bring-back-our-girls

We owe the BBOG activists a debt of gratitude for not letting us retreat further than we already have from the norms of civilisation, for being rare exemplars of moral courage in the public square. The Chibok families deserve our compassion and sympathy. Their tireless advocates deserve our respect.


When the history of our slow tortuous march from anomie to a humane civilisation is finally written, the stolen girls of Chibok and the relentless protest movement that has mobilised in their name will occupy a pivotal chapter. More than two years have passed since global attention was first seized by terrorists’ abduction of nearly 300 school girls in the North-East and the curious indifference of the federal government to that crime.

The Goodluck Jonathan administration initially doubted the abduction of the girls and suggested that it was an elaborately contrived scheme to embarrass the president. The opposition All Progressives Congress seized on the incident as one more peg upon which to hang its argument that Jonathan was too inept to be trusted with a second term. The plight of the girls inspired the hashtag #bringbackourgirls which trended internationally and the emergence of a group of protesters and activists that badgered Jonathan’s hapless administration into belated action.

The pictures that have emerged in recent weeks, of BBOG protesters marching on Aso Rock only to be blocked off by a phalanx of anti-riot police, shows how the group has come full circle. Two years ago, APC chieftains were falling over themselves to associate with BBOG. At a party rally, Audu Ogbeh even claimed that BBOG had been founded by APC members – a claim that was quickly retracted after furious denunciation by the activists. Now the APC is in power, and relations with the group have grown frosty. Last week, the Inspector General of Police issued a ban (with no basis in law) on the group’s protests in Abuja, while a crowd of pro-government demonstrators harassed them. One could be forgiven for thinking that the Jonathan government is still in office.

To understand official hostility towards the BBOG movement, we must delve deeper into the adversarial psychology of state-civil society relations. Under the Jonathan administration, the BBOG campaigners were abused, assaulted by pro-government thugs with the police watching, accused of being opposition agents and branded subversives by the State Security Service. The Buhari administration’s recent behaviour suggests that it has embarked on a similar trajectory.

Fear of Nigerian Citizens

Since colonial times, Nigerian authorities have feared a certain type of civic association – that sort which binds Nigerians together as citizens and transcends ethnic and confessional affiliations. The colonial authorities and their successors in military dictatorships used divide-and-rule tactics to polarise such movements. Historically, Nigerian governments have deployed their most repressive measures against such civic movements, like the colonial era anti-tax campaigners, demonstrators against the Babangida regime’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and Occupy Nigeria protesters. Any movement that transcends the lines of class, ethnicity and creed is deemed dangerous because it can match the ecumenism of the ruling elite and is a viable countervailing force to their misrule.

The BBOG movement, though small, fits this profile. It has united the denizens of a remote North-Eastern community on the fringes of national consciousness with public-spirited middle class urbanites. The group is multi-ethnic, non-partisan and post-sectarian. It cannot be pigeonholed as a sectional association seeking concessions or patronage from the state. Indeed, governing elites are comfortable with groups that demand patronage and terrified by movements that insist that they do their jobs. BBOG cannot be described as being motivated by anything other than civic solidarity and empathy. These activists are not hungry mercenary malcontents of the rent-a-crowd variety favoured by government whose beefs are an exercise in gastronomic wish-fulfillment. The ties that bind the grieving parents of Chibok with their advocates are forged from their common humanity and common citizenship.

To be sure, BBOG is not a political pressure group. But its humanitarian demand possesses both a political resonance and an international appeal which this administration’s apparatchiks recognise all too well because they themselves sought to use it to attain power. Furthermore, the group has shown itself to be impervious to government control and unaccountable elites fear and abhor civic expressions they cannot control. This is why, like its predecessor, this administration has sought to impugn the group’s integrity. Like its predecessor, this administration has sought to sow discord between the Chibok parents and the BBOG movement – a throwback to the divide-and-rule tactics of colonial and military regimes.

Elite delinquency in Nigeria has always relied on the construction of class, ethnicity, and regional identity as impenetrable silos – in order to alienate Nigerians from each other and prevent them from making common cause. The BBOG movement’s tribulations possibly indicate what sort of group has genuine transformative potential.


The subtle implication of this particular line of attack is to sustain the fault lines that underlie elite delinquency. Why should urbanites who have never been to Chibok presume to speak for Chibok? Why should non-natives of Chibok and non-North-Easterners be so vocal about the troubles of a North-Eastern community? It will not be surprising if a parallel government-sponsored group from the Chibok community soon emerges to counter BBOG and express support for the Buhari administration and also claim that the government is doing its best.

