Across Africa, the threat of radical Islamist terrorism has put countries like Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, and Cameroon on edge — wary of the next terror attack and scrambling to counter the ideology that has quickly swept across the continent.
Three women fighting that ideology — activists Esther Ibanga and Obiageli Ezekwesili of Nigeria, and Somali National Army Captain Iman Elman — spoke about the threat to peace in Africa, on Wednesday at the Women in the World Summit in New York City. “It’s an assault on our civilization, on our humanity. It’s an assault on the universal values we all share,” Ezekwesili said.
Interviewed by CBS News foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan, Ibanga and Ezekwesili said that Nigeria’s ongoing effort to secure its villages from the threat of Boko Haram, the brutal militant group notorious for the 2014 kidnapping of more than 200 girls from a Christian school in Chibok, has made little progress, and that it is more vital than ever for Nigeria’s government to loudly and transparently commit to fighting the group.
In the weeks after the girls were abducted, Ezekwesili launched the campaign known as #BringBackOurGirls, which spread globally on the Internet and social media and won the support of First Lady Michelle Obama. Fifty-nine girls escaped during the early days of the capture, she said, but 219 remain missing.
Advocacy groups aim to convince young girls that education is key to economic and social mobility, but the threat of abduction hinders their efforts, Ezekwesili said. “The fact that neither my country nor the rest of the world has been able to give justice to these girls is emblematic of what we have seen….Women and girls suffer and there is no decisive action taken to resolve it,” she said.
The fear for women’s security in Nigeria was echoed by Ibanga, a Christian pastor and peace activist who launched the Women Without Walls Initiative, which brings together women of different religious and ethnic groups to work for peace. In addition to the Chibok schoolgirls, Boko Haram has kidnapped women and girls from villages throughout Nigeria, Ibanga said.
When married girls and women are abducted, even if they are rescued by the military and returned to their villages, they are often shunned and treated with suspicion. “Unfortunately, what these women are experiencing is a double tragedy, because they have been rescued from the camps of Boko Haram but they have not been able to reintegrate into their communities,” Ibanga said. “When they return they are viewed as Boko Haram wives, and so they are marginalized. They are ostracized. People are afraid of them. They are called bad blood.”
A longtime activist, in 2010 Ibanga helped organize a march for women that brought together more than 100,000 Christian women to protest the massacre of women and children from a village in central Nigeria that year. When the violence continued, Ibanga invited a local female Muslim leader to join the Christian women in calling for peace. Now, her organization trains women in conflict resolution, non-violent mediation and negotiation, and community policing.
While the sudden rise of Boko Haram has posed a major threat to Nigeria and West Africa, the Al Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab has similarly terrorized Somalia and Kenya, on the continent’s eastern coast. Captain Iman Elman, a 24-year-old officer in the Somali National Army, grew up in Canada but returned to Somalia to help rid the country of al-Shabab. “I knew I wanted to put an end to it and knew that meant I would have to deal with al-Shabab head-on. By joining the army, I’d actually be able to contribute and restore peace back to the country,” Elman said.
Elman’s fight has been even more difficult because she is a woman. The army captain described the initial surprise of others in the military and the community at seeing a young woman wearing pants — forbidden under the code of Sharia law imposed by al-Shabab. Initially, Elman was given two pairs of pants sewn together as a skirt to wear as a uniform.
“I definitely had to work twice as hard as my male colleagues to get where I am today,” she said. “Initially it was seen as very negative, as someone who was disrespecting my culture, my religion, but over time people started to embrace the idea of women wearing pants.” Prior to al-Shabab’s arrival in Somalia, Somali women often wore pants, Elman said. The radical group has tried to change not only Somali ideology but also the country’s culture, “making us believe it was our culture when it really wasn’t.”
In Somalia, Elman explained, women, who traditionally dominate the household, have been essential to the spread of al-Shabab, encouraging sons or other men in their households to execute attacks. For that reason, Elman said the role of women in expelling al-Shabab from their communities will be crucial. “It’s the ideology that we’re fighting, and therefore it is equal for men and for women. We’ve had a number of cases where women are playing huge, dominant roles, and that’s why I think women should be playing more of an active role in the security sector, because I’ve seen women taking on a huge role in fighting directly alongside al-Shabab,” Elman said.
All three women said that international resources and resolve are essential in fighting terrorism, but that the countries where terrorism is taking place need to be in charge of that fight. If there are civilian casualties in the fight against terror, particularly if outside nations like the United States are involved, citizens may be driven to sympathize with the terrorists, Elman warned. “The particular country where terrorism is happening has the foremost responsibility, but considering the fact that we know that terrorism is global in its effect, it means that collaboration is important,” Ezekwesili said.
Ezekwesili commended Ibanga’s work on the community level to help fortify Nigeria’s people against terrorist ideologies. “As we look at the years ahead, we need to look at women as an important resource,” she said.
Additional reporting contributed by Yasmeen Qureshi.
Watch the full panel here: