asking, Michel. I mean, look how long it has taken President Goodluck Jonathan to speak out publicly. Certainly, we're not expecting any - perhaps people might be fired, but we're not expecting people to resign voluntarily. I think this is why there is such criticism of the president. He was seen dancing in Kano, also in the North, hours after the girls' abduction, at one of his party gatherings.

And don't forget that the elections are coming up in Nigeria next year. And the elections always herald, I'm afraid, trouble and often violence and certainly politicking. But Nigerians are saying, hey, keep the politics out of this. These are the lives of young women. They could be your daughters, your sisters, your nieces. They are our future. But you have President Goodluck Jonathan's party pointing to the three states - including Borno, where Chibok is, where the girls' school is - under those three states, under emergency rule for the past year. They are run by the opposition. So you have both sides pointing fingers.

But Nigerians are saying, forget that. Politicians, find these girls. We have a military. We have a police force that goes abroad to Liberia, to Sierra Leone, on key peacekeeping mission. How about in our own country? They have got to find these girls. And don't forget also, Michel, that we're just a couple of days away from Abuja, the capital, hosting the World Economic Forum for Africa. The Chinese premier is the honored guest. Nigeria has promised that it can ensure security, and yet we saw a second bomb - car bomb attack outside Abuja within miles of the seat of government on Thursday. So everybody is very nervous and very jittery and very, very angry.

MARTIN: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's Africa correspondent with us from Dakar, Senegal. Ofeibea, thank you so much for speaking with us.

QUIST-ARCTON: Michel, we will keep you updated.

MARTIN: We also heard from Chika Oduah. She's a freelance journalist who had joined us previously from Abuja, Nigeria.

We hope you'll stay with us. Just ahead, we're going to take a look at the global activism online and in cities around the world aimed at finding these missing Nigerian schoolgirls. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is making its mark. We're going to speak to the former head of TransAfrica, Nicole Lee, about this and also about her career in advocacy. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.