Letter from Africa: Will Chibok parents switch sides?

One of the mothers of the missing Chibok school girls wipes her tears as she cries during a rally by civil society groups pressing for the release of the girls in Abuja on 6 May 2014

In our series of letters from African journalists, Sola Odunfa in Lagos writes that the schoolgirls abducted by militant Islamists in Nigeria are at the centre of a political battle between the president and his critics.

It is more than three months since militant Islamist group Boko Haram raided a boarding school in Chibok town in north-eastern Nigeria and took more than 200 teenage girls captive.

No senior member of the Nigerian government has taken the trouble to visit the town, which also suffered large-scale destruction during the attack.

It has now taken a visit by the 17-year-old Pakistani rights activist, Malala Yousafzai, to persuade Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan to meet the girls' parents to, at least, express his sympathy.

Malala, herself a victim of a militant attack, was in Nigeria last week to lend support to efforts to rescue the girls and to promote education of the girl-child.

Members of civil society groups hold placards and shout slogans as they protest the abduction of Chibok school girls during a rally in Abuja on 6 May 2014 Nigerians from across the spectrum have been outraged
Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai raises her arms as she poses with five escaped Chibok school girls (LtoR) Rebecca Ishaku, Kanna Bitrus, Hauwa John, Hauwa Musa and Hawa Alhl'ama during a press conference in Abuja, Nigeria, on 14 July 2014 Malala Yousafzai showed solidarity with some of the teenagers who escaped captivity

It was during her audience with President Goodluck Jonathan last Monday that she appealed to him to meet the parents of the abducted girls and some of the girls who escaped from their captors' den.

'Undisguised dislike'

The president accepted her appeal and arrangements were immediately made to receive the parents and girls.

Responsible Nigerians of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign group had been camping in the open in Abuja for several weeks for the same reason Malala visited - to raise awareness about the plight of the girls - but they were shunned in government circles.

Perhaps, there was the consideration that they couldn't muster a fraction of the international media mileage which a meeting with the Pakistani girl was guaranteed to give, even though it was the group which brought the Chibok tragedy to the conscience of the world.

Also, there was the undisguised dislike for the campaigners because their leader is Obiageli Ezekwesili, who held a senior post in the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Abuja - 7 May 2014 China's premier has sent advisers to help track down the girls
Obiageli Ezekwesili addresses a #BringBackOurGirls meeting at Maitama park in Abuja on 30 May  2014 Group leader Obiageli Ezekwesili is a fierce critic of the president

She had in the past year become an unrelenting critic of Mr Jonathan's government. Of course, it would have been politically inappropriate, in his minders' thinking, for the president to be seen to support a platform which is sure to enhance her public standing.

A parallel group #RescueOurGirls emerged in Abuja in June but its life was cut short by media reports that it was officially sponsored.

President Jonathan's biggest problem with the Chibok saga was the initial disbelief in government circles that it happened in the way it was described.

Every detail of the stories told was questioned but no rational answer was said to have been found.

The sheer logistics of transporting more than 200 screaming girls within a short time at night was considered beyond the capability of the abductors. There was difficulty in accurately establishing the number of victims.

Who are Boko Haram?
A screen grab taken from a video released on You Tube in April 2012, apparently showing Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau (centre) sitting flanked by militants
  • Founded in 2002
  • Initially focused on opposing Western education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
  • Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
  • Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
  • Some three million people affected
  • Declared terrorist group by US in 2013

Who are Boko Haram?

Profile: Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau

'Changing lives'

Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of the southern Delta State, who is one of President Jonathan's closest allies, summed up the pessimism in a magazine interview this way:

"The Chibok abduction is very confusing, emerging facts and information very confusing... There are too many questions on the Chibok girls, but the bottom line is that we have girls who have been kidnapped. Hopefully, let us find a way of getting them out, whether they are 200, 50 or two."

