“Citizens can’t wait anymore, it is time to act,” said Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili as she urged global leaders to stand up in solidarity and act against terrorism, during a week which saw nearly 200 people killed in a series of coordinated terror attacks in Paris. Her remarks came at the Women in the World Summit in New Delhi, reminding a packed audience about the fate of the 270 Nigerian schoolgirls who were taken hostage by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram in April of last year. She has since championed the cause of the girls through the global campaign #BringBackOurGirls that she co-founded and launched on social media.
“Terrorism is one of the global bads (sic) that we need to get a handle of. It does not situate itself within a boundary,” said Ezekwesili, in response to a question by moderator Rajdeep Sardesai, a senior Indian journalist who asked if the “tyranny of distance” had kept terrorism in Nigeria from getting the same kind of attention that attacks in the developed world garner.
It has been 585 days since the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped from the northeastern state of Borno, the stronghold of Boko Haram, which has stood against western education and brutally killed students in the past. Boko Haram loosely translates to “Western education is a sin.”
Only some girls managed to escape from their captivity, while the others are believed to have been converted to Islam, married off, and sold as sex slaves, as claimed by a leader of the terror group in videos made public last year.
“When Chibok girls happened I kept telling the world leaders that don’t you dare think that this is happening in some neck of the woods… you can never imagine how quickly this can travel. Deal with it and tackle it,” said Ezekwesili, who has served as a vice president of the World Bank’s Africa division and was featured in the TIME’s list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2015.
According to a recent UNICEF report about 1.4 million children from northeast Nigeria and the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger have been displaced from their homes because of the fear of an onslaught from the insurgent group known for its deadly kidnappings, lootings, and killings. Of these, as many as 1.2 million are from Nigeria alone, with more than half of them believed to be less than 5 years old, the report said.
The Nigerian authorities took weeks to acknowledge the kidnappings. Dissatisfied with the tardy pace of rescue efforts, the anxious families of the girls marched the streets demanding that their daughters be brought back. Some parents went looking for their girls in the jungles armed with bows, arrows, and machetes in the hope of getting back their daughters from the heartland of Islamist group. In the weeks that followed the mass abductions, Ezekwesili launched a grassroots campaign with other Nigerian women to lend a voice to the distressed families and raise global awareness.
“I put out my voice and said to my country this must be the time you make a clear statement to these fellows that we are not going to sit around and see them do this to our children,” she said, stressing the need for accountability and responsibility by nation states as well as a need to bring an end to corruption, which has plagued many countries including her own.
The girls had voted for education and they have to be backed up, she said. Education is the biggest tool of social mobility, “which brought you and I here,” she said pointing to the audience.
“Is that gentleman or his little army greater than the armies of the world,” she said referring to the Boko Haram leadership. “I don’t want to dignify that, I want to place responsibility where it belongs. Let the leaders of the world rise up and take on these, we can’t. It’s not simply in the US elections — ‘We Can’, we can.”
On being asked if she had hope about the return of the girls, she said that she did not want to speculate on their fate without credible evidence that could help trace the events of the fateful night the girls were taken hostage. “Until the president (of Nigeria) says to me that there is no hope, presents me with a reason, I am going to keep hoping.”