I’m grateful for the opportunity to join the #BringBackourGirls Coalition at this encounter. I want to thank the Nigerian women across the country who have inspired and sustained this movement, especially the mothers, families, and communities of the abducted school girls.

The call to #BringBackOurGirls has gained voice as a grassroots movement across Nigeria and beyond. This is an organic and grassroots organizing effort that began from the abduction of hundreds of teenage girls whose only crime was using their holiday break to read for a high school examination. Their abduction is a war crime.

Before this, we’d been somewhat disorganized in the face of the onslaught of a mass-casualty insurgency. From it, a movement has emerged which gives us all common cause.

As Nigerians, we must agree to elevate some things above partisan politics. One such thing is public safety. Another is the wellbeing of our children and our future. A third must be the defence of our hard-won democratic space.

Today in Nigeria, we have a rampaging youth bulge; a dearth of jobs and skills; poisonous political rhetoric; social media to purvey it; abysmal public ethics; incapable public institutions; and a public space dominated by corruption, impunity and perverse incentives for both. These feed a growing divide between narrow identity groups defined by faith, sect, status; between rich and poor; haves and have-nots.

This difficult watershed for our country must compel us to take the wellbeing of our youths and the health of our political space seriously.

These Chibok girls are young people. As our next generation, they are the guarantors of the continuity of our race and country. They’re, therefore, not just “our” girls; they’re our future. If we cannot protect our future, then we fail ourselves and our ancestors.

54 days into these crimes, there’re many things we still don’t know:

  • How many of our girls were indeed abducted?
  • How could the abduction of so many young women happen in an area under emergency without as much as the discharge of one bullet in their defence or honour?
  • How could their abductors go from Chibok to their hideouts without meeting any resistance?
  • Why did the authorities expose these girls to the hazard of undertaking these examinations under circumstances of clearly inadequate security?

To these questions we still do not have clear answers. From these questions it’s clear that there’s a lot of blame to share. Evidently, there’ve been errors at various levels, state and federal. But that’s no reason for the path of divisive and defensive rhetoric that some public officers at both federal and state levels and politicians on all sides have chosen. If anything, it should force all levels, institutions and parties of the public space to re-double efforts for joined-up leadership.

The #BringBackourGirls movement cannot answer these questions. Instead, it is the responsibility of government to answer them. With every sense of responsibility, I admit, they are right in raising these issues. I also believe that we owe the movement a duty to support it: for without it, these girls, their families and communities could easily have been forgotten.

There’re intrinsic, practical, functional, and legal reasons why I say the #BringBackourGirls movement is right and deserves our support to continue to pose these questions and make these demands in the manner that it does.

Intrinsically, only citizens who care would bother to ask these questions. Those who don’t will simply carry on with business as usual. It’s in our national interest to foster citizenship that cares.

As a practical matter, these questions go to the heart of how we conduct public business in Nigeria. It’s a matter of painful shame for us all as Nigerians that we cannot say how many of our children were abducted. If we cannot count hundreds of missing girls, how can we be trusted to count tens of millions of votes or hundreds of millions of people or thousands of billions of public money accurately?

When a country is threatened by an existential adversary such as we confront today in north-east Nigeria, it is the function of leadership to unite civic assets against a common adversary. This problem doesn’t just threaten the north-east or its peoples. When any part of Nigeria suffers, we all suffer. The #BringBackourGirls movement has brought home this message in a manner that no political leader in the country could manage.

As a matter of law, Section 14(2)(b) of our 1999 Constitution solemnly declares that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.” It is for this reason that we have security agencies and we ask all to support our security agencies because their work is difficult but necessary. Section 24 of the Constitution also requires citizens to “respect the dignity of other citizens and the rights and legitimate interests of others and live in unity and harmony and in the spirit of common brotherhood” and to “render assistance to appropriate and lawful agencies in the maintenance of law and order.” #BringBackourGirls executes this constitutional duty.

This is why I think that asking the #BringBackourGirls movement to channel its demands to Boko Haram rather than to government demeans our country and impoverishes our values. When a citizen suffers burglary, they report to the Police not the burglar. Similarly, we don’t tell a rape victim to channel their grievance to the rapist rather than the Police or the hospital.

So, we must not allow it to be heard that we’re asking our citizens to channel their demands for the wellbeing of our girls to entities clearly recognized as terrorist organizations. To do so is to deny our government and its leadership the legitimacy it deserves as the institution to which we owe obedience. This is wrong. And it’s shameful.

