Keeping both anger and hope alive has been the message of #BringBackOurGirls co-founder Obiageli Ezekwesili for the past two years, and one she reinforced on Tuesday night in conversation with CNN anchor Isha Sesay at the Women in the World Salon in Los Angeles.
Ezekwesili helped launch the global #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign in 2014 following the mass kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria, by the Islamic militant group Boko Haram. Since then, she has encouraged the world to stay aware of the girls and also met with Nigeria’s recently elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, urging him to do everything in the government’s power to bring the girls home. “I don’t think people understand the pain of not knowing closure. It’s this lack of closure that keeps me tied to this issue,” Ezekwesili said.
The Harvard-educated Ezekwesili served as both the minister of mineral resources and education minister of Nigeria, as well as a vice president of the World Bank’s Africa Division, in 2007. She then turned her attention to government reform, working with Transparency International and Open Society to push for more transparent and reform-minded governance throughout Africa.
When the attack on the Nigerian school happened on April 14, 2014, Ezekwesili was dismayed at the slow reaction of then-President Goodluck Jonathan, who waited until May to publicly acknowledge the kidnapping and launch a rescue mission. She responded by creating the online Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls, which spread globally and brought attention to the plight of the girls from around the world, including from First Lady Michelle Obama.
Boko Haram abducted 276 schoolgirls in the attack on Chibok. Ezekwesili said 219 of the girls remain missing. When she met with President Buhari last July, two months after he had taken office, and more recently, on January 14, she said she was encouraged by his concern but still balks at the fact that she was told there was no “credible intelligence” as to the girls’ whereabouts.
— First Lady- Archived (@FLOTUS44) May 7, 2014
To keep the pressure on, she has marched in the streets with the mothers of the missing girls and helped stage daily sit-ins in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. She sees #BringBackOurGirls as not just a Nigerian issue, but one that’s part of the greater struggle to provide education and opportunity for women worldwide. “There is no risk that I take today that in any way corresponds to the opportunities that I’ve had,” she told the audience at the L.A. Salon. “But these girls are only just starting. We don’t even know what these girls could be. They could be greater than you and I.”
Ezekwesili has broadened the #BringBackOurGirls campaign into one calling for total reform of the Nigerian government, including demanding greater transparency from leaders and a commitment to national security to protect Nigerians from terror threats like Boko Haram, according to the campaign’s website. In 2015, she was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
According to UNICEF, 1.4 million children from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger have been displaced due to the threat from Boko Haram, which has launched other kidnappings and brutal attacks on villages throughout the region. The girls who were abducted from Chibok are believed to have been forced into marriages and sex slavery with Boko Haram fighters.
“For me, if we do not in any way emphasize the necessity for Chibok girls to be rescued, I believe that we lack the moral credentials to even be protagonists for girls’ education,” Ezekwesili said. She sees the fight for these girls as a symbol for the support of young women everywhere: “We’ve got your back. We’ve got your back, young women. Whether you are in Afghanistan or you are in Syria or you are in any region of the world where it is risky to be educated, you will not be standing alone.”