Viral campaign launched to spur rescue of kidnapped girls

Demonstrators angered by the failure of the Nigerian authorities to rescue more than 200 girls kidnapped from their boarding school by extremists almost three weeks ago gathered in central London today.

The protesters, who were mainly African women backed by children and some white sympathisers, chanted: "Bring them back. Not for sale. African lives matter," outside the Nigerian High Commission, near Trafalgar Square.

The event was organised by the #BringBackOurGirls viral online-driven campaign that is gaining momentum around the world from Los Angeles to London.
School authorities have said the kidnapped students are aged between 16 and 18 and were about to sit their final West African exam at the remote rural school. They were seized by gunmen from their dormitory at Chibok in Borno, a Muslim state in north-eastern Nigeria, in a pre-dawn raid on April 14.

According to accounts, armed members of the extremist Muslim sect Boko Haram overwhelmed security guards at the all-girls school, herded the girls out of bed and forced them into trucks. The convoy of trucks then disappeared into the dense forest bordering Cameroon. They then set the school on fire.

Boko Haram is opposed to Western education and culture and wants strict Islamic Sharia law introduced in Nigeria.

The Hausa-speaking paramilitary sect is especially against the education of women. Under its version of Sharia law, women should be at home raising children and looking after their husbands, not at school learning to read and write.

On Friday, Nigerian authorities updated the number of girls kidnapped to 276. At least 53 of the girls escaped, leaving 223 in the hands of their captors, police said. Authorities said that the new figure for missing girls - 223 - could grow as police fill in sketchy school enrolment records from the blaze. Other sources put the figure at 234 girls still missing.

There have been unconfirmed reports of girls being raped, forced to convert to Islam and sold off for marriage for between £7 and £10 each.

London protest organiser Chrissa Amuah, a communications executive who is of Ghanian origin, told The-Latest.Com: "I'm pleased that so many people came to support our call for the Nigerian government to do more to urgently return the girls to their parents. Time is of the essence."

Amuah added: "The failure of the authorities to find 234 girls is too big a problem to ignore. The world is now a global village. What has happened in Chibok is not just their problem it is OUR problem as the African diaspora."

She went on: "It's 2014, how can a woman's education warrant kidnapping? For too long women and children have been the innocent victims of wars and conflicts that they have no part in."

Amuah explained that the aim of the London protest, where women were encouraged to wear geles and headwraps, was to "shame Nigeria's UK government representatives, letting them know that they are being watched and they must do more".

Crews from Al Jazeera and Britain's ITV, as well as Nigerian broadcast media filmed the demonstration. There were plenty of photographers there too.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has met with security, school and state officials and issued a directive that “everything must be done” to free the girls held captive by Islamic extremists, according to one of his advisers.

The stakeholders summoned by the head of state included the principal of the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, presidential adviser Reuben Abati told reporters.

Nigerians’ outrage at the failure to rescue the students and protest marches last week in major Nigerian cities as well as New York in the US have spurred to action Jonathan’s government, which many people, including the London protesters, see as indifferent to the girls’ plight.

But Abati said: “The president has given very clear directives that everything must be done to ensure that these girls must be brought back to safety.”

Nigeria is confronting an increasingly bloody five-year-old Islamic uprising. Two bomb blasts in three weeks in Abuja, the capital, have killed about 100 people and wounded more than 200. More than 1,500 people have died in the insurgency this year, compared to an estimated 3,600 between 2010 and 2013.

Women and children have not been spared. Indeed, this is not the first time the Boko Haram has targeted students, the kidnapping is just the biggest. In June 2013 the sect attacked a school in Mamudo, killing 22 students, and 59 boys were killed in Buni Yadi in February 2014.

Azeenarh Mohammed, a leading female campaigner in Nigeria, wrote in The Guardian: "Every day, horror stories from women released after months in captivity grace the news. They return home battered, abused, infected with diseases and often pregnant."

She added: "Unlike other world disasters [like missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370], there isn't round-the-clock coverage of the realities in Borno. This is partly due to the fact that it has been under a state of emergency rule and the airport was shut down after an attack by Boko Haram a few months ago. This has made it very difficult for citizens and journalists to get in or out of Borno, and the flow of information relies mostly on phone calls and SMS messages. This has also aided the government in spreading lies and misinformation."

An army spokesperson, Major-General Chris Olukolade, released a statement a day after the abductions claiming that all except eight of the students had been rescued. After various sources confirmed the inaccuracy of this statement, the army apologised and withdrew it.

Amuah pledged to use her communication skills to grab public attention for the issue using the mainstream and social media. Supporters are asked to make sure the #BringBackOurGirls campaign goes even more viral on Facebook, their blogs and websites and on Twitter using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.

Meanwhile, the UK-based grassroots non-governmental organisation (NGO) Made Equal has urged concerned UK citizens to sign a petition pushing for action from the government, and a "proper response to this crisis in a fellow Commonwealth country". 

Deborah Owhin, of the NGO that works to tackle gender inequality with a focus on preventing violence against women and girls, said: “We are horrified that the world has not galvanised efforts to rescue these girls. It has been 21 days and the faces and names of these girls are still unknown. Why?" 

She added: "With this campaign for signatures, we call for an end to the confusion, conflicting facts and silence. The lives of these stolen Chibok girls are equal to the lives of any of us. They deserve equal concern, equal treatment and equal action now."

* Photography in London: Marc Wadsworth