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Bring Back Our Girls: Nigerians Caught Between Deadly Boko Haram Attacks & Military Reprisals

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“Bring back our girls” has become the rallying cry in Nigeria as protests continue over the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from a northern boarding school. On April 14, Islamic militants stormed an all-girl secondary school and seized the students. On Monday, a video was released showing the leader of Boko Haram claiming responsibility. State officials report some of the girls have already been sold off as brides for as little as $12. Others were reportedly forced to marry their abductors, and taken to neighboring Cameroon and Chad. The area in northeastern Nigeria where the girls were kidnapped has been under a state of emergency for nearly a year, and their school was reportedly the only one still open. We speak to Nigerian writer and activist Ijeoma Uduma in Lagos and journalist Omoyele Sowore, publisher of the website Sahara Reporters.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: “Bring back our girls.” That has become the rallying cry in Nigeria as protests continue over the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from a northern boarding school. On April 14th, Islamic militants stormed an all-girl secondary school and seized the students. On Monday, a video was released showing the leader of Boko Haram claiming responsibility.

ABUBAKAR SHEKAU: [translated] Just because I took some little girls in Western education, everybody is making noise. Let me tell you, I took the girls. Girls go and get married. We’re against Western education. And I say, “Stop Western education.” I repeat, I took the girls, and I will sell them off. There’s a market for selling girls.

AARON MATÉ: Nearly 300 schoolgirls remain in captivity, while 53 have managed to escape. State officials report some of the girls have already been sold off as brides for as little as $12. Others were reportedly forced to marry their abductors, and taken to neighboring Cameroon and Chad. The area in northeastern Nigeria where the girls were kidnapped has been under a state of emergency for nearly a year, and their school was reportedly the only one still open. Hundreds have taken to the streets calling on Nigeria’s government to intensify its search for the students.

AYO YEMISI: What we are here to do is to let the government know that they should declare the identity of the kidnappers and release our daughters. This is not too much an assignment for Nigeria to do. And that is why we are here.

PROTESTER: We want security to be doubled up in our schools. We want these girls to be rescued with immediate effect. We want them back alive, because they are our tomorrow.

AARON MATÉ: On Sunday, President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to win the girls’ release, but hours later, police arrested two women who helped organize protests over the government’s seeming inaction. The two had just met with first lady Patience Jonathan, who accused them of fabricating the story of the abduction in order to embarrass her husband’s government. The story is making international headlines just as Nigeria prepares to host the World Economic Forum on Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Lagos, Nigeria, Ijeoma Uduma is with us. She is a writer and former journalist who has attended recent protests in Lagos calling for more to be done to find and release the kidnapped girls. She’s also part of the Stolen Dreams campaign to draw attention to Nigerian government corruption.

Here in New York, we’re joined by the Nigerian journalist Omoyele Sowore, publisher of the online news site SaharaReporters.com.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to Lagos first to Ijeoma Uduma. Tell us the latest news. Can you talk about the significance of this video that has been released by Boko Haram, and what exactly has happened?

IJEOMA UDUMA: The video they released, I guess I don’t know if it answers a lot of questions, because many people have been claiming that, like the first lady said, none of this has—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re having a little trouble with the video stream to Nigeria, so let me take this question to Sowore, Omoyele Sowore, with us. And it’s really nice to see you again.


AMY GOODMAN: I traveled to Nigeria years ago and worked with Sowore in the Niger Delta. Sowore, talk about what’s happened here.

OMOYELE SOWORE: Well, maybe I should start with an update, that as of this morning, they’ve carried out the abduction of eight more girls in a place called Waranbe.

AMY GOODMAN: In addition to the 300, eight more girls were taken.

OMOYELE SOWORE: In addition, yes, and they’re taken away township known as Gwoza, very close to Maiduguri. So what has happened here is that there are two things. The abduction did happen, but the Nigerian government does not want people to know that this abduction took place. And after—the day after it took place, the army came out and said, you know, the girls have been rescued, only for the principal to say this was a big lie. And then, for the first time, the Nigerian army or defense forces did retract that story.

So, the girls, nobody knows their whereabout. President Jonathan says he doesn’t even know where the girls are located, as the chief—the commander-in-chief of the armed forces in Nigeria. And then, people within his Cabinet do not—believe that this is some kind of conspiracy against the president, and as a result, this should not be made a major issue. As a matter of fact, it will be almost three weeks now that the abduction had taken place. We’re just getting to put pressure on him, or he’s responding to pressure, two weeks after. It is likely because of the World Economic Forum that is taking place. So, nothing is known about the whereabout of the girls, and there’s just a lot of speculation as to where they are.

What I know and I can tell the public is that Boko Haram has begun to create its own territory within today—I mean, four countries—Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. So, whenever they do anything, they carry out their own little government within that path. So when they say they are distributed in Niger, no, there’s nothing like Niger, Chad or Cameroon anymore: Boko Haram has its own country now.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are they? Who is Boko Haram?

OMOYELE SOWORE: Well, these are Islamist militants that became really deadly when the Nigerian government in 2009 went and extrajudicially killed their leaders. And there was no—they never got justice. And it was known that this was like mass killing by the Nigerian government of a likely fanatic, but peaceful, group that had schools and preached, you know, that the Islamic—I mean, they want pure Islam to reign in Nigeria. But it was not until the Nigerian police went and killed their leaders that Boko Haram became a big problem for Nigeria and Nigerians.

AMY GOODMAN: What does “Boko Haram” mean?

OMOYELE SOWORE: “Boko Haram” means Western education is a sin. That’s [inaudible]—you know, but you’ll be shocked that most of their leaders and operatives are actually graduates, so—and speak fluent English very well, because we talk to—we used to be able to talk to some of them, but now they’ve mostly gone underground and become more deadly.

AARON MATÉ: And since they launched their uprising five years ago, what has the situation been like in the north? I mean, unfortunately, this is one of dozens of atrocities. We’ve had massacres back in February. There was the burning of a school for boys; around 50 boys died.


AARON MATÉ: What has the situation been under this Boko Haram campaign?

OMOYELE SOWORE: Well, what we’ve seen now is that they’re increasingly becoming bolder. And like I said, they are creating territory, and they’re becoming a regional problem. In that region of four countries where you have Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria, they are creating a territory there. And they are carrying out more deadly activities, not only in Nigeria, but they will in Cameroon. In Cameroon yesterday, they broke into an army barracks in northern Cameroon and freed one of their two high-profile leaders from an army barrack. They’ve become more audacious, to the extent that when they go for attacks, they actually film the attacks and release the audited video—I mean, edited videos of the attacks. So that tells you that these guys are not joking. We will just wake up one day and find out that these guys have overrun parts of Nigeria, especially northern Nigeria. And they’re coming closer and closer to the south. I mean, in the last three weeks, they’ve bombed a major bus station in Abuja twice. And there was raid this Monday of a primary school, which the police is saying is just armed robbery, but you never know.

AMY GOODMAN: Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and Abuja is the capital of Nigeria. Over the weekend, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan held his first meeting with outraged parents, this following criticism [of] the government responses to their daughters’ kidnapping. In a televised interview with a panel of journalists, Jonathan pledged to win the girls’ release.

PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN: We promise that wherever these girls are, we will surely get them out. One good thing that I’m a bit happy and I believe most Nigerians are happy is that there is no story that any of them has been hurt in terms of injured or that. I really sympathize and express my empathy to the parents and the relatives and, of course, the guardians of these girls. We are all fathers and mothers. If your daughter of school age—these are, who had to write their secondary school terminal exams, so they are people from about 17 to 18 years old. And they are under some circumstances, it’s traumatizing. It’s quite painful. But let us reassure them that we’ll get their daughters out.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan. Parents are outraged at the lack of government response. I mean, just to put this in perspective, 300 girls taken, more today. There were certainly fewer—what was it? Something like 275 people on the Malaysian airliner. The whole world was involved in what happened to this airliner. These are children who have been kidnapped. Sowore?

OMOYELE SOWORE: Well, I would think that if half of the resources spent—if half of the aircraft put in the air to search for debris in the ocean looking for the Malaysian airline was put in this particular part of Nigeria, we would have rescued the girls by now and probably ended the insurgency. But the truth is that, you know, an aircraft is an elite system of transportation. More people probably die in road accidents in Nigeria every day, and nobody cares. But, you know, when you have to deal with rich people, people will have more concern. And, of course, you know, airliners are big businesses around the world. So, but I’m not in any way trying to say that the Malaysian airline crash, or whatever happened to it, is less important than these girls, but I think it would have been fair if the world paid the same amount of attention to finding the girls, you know, and not, in a way, just talking about it, you know, hashtagging it, without really physically trying to rescue the girls. I was listening to President Jonathan. He said he’s going to rescue the girls. But he tells around in the same media chat that he doesn’t know their location. How do you rescue people whose location you can’t even track—I mean, people you can’t even track? So there’s a dilemma for Nigeria.

But this is what we’ve been saying on our website, that this government, the Nigerian government, has been so corrupt, too corrupt, to get anything done. Just two months ago, they fired the Central Bank governor because he said over $50 billion was stolen by the national—Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation. Army generals are pocketing moneys meant for buying weapons, motivating soldiers and police, that are supposed to be fighting Boko Haram. We published all of this. We obtained pictures from soldiers who are fighting Boko Haram who have nowhere to sleep, you know, have no water to drink, have no good food to eat. So, Boko Haram is actually better equipped and better motivated than the Nigerian army or the Nigerian police and security forces fighting them. So that’s the major dilemma. You know, this is, again, the outcome of years of corruption that has ravaged Nigeria for the last 50 years, you know, within which over $500 billion was stolen by Nigerian elites, sometimes to buy private jets.

