Two weeks after an unconfirmed number of schoolgirls — up to 234, by some accounts — were kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents in the northeastern state of Borno, angry Nigerians took to social media and the streets of the capital to protest the government’s failure to bring the girls home.
As criticism of the government's "cluelessness" grew stronger, a few hundred protesters — mainly women — rallied in Abuja today, responding to calls for a “million-woman march,” as reports spread that the girls had been married off to the Islamist militants that abducted them, and that they were sold and taken abroad.
"We have heard from members of the forest community where they took the girls,” Samson Dawah, a retired teacher whose niece is among the missing, told the . “They said there had been mass marriages and the girls are being shared out as wives among the Boko Haram militants.”
According to other reports, quoting local elders, the girls were sold off as brides for 2,000 naira each (about $12.50), and later taken abroad to neighboring Chad and Cameroon.
The students, between 16 and 18 years old, vanished on April 14 while sitting for a physics exam, shocking a nation long accustomed to Boko Haram’s targeting of schools — though never through such a massive abduction.
Protesters on Wednesday hoped to raise awareness over a disappearance that shocked the nation, but led to little action by authorities. They carried signs that said “Our girls held for 15 days now” and “Nigeria, our children are still missing,” while they criticized the government's failure to provide official updates.
The video below shows scenes from today's march. Parents of the missing girls have also called for rallies on May 3.
“It is now the third week since these girls were abducted like cows for the slaughter house. We don’t know if they are alive or dead. Nobody from government has spoken to us as a community. We have come here to express our displeasure,” Naomi Mutah, one of the protesters, said at the rally. “We want the government to rescue our daughters from the hands of the abductors… We are very worried that we may not see our daughters again.”
Local officials in attendance also criticized the government’s slow response, and said authorities must do more, “even if it means seeking external support to make sure these girls are released,” Senator Ali Ndume, who represents Borno South, told reporters.
Authorities said rescuing the girls is a "priority" but they reportedly called off three separate attempts to do so — a frightening sign of their weakening grip over the insurgency.
"Any time we make a plan to rescue [the girls] we have been ambushed," a soldier involved in the rescue attempts told the Guardian.
Officials also retracted a previous claim that they had freed most of the girls, whose relatives have taken it upon themselves to search the areas around the Sambisa Forest reserve, where they were reportedly taken.
Some local residents said they saw the girls being driven away in trucks to unknown destinations. Others said the girls were ferried on canoes across Lake Chad.
"What I believe (and heard) is that Boko Haram told the girls that since they were receiving 'western education' they were all 'infidels' and that they therefore were dhimmis and had to pay jizyah to Boko Haram, but because the girls did not have money, the compensation instead would be to be married (or raped) by Boko Haram members," Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation told VICE News.
Boko Haram, whose name loosely translates as “Western education is sinful,” preaches Sharia law and has been behind a long series of violent attacks, particularly against schools. The group was also believed to be behind a deadly bombing at a bus station outside Abuja earlier this month, which killed at least 71 people — the deadliest attack ever in Nigeria’s capital.
The number of missing girls remains disputed. State officials said that 129 girls were kidnapped when gunmen stormed the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, with 52 eventually escaping. But local residents and the school principal said 230 students had been abducted, and 187 remained missing. Other counts put the number of kidnapped girls at 234.
After condemning the abduction, authorities have remained largely silent on the situation — fueling mounting outrage from the girls’ families. President Goodluck Jonathan was specifically singled out by critics for his failure to act.
"Nigerian citizens have been waiting in vain for an effective decisive action from the presidency beside the usual: 'We condemn this act'," Nigerian writer Victor Ehikhamenor told the BBC. "But the president is waxing strong in his Pentecostal polemics and total reliance on prayers to solve the country's security failings."
In an effort to raise attention to the botched search for the girls, some even compared it to a different search that captured the world's attention.
"The search for these Nigerian schoolgirls will probably be the most difficult search in human history, not the Malaysian Flight MH370," Garba Shehu wrote in an op-ed on the Nigerian news site Premium Times. "The difference between these two is that while both Australian and Malaysian officials issue daily bulletins and are addressing press gatherings to report virtually nothing new in terms of substantial information, the Nigerian federal government, which controls the army and police, has retreated into a cocoon in the past one week."
While women rallied in Abuja, Nigerians and people across the world — including UNDP’s head Helen Clark — also expressed their solidarity on social media, tweeting their support for the girls and frustration with officials’ inaction under the hashtags #WhereAreOurGirls and #BringBackOurGirls.
In a report released earlier this month, the International Crisis Group estimated that Boko Haram's four-year insurgency killed at least 4,000 people, displaced half a million, and destroyed hundreds of schools, particularly in the northeastern region of the country — Nigeria's poorest, and the insurgents' home base.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi