Mike Smith / Politics

Extract: Boko Haram: ‘#BringBackOurGirls’

When the Nigerian government responded to Boko Haram’s abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in 2014, its response was against those demanding action, not the perpetrators.

Boko Haram: Bring Back Our Girls

Released today, Mike Smith’s Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War delves into the roots of a war being waged by a virtually unknown organisation. Telling the necessary story of the violence and negligence that is rapidly undermining the stability of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most powerful countries, it also highlights the failure of the Nigerian state in properly confronting the movement.

In this extract from the book, Mike Smith explores how the Nigerian government responded after hundreds of school girls were abducted by Boko Haram militants in 2014. The problem was that the target was not Boko Haram, but those demanding action from the government.

‘Our girls were kidnapped and they did not do anything’

The man dressed in a pearly white outfit wanted to speak with me. I knew this because one of his hangers-on insistently sought to direct me toward him, as if I were being summoned. His card, with a green and white background, Nigeria’s national colours, provided his name as ‘Hon. Amb. Jude Tabai’. The abbreviations stood for honourable ambassador, a title he said had been granted to him by the first lady. Underneath his name was written ‘director’ and ‘strategic team’, while in the top left corner of the card was a picture of President Goodluck Jonathan’s face.

‘So you’re working for the president, his team?’, I asked him.

‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’, he said.

‘So what do you do for them, for him?’

‘Well, that’s undercover actually. So more like security […]’.

We had met nearby just a few minutes earlier, across from Nigeria’s Unity Fountain in the capital Abuja, where a counterprotest was gathering for a second day. The counter-protest had drawn heavy criticism because it appeared to have been a paid-for crowd designed to disrupt another peaceful demonstration being held in the same location. The original protests had been occurring daily for nearly a month, demanding that the government and military take action over an issue that had suddenly brought Nigeria into the world spotlight: the abduction of nearly 300 girls from their school in the north-eastern town of Chibok. The original protests were not large – dozens of people – but it seemed that the government, or at least supporters of the government, were rattled by them. The campaign under the banner of Bring Back Our Girls had by then gained traction globally, helped along by social media. Moral support had come from a long list of famous names, including Michelle Obama, the American first lady, who tweeted a sad-faced picture of herself while holding a sign with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag.

When I first met Tabai earlier, he had been seated among organisers of the counter-protest, the one in support of the government. We were now standing in the afternoon heat next to a car parked in the grass, a handful of young men next to us. He told me that he was not an organiser of the counter-protest and had simply been passing by, saw the crowd and decided to stop. ‘If I am involved, I will tell you’, he said, ‘I am not in that business.’ At one point while we were speaking, one of the young men said something to someone else, and Tabai turned on him, telling him sharply, ‘my friend, keep your mouth shut’. The young man listened, a shamed look on his face. Besides claiming to hold some unspecified ‘security’ role for the president, Tabai, who looked to be in his fifties, also explained to me that he held the title of king of the youths in the Niger Delta, President Jonathan’s home region. There were many people like him in Nigeria who laid claim to such titles. The local media had also at times referred to him in that way, though his true influence would remain a mystery to me. He had also worked as an adviser in Bayelsa, President Jonathan’s home state.

‘But this protest, it seems sponsored, to be honest’, I said, referring to the counter-demonstrators.

‘That’s what you think?’ he asked me.

‘It looks that way, yes.’

‘OK, if you say “seems sponsored”, I don’t know from what angle, because these protests have been going on for like two, three weeks now’, Tabai said, apparently hoping that I would not know the difference between the two separate demonstrations. He spoke clearly and articulately.

‘Well, it’s been the other people who’ve been protesting’, I said.

He had taken his chance and failed, but he was undaunted. He changed tack and moved on to other arguments. It would turn out to be a lengthy conversation, filled with the kind of conspiracy theories one hears often in Nigeria. The gist of Tabai’s argument was that the Boko Haram insurgency was political, backed by Jonathan’s enemies and geared toward 2015 elections. But he did not stop there.

‘As I speak to you, those girls have been released’, he declared about midway through our conversation, referring to the students kidnapped in Chibok.

‘You think they’ve been released?’


‘By who?’

‘Their collaborators and co-sponsors have released those girls.

‘Ask me why.’