AARON MATÉ: I want to ask you about the Nigerian government’s response, their counteroffensive to the Boko Haram, because that has also brought allegations of civilian deaths. Last June, The New York Times reported on the accounts of Nigerians in the north who accused the military of a terror campaign in their offensive to root out the Boko Haram. The refugees described, quote, “indiscriminate bombing and shooting, unexplained civilian deaths, nighttime roundups of young men by security forces. All spoke of a climate of terror that had pushed them, in the thousands, to flee for miles through the harsh and baking semidesert, sometimes on foot, to Niger. A few blamed Boko Haram—a shadowy, rarely glimpsed presence for most residents—for the violence. But the overwhelming majority blamed the military, saying they had fled their country because of it.” What about this, the Nigerian military, in their effort to root out Boko Haram, committing atrocities?

OMOYELE SOWORE: Well, the Nigerian military has always been known for brutality and high-handedness. I was a student activist for years in Nigeria, and we experienced a long period of military rule. They have no respect for human rights, and so I’m not surprised that we’re hearing that. We’ve documented several of these killings, indiscriminate killings of civilians. As a matter of fact, as I mentioned at the beginning of the program, Boko Haram became deadly because of this high-handedness, this reckless, you know, extrajudicial killing of its innocent leaders—innocent members, at that time, of—you know, we won’t say “innocent leaders,” but by the time they were killing them, these guys had not become as deadly as we know now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Ijeoma Uduma. We have you now on audio Skype in Lagos. What are you calling for right now?

IJEOMA UDUMA: Well, we’re asking the government to commit as much resources as possible and take it seriously, because the utterances from both the president and his wife shows that really they are not taking a—they think it’s a political thing. They think we are doing it because we want to be against them. But really, pardon my French, we couldn’t care less about them.

It’s more about these girls. These are ordinary 16-year-old girls who should be at home gossiping with their friends, especially having finished their exams. But they are not. Though they are ordinary, but they are also extraordinary, because in some states in the north, the girl education completion rates for schooling is as low as 8 percent, meaning that 92 percent of girls don’t finish high school. But these young girls wanted to be different. They wanted to go beyond what was normal for people around them. And you could see that even their parents, as well, wanted them to be different. They were desperate. Even though they knew there was a risk of, you know, this happening, they also knew that this was the only opportunity for them to break out of the cycle of both violence and poverty, in which they were in. So, this—you know, what we are calling for is for the government to take this seriously and stop playing politics with it.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you calling for other governments to get involved, Ijeoma?

IJEOMA UDUMA: If that—if that is what is necessary, if that is what is necessary, because watching the video of this Shekau, you know, it makes your blood boil. You see how relaxed and how confident he is, because he’s been dealing with the Nigerian government for several years. And we’ve not—we’ve heard the Nigerian president say, “Oh, we’ve chased them to the fringes.” So he is now saying, “Hello, I am on the fringes, and I’m causing trouble for you. I’m taking your children from the schools, from”—I mean, the children, they were taken in the middle of the night, so this is practically from their beds that they’ve been taken. So, this is—this is really—I don’t know how much more of a confrontation the president needs for him to decide that this is serious.

AARON MATÉ: And, Ijeoma, why do think it took him so long to even meet with the families and to offer up a response?

IJEOMA UDUMA: I don’t even know if he has met with the families. I don’t even know if he has met with the families. I think because also this is their election campaign period, and the bombings have been going on, and the same lackadaisical attitude has been shown to all these things previously. So I think it was the same, or it has happened. In fact, this morning, in his way of condoling the Kenyans with regards to the bombing that happened there, what he told them was, “Oh, it’s happening in Kenya, as well.” This was what our president said in response to something like that happening. So, to him, it’s another day at the office. But what has made this different is that now it’s not just us Nigerians saying—talking about it; the whole world is talking about it. Yes, we are just hashtagging, but guess what: Everybody all over the world are also hashtagging and putting pressure on the government. So this is what we want, for people to keep talking, keep tweeting, keep calling, keep protesting. That’s what is putting pressure on the government.

AMY GOODMAN: Ijeoma Uduma, we want to thank you for being with us, Nigerian writer and former journalist. And Omoyele Sowore, thank you so much, publisher of SaharaReporters.com.

OMOYELE SOWORE: I wish to announce that we have a—we have a rally today in front of the Nigerian Embassy, a Bring Back—

AMY GOODMAN: In New York City.

OMOYELE SOWORE: Yes, in New York City at 12:00 noon.

AMY GOODMAN: We will cover that.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, the latest on the Occupy trial. A young woman charged with assaulting a police officer, she is convicted. She faces seven years in prison. She’s at Rikers Island right now. And then we speak with former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver and actor Danny Glover. Stay with us.

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