Elite delinquency in Nigeria has always relied on the construction of class, ethnicity, and regional identity as impenetrable silos – in order to alienate Nigerians from each other and prevent them from making common cause. The BBOG movement’s tribulations possibly indicate what sort of group has genuine transformative potential.

In point of fact, BBOG members have been on fact-finding missions to Chibok. They maintain close relations with the grieving families whose members are within their ranks. Beyond this, the Chibok abductions and the insurgency as a whole is a Nigerian tragedy, not a North-Eastern mishap. It remains only to be said that the conspicuous presence of North-Easterners in the federal government and in the military and security establishment did not prevent the insurgency that has devastated the zone, did not prevent the girls’ abduction, and has not hastened their release.

BBOG As Study In Civics

To those who have sacrificed conscience and reason on the altar of fanatical fealty to the government in power, the BBOG campaign has deviated from the script of politically-correct rabble-rousing. According to this script, having served their purpose as a partisan wrecking ball that helped dismantle the last administration, the movement should have quietly dispersed. Its champions would have moved on to more important pursuits, the Chibok parents would retreat into anonymity and take pleasure, however scant, from the fact that their tragedy’s political value had been weaponised and used to oust an incumbent president. Above all, the lives of the Chibok girls would be forfeit and discreetly forgotten. They would be written off as collateral damage – a necessary and acceptable loss sustained in the quest for victory over Boko Haram.

This has not happened. If the numbers at the BBOG’s sit-ins have fluctuated, the group’s zeal ably channeled by Bukky Shonibare, Oby Ezekwesili and Aisha Yesufu and other activists remains unflinching. The movement has refused to disperse, to go quietly into the night, or to retire into the sort of passive pro-establishment cheerleading that some misguided functionaries and cynics expected it would.

The real “crime” of BBOG activists is that they have refused to let this administration wallow in complacency, they have refused to let President Muhammadu Buhari forget his promise to rescue the girls and, above all, they have refused to let us as a society forget the Chibok girls.

Many terrible atrocities happen in Nigeria that should give us pause. Many abominations occur that should signpost our troubling collective distance from the precincts of civilisational decency; from the “Apo Six” and the “Apo Eight” to the “Aluu 4”, massacred Shiites and pro-Biafra protesters and other near everyday violations of human life and dignity that negate Nigerian citizenship. After the initial faux outrage and their entertainment value have been exhausted, the media beams its lights elsewhere in search of the next sensation. We move on, leaving the afflicted to their devices. Our society deals with chronic trauma by moving on as if it never happened. The atrocities are submerged in our raging sea of national forgetfulness.

We often forget that the president and his courtiers are employees of the Nigerian people; and that Aso Rock is not a private estate but public property which the president occupies not as a landlord, but a tenant. The real landlords are the Nigerian people. These are some of the verities that the BBOG campaign is bringing to the fore.


The BBOG campaign annoys reigning power-mongers precisely because it has refused to allow us indulge in the usual amnesia. They have not let officialdom strut away from the scene of their criminal negligence with the unearned swagger of high achievers. They have refused to leave the Chibok girls to God or to the good graces of the international community. In so doing, the activists are comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Assuredly, without the activism of BBOG, the Chibok girls would likely have long been forgotten and the scale of abductions carried out by Boko Haram – which rivals the child abductions by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda – would probably not have come to light. Without the campaign, it is doubtful that the Chibok girls would have moved from being war booty to high value hostages with a chance of freedom.

The BBOG campaign’s sole cause is the release of the Chibok girls but its activism has an even broader significance. Implicit in the group’s campaign are efforts to breathe new life into the otherwise comatose idea of Nigerian citizenship and to raise the bar of accountability for those that hold public office. The Oath of Allegiance sworn by the president and governors is a pledge to uphold the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy, chief among which is the assertion that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.” The BBOG campaign aims to move these words from the realm of rhetorical abstraction and sterile poetry into a creed worthy of civic confidence.

The marches on Aso Rock are meant to demonstrate something equally important. Too often, once leaders are elected, they drift into cloistered isolation barricaded, as it were, within the presidential fortress. We often forget that the president and his courtiers are employees of the Nigerian people; and that Aso Rock is not a private estate but public property which the president occupies not as a landlord, but a tenant. The real landlords are the Nigerian people. These are some of the verities that the BBOG campaign is bringing to the fore. It is not merely engaging in civic agitation; it is conducting a programme of civic education.

Let There Be Shame

There are things that transcend partisan politics and which should be beyond debate. The question of the value of Nigerian lives and the meaning of Nigerian citizenship is at the core of the state’s existential crisis. And the Chibok girls, in many ways, dramatise this crisis. In truth, the girls’ abduction, the military’s false claims on two occasions to have rescued them, and their two-year captivity during which they have been subjected to unspeakable violence, is a national shame. But there is no evidence of shame or indignation in officialdom. It is this apparent lack of urgency that continues to fuel the BBOG campaign.

A society’s strength is gauged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. The living and working conditions of our governing elites do not permit empathetic identification with the vulnerable and the less privileged. Under this administration, a humanitarian catastrophe – the likes of which has not been seen since Biafra – is now unfolding in the North-East with internally displaced people languishing in camps facing the prospect of starvation. It took a furious demonstration by the IDPs a fortnight ago to draw some attention to their sordid conditions.

Shame is absolutely essential to a society’s quality of life. Some things should be so embarrassing, so shameful and so beyond the pale, that they galvanise us into collective remedial action. Somewhere in our national odyssey, we lost sight of the threshold of the unpalatable, we misplaced our social conscience and our tolerance of the abominable became elastic. BBOG is aiming to reverse this trend and restore our sense of shame. We have to own our embarrassments and tragedies, rather than try to ignore them.

In another society, a politically-savvy government would recognise the immense PR potential inherent in how it handles this issue and how it treats the grieving parents and their advocates. It would perceive the net humanitarian, national and political benefit of securing the girls’ freedom.


In its advocacy, BBOG has towed the path of civility even while swatting away scurrilous attacks and slanders in the press, on social media and by government-sponsored hacks. In recent weeks, two newspapers – The Nation and Daily Trust have published apologies to Oby Ezekwesili for false reports that besmirched her reputation. The BBOG campaigners have been appropriately nuanced in their critiques of the administration – celebrating the sacrifices of the troops at the front, acknowledging the difficulties of their work, advocating for their proper equipment long before the arms procurement scandal was exposed, while maintaining pressure on the authorities to rescue the girls. Its public events are highly disciplined, despite the best efforts of this administration and its predecessor to provoke them.

The irony is that there is no need for the government to antagonise the BBOG movement or to feel antagonised by it. The administration could instead engage and embrace it. Apart from meeting with them, President Buhari could assign officials to liaise with the group and provide them very regular updates on his efforts to free the girls. In another society, a politically-savvy government would recognise the immense PR potential inherent in how it handles this issue and how it treats the grieving parents and their advocates. It would perceive the net humanitarian, national and political benefit of securing the girls’ freedom. It would be an incredibly positive life-affirming triumph – the sort of victory that an administration could use to effortlessly mobilise the whole nation. It would be an epic PR coup. This administration could yet reap all this if it heeds its humane instincts.

Because the language of power in Nigeria has been illiberal for so long, elections frequently produce authoritarians who resent being told what to do by their citizens (and presumptive employers). Self-aggrandising hawks and sycophants eventually drive such leaders to antagonise civil society even when such antagonism is entirely unnecessary. Thus, the BBOG is also an effort to change the terms of engagement between the state and civil society.

There is more than enough space for people that are motivated to champion the causes dear to them. BBOG is not a humanitarian monopoly. Those who have no social consciences should not purport to direct those that do on how to use theirs.


One of the criticisms levelled against the BBOG campaign is that it highlights the plight of the Chibok girls at the expense of thousands of other abductees – some of whom have been freed by the military. This charge is patently absurd. Single issue campaigns are effective precisely because of their laser-keen focus and clarity of purpose. The BBOG campaign acknowledges the tragic cases of abductions across the North-East but its central concern is the Chibok girls and rightly so. There is more than enough space for people that are motivated to champion the causes dear to them. BBOG is not a humanitarian monopoly. Those who have no social consciences should not purport to direct those that do on how to use theirs.

We owe the BBOG activists a debt of gratitude for not letting us retreat further than we already have from the norms of civilisation, for being rare exemplars of moral courage in the public square. The Chibok families deserve our compassion and sympathy. Their tireless advocates deserve our respect.

Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.