2015 Summit

“I believe in miracles,” says “Bring Back Our Girls” founder Obiageli Ezekwesili

At the 2015 Women in the World Summit, she blasted the Nigerian government for “dillydallying” in hunting down the school girls abducted by Boko Haram last year

When terrorists grabbed nearly 300 girls from a boarding school in Nigeria last spring, the government was silent for weeks. But Obiageli Ezekwesili was not. A former minister of education, she helped spark the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, drawing millions of hashtag activists around the world. “Nobody has a right to make you choose between being educated and staying alive,” she said Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York. “That is not a choice.”

In a rousing call to action to find the missing girls, she said, “It’s unfinished business for the world. We need now a new momentum for their rescue.”

She criticized the Nigerian government for “dillydallying” in the wake of the crime committed by Boko Haram militants a year ago this month. At the time, President Goodluck Jonathan did not publicly address the abduction for weeks. Ezekwesili said leadership “must be about something deeper than yourself—that is where our president failed.” She said he was focused on his “political fortune” and saw the girls as a “competition to his quest for a second term in office.” His attitude, she said: “Try to ignore this.”

However, “citizens refused to go silent,” she said, and so the government had to “deal with it.” Ezekwesili, recently named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, added, “The whole world caught on to it. Tweets carried on.”

Nigeria recently elected a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who has vowed to defeat Boko Haram. But he has said he does not know if the girls—who were seized from a secondary school in the northern town of Chibok—can be found. Boko Haram has abducted at least 2,000 women and girls since the start of 2014, according to a recent report from Amnesty International. The militants want to create an Islamic state and vanquish Western influence from schools. In February 2014, in one of their many killing sprees, the terrorists shot and burned 59 schoolboys. They murdered an estimated 7,300 people in 2014 alone, according to a recent report from UNICEF.

The U.S. has sent advisers, investigators, and surveillance equipment to aid efforts to find the girls, with no luck. Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes, moderated the panel on Thursday, asking if Ezekwesili thought the girls could be found. “I believe in miracles,” Ezekwesili said. “I have said that like the parents of our Chibok girls, we will not stop hoping until there is absolutely no reason to hope. There is no evidence that they are dead, so we must keep hoping.” She added, “They’re somewhere on the face of the planet. We need to selectively determine that they will be found.” Turning to the audience, she said, “We just need you to please not go away. Don’t move on.”

Joining Ezekwesili on the panel were John Prendergast, founding director of the Enough Project, a group that combats genocide, and Alexis Okeowo, a writer for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. They discussed government corruption and the resources in Africa that help fund extremists. “Blood diamonds, conflict gold, ivory trafficking, all of these are part and parcel of systems that help finance extremism,” said Prendergast. But both expressed hope that the new government would be an improvement. Said Okeowo, “Buhari is a general. He’s someone who’s known for enforcing discipline.”

Ezekwesili implored the audience at Lincoln Center, “Please don’t go to sleep on our Chibok girls.” She said, “We must rapidly bring this to an end” and make “a clear statement to every girl child that we’ve got your back.”

Drawing applause, she added, “Wouldn’t it be great to have three Malalas come out of those girls,” referring to Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban and who is now one of the world’s foremost advocates for girls’ rights. Girls need to know, she said, “that no one can stand in the way of the girl child—and that she can reach for the skies and even beyond the skies to education.”

In closing, Stahl said to Ezekwesili, “Every person in this room is saying: Why didn’t you run for president?”

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