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#Bringbackourgirls Movement: Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili’s Lessons From The Trenches By ‘Tope Oriola

January 31, 2015


The University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada played host to former Minister of Education and Vice President (Africa) at the World Bank Group, Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili on 29th January 2015. Ezekwesili delivered a public lecture on “The #bringbackourgirls campaign and human rights advocacy in Nigeria”. The event was part of the annual International Week at the university.

Dr. Ezekwesili drew attention to the lessons learned from the Chibok girls’ abduction. The first lesson is that we failed the Chibok girls. At the heart of this failure is the impression that the lives of the girls were not given priority as those of oil workers and elites whose abductions often led to deployment of state apparatus of force and/or swift negotiations. Reports of such dealings at the peak of the Niger Delta insurgency were rife as the reader may recollect. The Chibok girls’ lives, Ezekwesili argues, do not seem to matter because they are from the poorest segment of society.  This points to the salience of socio-economic status as a matter of life and death or in the case of the Chibok girls, rescue efforts. A 2014 report by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) 2014 has confirmed what former Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Professor Charles Soludo stated several years ago: The troubling social conditions in Northern Nigeria. While the South is certainly not living in a cornucopia of wealth, all available indicators demonstrate that the talakawa of the North are dangerously deprived. The OPHI considers education, health and standard of living and argues that all the poorest 10 states (as several earlier studies have shown) in Nigeria are in the North. These are Bauchi, Kebbi, Zamfara, Sokoto, Yobe, Jigawa, Katsina, Gombe, Borno and Niger states. We must now ask past and present leaders in these states and at the federal level: What have you done to our fellow citizens?

Another lesson is that Nigerians have been making little to no demand for accountability from their government. Ezekwesili emphasized how citizens of countries like Canada are quick to demand social services while Nigerians express gratitude for basic social services from their government, when and where they are available. The Nigerian people are often silent rather than taking to the streets to fight for their rights in an age marked by protest. She narrated how Boko Haram’s execution of dozens of boys in their schools in the North East garnered little attention. She was determined not to be silent following the abduction of the Chibok girls on 14th April 2014. 

Third, the politicization of human rights is a tragedy for any society. Dr. Ezekwesili noted that the reluctance of the federal government hinged on its suspicion that somehow the Chibok girls were kidnapped to embarrass the government. Doubts about the girls’ abduction and the belief that “the incident was an orchestrated scam by the Borno state government” led to loss of valuable time, particularly the critical first 48 hours. 

Abuse of the instrumentalism of the nation-state is another lesson from the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. Ezekwesili argued that the government began to take some steps because of global pressure. As Professor Pius Adesanmi pointed out at a recent roundtable on Boko Haram, “ownership” of the problem created by Boko Haram remains a huge issue. Whose problem is Boko Haram? The North or the whole of Nigeria? Ezekwesili pointed out that refusal to deploy appurtenances of state power to find the girls was tantamount to abuse of power and demonstrated the failure of the Nigerian state in the discharge of its most elemental duty. 

Finally, Dr. Ezekwesili urged everyone at the event to remain critically engaged on the issue until the girls have safely returned home. “Global citizens must realize that if we allow the story of the Chibok girls to be forgotten without finding the girls, we lose the credibility in convincing the girl-child anywhere in the world to go to school. Girls in Northern Nigeria and around the world must not be presented with a false choice between going to school and staying alive”, she argues. 

Overall, the public lecture was a resounding success. Participants, particularly Nigerian students and community in the Edmonton area contributed to the robust conversation. An overwhelming conclusion was that although the international community may apply pressure on the Nigerian government, the onus is on the people of Nigeria to demand more from their government.

I was opportune to have discussions with Dr. Ezekwesili in smaller groups as well as one on one. It was fascinating learning about her experience at the highest level of government in Nigeria. Our conversations revealed experiential knowledge of some of the burdens of leadership in Nigeria. One of these is mature public cynicism about leaders. Ezekwesili stated the conundrum posed by a public that assumes those in leadership positions “are all the same” and a political elite that views technocrats with suspicion. 

We had interesting discussions about living in diaspora and the imperative of contributing to national development. One key element is how Nigerians who are based overseas seem to assert the right to criticize their country of origin and draw comparisons with their countries of residence that were already “developed” before their migration. Her argument is a sound one: Efforts that would go unnoticed in relatively advanced societies would make a world of difference in under-developed ones. No group or individual can or should usurp the responsibilities of the state but everyone has a role to play.

Overall, Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili informed and inspired. The huge crowd at the public lecture is testament to her life’s oeuvre. Young women at the event noticeably felt an intimate connection with her as a symbol of what is possible in their lives. The girl-child in Nigeria needs more of such role model. I hope whoever wins the next presidential elections remembers that no country develops by leaving behind half of its population. May our missing girls be brought back home and may we never simply move on as if nothing happened.

‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping Oil Workers.