 * * *

What appeared to have been a coordinated effort to strike back began in late May. The problem was that the target was not Boko Haram, but those demanding action from the government. Daily protests of around 100 or so people wearing red had been occurring in Abuja, organised by civil society activists and others, including some with links to the opposition. The demonstrations had been peaceful and restrained, mainly led by Oby Ezekwesili, the former World Bank official and ex-minister whose speech in April was said to have led to the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. At each of the gatherings, Ezekwesili would marshal the crowd with a singleminded set of call-and-response chants:

Ezekwesili: ‘What are we demanding?’

Protesters: ‘Bring back our girls, now and alive.’

Ezekwesili: ‘What are we asking?’

Protesters: ‘The truth. Nothing but the truth.’

It all appeared well-meaning, but seemed unlikely to start a mass movement among Nigerians. Nevertheless, on 26 May, they would begin to be targeted, and whoever was pulling the strings seemed to be following the crudest and most unsophisticated dirty-tricks playbook. A new group of ‘protesters’ would appear, a rowdy collection of young men and women driven to their meeting point aboard buses. Many people instantly saw it for what it almost surely was: a paid-for crowd designed to provoke, intimidate and sow confusion. On the first day of their protest, they marched holding placards in support of the military and were greeted by a delegation that included the country’s chief of defence staff , Air Marshal Alex Badeh, who used the occasion to make an extraordinary claim. He told a handful of journalists present that he knew where the abducted girls were located, then seemed to indicate that the government would negotiate a deal to free them, contradicting earlier statements that it would not bargain with Boko Haram. ‘The good news for the girls is that we know where they are, but we cannot tell you, OK. We cannot come and tell you military secrets here. Just leave us alone. We are working. We will get the girls back’, Badeh said. After referring to the kinds of weapons being seized from the Islamists that he said could not have come from Nigeria’s armed forces, he hinted at conspiracies and agreed with President Jonathan’s assessment that Boko Haram had become Al-Qaeda in West Africa. ‘There are people from outside fuelling this thing. That’s why when Mr President said we have Al-Qaeda in West Africa, I believe it 100 per cent, because I know that people from outside Nigeria are in this war. They are fighting us. They want to destabilise our country, and some people in this country are standing with the forces of darkness.’

Addressing the crowd, he said that using force to rescue the girls would put their lives in danger, and the ‘protesters’ responded in support of him.

‘We want our girls back. But I can tell you we can do it […] But where they are held, can we go with force?’ Badeh asked. ‘No’, the protesters said in response.

‘If we go with force, what will happen?’, Badeh asked. On cue, the crowd responded: ‘They will die.’

‘So nobody should come and say the Nigerian military does not know what it is doing’, Badeh explained. ‘We can’t go and kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back.’

The comments were obviously intended to deflect criticism from the military, but days later, news emerged that an Australian negotiator who had previously helped mediate in the conflict in the Niger Delta was in Nigeria and seeking to broker a deal to free the girls. Stephen Davis told journalists that he had arrived in the country around the beginning of May at President Jonathan’s request and had travelled to the north-east. In comments in early June, Davis said he believed that most of the girls had been taken over the border into Cameroon, Chad or Niger and separated into three different groups. He told Britain’s Channel 4 that he had come close to negotiating a deal three times, but that ‘vested interests’ sabotaged the talks. He did not provide details on whom he meant, and it was also not clear which Boko Haram ‘commanders’ Davis had been in touch with. Attempting to talk to Boko Haram would be a formidable challenge for anyone. It has never been clear whether anyone can truly represent the group and speak on its behalf given its lack of a clear structure. Davis may have indeed been speaking with someone, but whether they were truly Boko Haram ‘commanders’ was another question.

The original Bring Back Our Girls protesters led by Oby Ezekwesili and others pushed ahead with their campaign. However, the counter-protesters and their backers, whoever they were, began to target them specifically. The site of the protests were the country’s Unity Fountain, a monument celebrating the coming together of such a diverse nation. Tellingly, however, the fountain, a series of white columns with Nigeria’s states listed on them, did not function, its black hoses strewn across an empty pool. One of Abuja’s major centres of power was located just across the street, the heavily secured Transcorp Hilton hotel, where politicians and businessmen hammered out deals in suites on the posh ninth and tenth floors and dined at a private restaurant whose windows overlooked the newly built city below.