A Nigerian soldiers stands beside a burnt house after the army clashed with Boko Haram insurgents in Borno state. Photo: April 2013 The insurgency has caused widespread destruction in north-eastern Nigeria

Domestic and international pressure prevailed and the government stepped up military action in the north-eastern region, not only to rescue the Chibok girls but also to contain the insurgents. This may not have translated into total success but without it the situation might have been worse.

The Malala visit came in very handy for the president's men to raise a platform for the Chibok people to look up to Mr Jonathan - and him alone. In Abuja on Tuesday they get the opportunity to taste what life could be in the government camp, in contrast to what it is like hobnobbing with those seen as "government enemies" - they will be the toasts in State House rather than on-lookers.

I bet their lives will change somewhat and they will forget how long it has taken to see and hear the president tell them how much he cares for them, their children and their town.

They may even begin to agree with the government that some opposition parties and other critics are quietly encouraging Boko Haram's insurgency. That couldn't be bad for President Jonathan seven months ahead of the presidential election.

If you would like to comment on Sola Odunfa's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    It is those who know nothing about mr president criticize him..................nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I am a Nigerian & i am appalled at the shameless propaganda of the author. I am amazed that the BBC could allow such."there was the undisguised dislike for the campaigners".how do you substantiate that?

    in contrast to hobnobbing with government enemies, they will be the toasts rather than on-lookers, their lives will change & they will forget how long it has taken to see the president."


  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Nigerian northern moslems(all, army, police, iman, politicians, emirs all etc ) are sympathetic to Boko haram. The govenment will find it very difficult or impossible to get these girls back.
    The only way it can be resolve is simple by Jonathan reliquishing his post, but the southerners can not let that happen.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The incompetence of the Jonathan regime is mortally depressing to me. Especially in a country like Nigeria that might otherwise have so much potential as a nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Its such a shame on the country and AFRICA as a whole to have such a puppet/figure head as the president of the largest black nation and the so called African Economy power house. he does not have a clue about governance and responsibilties to the people of the country. irrespective of the politics going on in the country a responsible leader should have responded positively.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Re 6: Unfortunately, it is impossible to leave the religion of the kidnappers out of any discussion, even though mention of it seems to cause great pain to the BBC moderator. Quite simply, the religious label is how the kidnappers chose to identify themselves. To ignore this is like refusing to call the Pope a Roman Catholic - it is the label they chose. They claim they are muslims - so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The war is between the Group leader Obiageli Ezekwesili (Opposition Politician) Vs Presidency (The Masses). This is because she has so politicised the Chibok Girls issue that even a smallboy in Nigeria knows she is working for either the APC or Intnl group. When 9/11 happened, Americans did not match to WhiteHouse to ask President Bush to rebuild the Twin Towers. We dont want the girls dead. Alive

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    "the schoolgirls abducted by militant Islamists in Nigeria are at the centre of a political battle between the president and his critics"

    I am sure they are more interested in the battle to survive. Which is what I'd hope most people are more interested in.
    And please just call them terrorists and leave whatever 'religion' they claim to be a member of out of it.

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    oga jonathan, do something. at the moment, shacow is winning this war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Buying someone's daughter is normal. Here in SA it is called "paying lobola". Polygamy is normal, too. Having many wives/daughters is very useful: they do all the work, and you don't have to pay them. Women are property here, they aren't people. So they can be stolen, just like anything else that isn't nailed down.
    Is there any hope for Africa? Not when people think like that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The thing is if this is an external aggression coming in from Borno is this how we will give this and that excuse for not been able to quell it. No matter who is the enemy please flush this nonsense out once for all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    WHY HAVE NORTHERN ELITES KEPT QUIET AND REFUSED TO DENOUNCE or at least openly condemn the barbaric act?
    When you answer this question, you will have the answer to the whole mess about Boko Haram.
    The President has his hands full, and is fighting an unknown Devilish Medusa. DO NOT BLAME THE PRESIDENT, YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND NIGERIA and NIGERIAN POLITICS,


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