Prologue

Michele Obama didn’t know Hamsatu Allamin. Neither did Malala Yousafzai, Amy Poehler, Justin Timberlake, and scores of other celebrities. But because of a press conference Hamsatu, a human rights activist, spearheaded in her home city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, in April of 2014, those celebrities and millions of people all over the world came to know of the abduction by the insurgent group, Boko Haram, of 200+ girls from a boarding school in Chibok, a village in Borno State. And thousands subsequently took to social media to demand the girls be returned to their homes.

Word of their kidnapping had reached Hamsatu the morning after it happened through a phone call from an associate who lived in Chibok. The Nigerian government’s initial response to the incident ranged from obfuscation to denial. Rumors replaced information. Hearsay doubled as news.

A full four days after the girls were taken in the middle of the night from their dormitory, little was officially reported on the incident and nothing was known about their whereabouts. Those whose daughters had disappeared wondered why their country’s security forces hadn’t been able to quickly find hundreds of teenage girls, a cadre of insurgents, and a convoy of vehicles in the expanse around Chibok — a lonely landscape dotted with thorny bushes and scattered trees.

Against the backdrop of virtual silence on the matter, Hamsatu contacted a colleague in Maiduguri’s civil society — Professor Hauwa Abdu Biu — to help coordinate a press conference to draw attention to what had happened in Chibok. The two hoped that the publicity would create international pressure on the government to do more to find the girls and to dialogue with the insurgents to end the rampant violence that threatened the future of their country.

The 18 women leaders from Borno State. Seated from right – Hon. Asabe V. Bashir (Member of National Legislature), Br. Aisha A. Wakil (“Mama Boko Haram”), Prof Hauwa A. Biu, Hamsatu Allamin and Aishatu Ngulde (Photo provided by Hamsatu Allamin)

That was the plan that brought together 18 women leaders from Borno State to stand in solidarity before members of the media and listen as one of their own, Professor Biu, read the statement she and Hamsatu had worked on together:

Women Peace and Security network under the leadership of the Borno outreach of BAOBAB for Women Human Rights and other concerned women in Borno State wish to condemn the abduction of female students of GGSS Chibok as well as other females from Dikwa and other parts of the North Eastern States by suspected members of Jamaatul ahlil sunna Lidaawati wal Jihad. Such acts are inhuman and capable of affecting the efforts of enhancing girl child education and development in the state and the country at large.

This idea of invading schools and causing havoc on the lives of future leaders, particularly future mothers of Nigeria, is a way of violating international humanitarian law. Women in Borno State condemn in its totality such acts of violence as attacks on schools deny children their rights to learn in a safe environment there by jeopardizing their future.

We also condemn all other attacks in the form of bomb blasts and serial killings all over the country in its entirety and commiserate with the families of all those that lost their lives during the unfortunate incidences. While calling on the sect members to please release all those in their custody without harming them, and as a matter of urgency lay down their arms and embrace dialogue, we wish to assure them of our motherly support towards rehabilitating them when the need arises.

While commending the efforts of both Federal, Borno State government and other security personnel as well as the Borno youth volunteers toward addressing the current insurgency attacks in the state, and bearing in mind the attacks on schools, we wish to appeal for the provision of adequate security to all schools so as to have safe learning environment to enable building a promising future for the country.

Before long, people all over the globe took up the cry of the mothers and fathers of Chibok: Bring back our girls.

National and international media outlets picked up the story, and the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme, the British-sponsored nongovernmental organization Hamsatu worked for, helped spread the word, as well. Before long, people all over the globe — from those in the upper echelons of power to those with family and friends on Facebook and Twitter — took up the cry of the mothers and fathers of Chibok: Bring back our girls.

A view from a rally held in Lagos, calling for the return of over 200 Nigerian secondary school girls abducted in April by the extremist group Boko Haram. (UN Photo)

Hamsatu’s connection with that story and others involving Boko Haram started long before that hashtag trended. The path to her advocacy began decades earlier, the day her father announced she would go to school … .

Narrative title photo: “Bring Back Our Girls” mural in West Vale, England  (Photo by Tim Green on flickr )

Section title photo: Michelle Obama holding a sign for #BringBackOurGirls (Wikipedia)

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