The counter-protesters setting up at the Unity Fountain wore red shirts that mimicked the Bring Back Our Girls demonstrators, though with a slight change. Th e slogan written on the shirts was ‘Release Our Girls’ instead of ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ – in other words, they were not demanding that the government act; they were directing their plea to Boko Haram or, for the conspiracy-minded among them, to the northern politicians they believed were holding the girls as part of an anti-Jonathan plot. At first, the legitimate protesters sought to continue their rallies at the same location despite the rowdy crowd gathering nearby. One of the protest organisers, a civil society activist and professor named Jibrin Ibrahim, claimed the counter-demonstrators had been paid 3,000 naira ($20) each to attend and questioned who was responsible. 40 A counter-protest leader, Abduljalal Dauda, said the demonstration was independent of the government, though he added that participants may have been given 1,000 naira or so by organisers to cover their transport since they lived outside Abuja.

The Bring Back Our Girls leaders urged their followers not to respond to the provocations, remain calm and ignore them as much as possible. It worked at first, but the counter-demonstrators were not going to go away easily, and some of their leaders were spouting badly misinformed conspiracy theories, hinting at a vaguely defined international plot against Nigeria. Dauda made reference to a widely believed rumour in Nigeria: that the United States predicted the country’s break-up by 2015.

‘The truth of the matter is that even the same people in the United States of America said that Nigeria would disintegrate in 2015’, Dauda, chairman of a Nigerian youth council who said the young men at the protests were his ‘constituents’, told me. Felicia Sani, head of an organisation of market women, chimed in at that point. I had earlier told her I was American. ‘As we didn’t disintegrate, you are trying to disintegrate us’, she said. A short while later, Dauda sought to explain in more detail, though I had difficulty following his logic.

‘So what I am trying to tell you is this’, he said as we sat in chairs in the grass near the Unity Fountain surrounded by counter protesters he was supervising:

There is international conspiracy. Not only in Nigeria. There is international conspiracy. I’m not saying opposition is doing it. Opposition cannot destroy our country. Some people are interested in destroying this country. It happens in Arab Spring. It started with youths. We have seen it clearly. It is social media. Now the issue of Bring Back Our Girls – it has gone viral in the world. Why it has gone viral? Because you post it. But if you didn’t give somebody anything, why would you ask somebody to bring it back to you? We said release. That is why we changed the language from bring to release. These people, we didn’t give them these girls. You abduct them, and now we are asking to please release the girls healthy and alive. We have suffered enough. As a young person in this country, I would never want what I passed through [for] my children to go and pass through it. We have gone in a harsh situation […] We have generals in the north, they are not saying anything. We have to come out and say something because the destiny of this country lies in their hands […] You see these youths? We brought them, with the different ideology and different thinking. Our agenda is Save Nigeria Campaign. We are not interested in 2015 [elections] […] What we are saying is this: we need our country in the safe hands, so we need the country to be united. That is my point only.

 * * *

I first met Jude Tabai, the man who presented himself as working in an unspecified security role for the president’s team, while speaking with Abduljalal Dauda and Felicia Sani. It was a short time later, after one of his underlings insistently told me that Tabai wanted to speak with me, that we discussed the situation in more detail. We stood about 20 metres away from the counter-protest organisers, and the more we spoke, the more he seemed to relish explaining to me the sinister forces at work trying to bring down President Jonathan.

‘Why and where are they?’, I asked him after he claimed that the girls had been released by ‘collaborators and co-sponsors’. ‘Good’, he said, his voice climbing, pleased with the chance to tell the story. ‘Because, you know why they have been released? Because of the force the international community came with. Do you know that all those who never spoke against Boko Haram – the heavyweights, the religious leaders, the emirs who never spoke – all got up and start speaking now, that Boko Haram is this, Boko Haram is that, Boko Haram is this, Boko Haram is that. So it is like, why now? Because they now know the gravity of international community taking over this battle.’

His argument as far as I could tell was that the northern elites pulling the strings had got more than they had bargained for and must now find a way out before the plot is uncovered:

And basically their only bait to avoid that is to tell the people to push out those girls. And that is why you see them quickly saying that, ‘Give us this and take your girls.’ I’m a psychologist and I’m a security expert. No militant can tell you that, ‘take your girls and just give me one person’ […] That is a big loss to them, you understand? They will never. If they are actually firm in what they are doing, they will say that ‘give us our prisoners’. They know that nobody will release their prisoners. But they are asking for soft bargaining so that it will just be easy for them to just release those girls. And they believe that once they release those girls, that pressure on them, on both the northerners and all those things, will calm down, and then they can continue the other phase of the battle. But they will never go kidnapping on this level again because that has exposed a lot of things. And they know that if they don’t do it and this thing gets out of this level, it’s going to expose everybody.

