Two days after a report by the Institute of Economics and Peace pronounced Boko Haram to be the world’s deadliest terror outfit — trouncing even the Islamic State — Delhi played host to Obiageli Ezekwesili as part of the Women in the World summit. A chartered accountant from Nigeria, co-founder of Transparency International and former Minister of Education, Ezekwesili created #BringBackOurGirls that jolted world attention towards the 276 girls from Chibok, who had been abducted by Boko Haram in 2014. Excerpts from an interview:
How did you create the hashtag that galvanised the world?
After our girls were abducted, I began to disturb everyone in the government. I was screaming at our journalists and saying, ‘Why are you keeping quiet. Say something. These girls must be found’. They ignored me. Ten days later, I chaired an NGO that promotes the reading culture and I said to the audience, “It’s been 10 days since our girls went to school and we don’t have a trace of them. Nobody seems to be doing anything. We can’t be silent. We can’t do a book event without talking about our girls. Rise up with me and demand, ‘bring back our girls, bring back our daughters’. One of my followers on Twitter tweeted that ‘Obiageli says bring back our girls’, and I retweeted and said to everybody, ‘Adopt this mantra’. That’s how it started.
Besides a burst of attention, with celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Salma Hayek and Bradley Cooper holding up placards with the #BringBackOurGirls message, have there been concrete ground results?
Social media is not the be all and the end all. It has not pretended to be that. It is a tool that facilitates many of our actions. What social media did for us was to make sure that the world heard us. It shamed our own government, which wanted to pretend that nothing had happened, into some measure of action. That action did not lead to a result is not the fault of social media. We continued to use the platform to keep our voice out there. We complement social media with our daily sit-in for the girls. We have a place at the federal capital, called the Unity Fountain, where you will find a considerable number of people sitting daily and demanding for the girls to be brought back.
What about the response of world leaders?
What happened was that many countries, including the US, Canada, Israel, France and China, came and said, ‘We want to help and see if we can get the girls back’, but the government of the time was ineffectual and not as interested as they should have been. They wasted the opportunity that we had. After a while, a lot of the countries disappeared. But now we have a new government and it is important to refresh the agenda to bring closure to the matter of the girls.
Our new president says they have a deadline of December 31 to terminate Boko Haram. I don’t think they will achieve that but, at least, they have set a target, and then he said, ‘We cannot say we terminated Boko Haram without bringing back our girls’. There is a measure of commitment that we did not have previously.
In the meantime, Boko Haram has become the world’s deadliest terror group.
I really do not understand how the leaders of the world sat around and watched as a renegade group became monsters, terrorising the entire world.
Were you assaulted for your actions against the government and Boko Haram?
You have been a minister in a government as well as a part of the Opposition. Is the success of the movement also due to your
It does give me a voice. If I did not have the platforms that I had in the past, then my voice would be as meaningless as the weak voice of the parents. What I am doing is using it effectively for the girls. Basically, what we’ve done is to escalate the voice of the parents, which would have been a whimper if a person like me hadn’t stepped up and said, ‘This is not going to be swept under the carpet’.
Will you interact with Indian leaders or organisations?
For the citizens, I say, ‘Don’t forget the girls. As you make your voice heard for them, you reinforce the message to the young women in your own community that should anything happen to them, you are not going to be silent’.
Did your childhood prepare you for activism?
I have always battled injustice. As a child, I used to fight on the side of my friends when boys terrorised them. My dad told me, I could be anything. My mum was a quintessential businesswoman. She taught me problem- solving. She can solve any problem.