Nigeria belongs to all who live in or come from it.

Government must, therefore, be comfortable with hearing alternative views from Nigerians that it may not agree with. Irrespective of how we describe them – opposition, critics, or supporters – anyone who chooses the path of peaceful or public debate is fully paid up as a subscriber to a democratic Nigeria. Even when we don’t like or agree with their views, we must support their right to air them. Those who seek to brand peaceful disagreement as a crime or deny it airtime on public media violate our laws and do serious dis-service to this country.

It is the responsibility of democratic government to support citizens who can dis-agree and make articulate demands on government.

These are unusual times. Our security agencies are indeed stretched and require collective support in order to do their best work. The adversaries we confront are also determined. We must not underestimate their murderous capacities. What they would love most is for Nigeria to fall apart; for bickering and blame-gaming to divide us. We must resist the urge to grant them their wish and recognize that we’re all on the same side.

Protest organizers should liaise regularly with security agencies. Open and amicable conversations must be had. In January 2012, the National Human Rights Commission issued an advisory with guidelines on how to manage the competing demands on security agencies when policing protests. Those are still valid.

While it is the primary responsibility of our police and troops to secure the country, we all have a duty to work with them to defend the public sphere and the right to peaceful protest. Without it, elective government in our country does not have a future.

To achieve independence, our people protested continuously against colonial government.

When the military nullified a free and fair election in 1993, our people protested continuously.

To achieve the elective government we enjoy today, our people protested continuously against military rule.

To achieve peaceful handover from an ailing President to his Vice in 2010, Nigerians protested continuously until we got a legitimate transition of power.

This is why the right to peaceful protest is constitutionally guaranteed.

Today, in the face of mass-casualty insecurity, the #BringBackOurGirls movement protests continuously for action by all who can guarantee the high constitutional entitlement to a safe and secure country.

This country is our common patrimony.

I personally don’t want to go down as the Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission who could not stand up in defence of the right to peaceful protest.

Nor do I want to end without acknowledging the women who provide the spine and leadership of this movement. United in compassion, empathy and pride as Nigerians, they have inspired a global outpouring of civic and human solidarity with our country in our time of difficulty.

It is cheap slander to accuse them – as some have done – of doing this for vainglory or political reasons. Such slander should not go unanswered. But while they lead this public service beyond the call of duty, we must spare them the indignity of having to respond to such flippancy.

In inspiring the #BringBackourGirls movement, these women also teach abiding lessons in both citizenship and leadership. They show that leadership can come about without seeking or holding elective office. They teach that in a time of national trouble, leadership is also a call to healing, empathy and compassion. They demonstrate that times of national difficulty are also indeed opportunities to renew one another and discover common cause.

This crisis must not be wasted. That’s what we do when we spend energy demonizing those demanding urgent action to bring #BringBackourGirls rather than investing fully in rescuing the girls or bringing their abductors to justice. Many things must change:

  • More than two years into the life of this murderous insurgency, we need a credible humanitarian plan for north-east Nigeria that all interested can buy into. This must include elements of trauma care for victims and accountability for perpetrators of war crimes.
  • We also need a credible plan for the defence of access to education in north-east Nigeria, for this is a war not just against the country but against education as the guarantor of our future.
  • We must invest in restoring the credibility and capability of our defence and security institutions confronting asymmetrical conflict against a rampant and indiscriminate domestic adversary.
  • We cannot win this war by being soft on corruption and impunity. So, we must restore credibility to the fight against corruption.
  • Above all, insecurity is not an issue from which political parties – ruling or opposition – at any level should score cheap points. At this time, we need senior political and security sector leaders who understand when to put the country first.

Welcome as they are, international assistance and regional co-operation to #BringBackourGirls will not achieve much without these changes. We can’t conduct politics, public policy or counter-insurgency as if Nigeria’s biggest problem is an inability to abuse one another enough.

This situation requires involved citizens and communities.

That’s why the example of the #BringBackourGirls movement deserves to be supported across our country. We need to adopt its values of citizen leadership and make them ours.

As an act of stake holding by citizens in the most difficult issue of our times, it’s courageous and it’s right: to keep asking that we all in our various roles, do all we can to #BringBackourGirls – now, safe, alive, with urgency. And ultimately, to root out the greater insecurity that afflicts our land.

Dr. Odinkalu is Chair, Governing Council, National Human Rights Commission. He read this keynote remarks to the Women for Peace & Justice, SOS (Speak Out Saturday), in Marina, Lagos, 7 June 2014.