We spoke for about 30 minutes before I left him to talk to the original Bring Back Our Girls protesters. They were outnumbered by the counter-demonstrators, who were about 300 in total compared to the original rally’s several dozen. Hadiza Bala Usman, one of the organisers for the Bring Back Our Girls rally, took the high road and sought to keep the focus on the Chibok girls when I asked whether she believed the counter-protesters were sponsored by the government. ‘Well, I’m not aware because I haven’t engaged them in any discussion. It’s just interesting to note that people are coming out after – this is our twenty-eighth day of protesting, twenty-eighth day of sustained protests, and it is important to know that the girls have been abducted for 47 days now’, said Usman, who has been aligned with the opposition in Nigeria and whose late father was a revered northern intellectual. ‘So for people to start protesting two days, 45 days after the abduction of the girls, is quite an interesting thing to note. But I don’t know who they are. I don’t know where they’re coming from. I hear them mentioning the fact that they are protesting for the release of the girls from the abductors.’

She continued as she kept an eye on the Bring Back Our Girls protesters assembling nearby since she was due to start the rally soon:

It’s interesting to note that we are citizens that have a social contract with our leader, and we believe our leader, based on our constitution, is mandated to provide security for the lives of every Nigerian, and in the event that security is not provided, citizens would go up to the leader and demand for him to have decisive and concise effort towards providing that mandate given to him […] We believe in a state; we believe in a nation; we believe in the institution of the federal republic of Nigeria, and we shall continue demanding for our federal government to do everything possible to rescue and return the Chibok girls.

The rally began shortly after we finished speaking, civil society activists, students, Chibok elders and sympathisers dressed in red, some bearing slogans such as ‘We are all from Chibok’ and ‘Bring Back Our Girls’. They chanted Ezekwesili’s call-and-response and listened as others addressed them on the latest news regarding the kidnappings. All remained peaceful, but there was an ominous sign later. The counter-protesters eventually moved toward the rally, trotting in a line, clapping and chanting. They circled the Bring Back Our Girls demonstrators, clearly attempting to provoke them, but no one took the bait. The counter-protesters gave up and returned to their spot on the other side of the Unity Fountain, but it was easy to see how the situation could degenerate if they were allowed to continue to gather there.

They were allowed to continue, of course, and what played out the next day was inane and brutal – simple thuggery designed to end a peaceful protest of dozens of people who were only asking what any citizen should expect of their government. According to journalists and others present at the time, young men who were among the counter-protest rushed over, sought to grab cameras journalists were holding and smash them, broke plastic chairs being used by the rally and hit some of the demonstrators with sticks and bars. Then they were allowed to walk away. Some of those present at the time told me that the police briefly detained a couple of the youths, but later let them go. When I arrived at the rally after the madness had subsided, the pile of broken chairs was still there and the Bring Back Our Girls leaders were shaken. They had earlier warned the police that they were concerned about their safety given the thugs assembling near them and had delivered a letter to the authorities saying so. They explained this to a police officer at the scene and showed him a copy of the letter, but he seemed uninterested. He misunderstood and said he would deliver the letter for them, and they told him again that it had already been delivered. Rumours began to spread that more thugs were on their way, and Bring Back Our Girls demonstrators began warning that everyone should leave. I did not see Tabai, Sani and Abduljalal – the three government supporters I spoke with a day earlier – and cannot say if they were there when the violence broke out.

The same officer who misunderstood the protest leaders was later standing next to a police truck along with several of his colleagues. I walked over and asked him why they had not arrested those who attacked the demonstrators. He told me he did not know who was responsible. I suggested he could talk to witnesses to find out. ‘I didn’t ask them’, he said. It was clear that he had no plans to do so, that he was helpless. There would be no benefit for this man dressed in the uniform of a Nigerian police officer to protect his fellow citizens from harm. ■

Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria’s Unholy War is out now.

Boko Haram: Inside Nigeria's Unholy WarMike Smith is a foreign correspondent for AFP news agency and was bureau chief in Western Africa from 2010 to 2013, based in Nigeria. He has extensively covered the Boko Haram insurgency.

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