Interview: Considering Nigeria’s insecurity, I wonder how Buhari became a general –Aisha Yesufu, co-convener, BBOG
On Tuesday, May 14, 2019, Leah Sharibu clocked 16, and had also spent 449 days in Boko Haram captivity. On that day, Nigerians took to different social media platforms to mark her birthday and demand her release. Sharibu is the Christian girl still in captivity after she was abducted at Government Girls’ Science and Technical Secondary School in Dapchi, Yobe State, along with 111 other girls and a boy on February 19, 2018. At the time, she was 14 years old. Although other girls were released, Sharibu has remained in Boko Haram captivity for her refusal to denounce her Christian faith. Before then, on the night of April 14, 2014, 276 female students were kidnapped from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State. Fifty-seven of them managed to escape over the next few months. In May 2016, one of the missing girls, Amina Ali, who was found, claimed that six of them had died. Later in 2016, another set of 21 girls were freed in October, while another girl was rescued the following month. In January 2017, one of the girls was also found and 82 more girls were freed about four months later. In January 2018, one of the girls was also rescued. Meanwhile, about 100 of the schoolgirls have yet to return as Nigerians continue to endure a seemingly endless wait for their return five years after their abduction. Following the abduction of Chibok girls, Bring Back Our Girls movement, a diverse group of citizens advocating for speedy and effective search and rescue of all the abducted girls and for a rapid containment and quelling of insurgency in Nigeria, was formed. The co-convener of the group, Aisha Yesufu, talks about its struggle in the last five years to ensure that all the girls in Boko Haram captivity are freed. Five years after the abduction of the Chibok girls, the co-convener of the Bring Back Our Girls group, Aisha Yesufu, takes a trip down memory lane with Ademola Olonilua of PunchNG
Leah Sharibu has spent her second birthday in captivity. What do you have to say about this?
We really should be ashamed of ourselves. It is the shame of a nation. How would our government ‘negotiate’ and then leave a girl behind? How did that happen? Is it because she refused to become a Muslim? Must she be a Muslim? Now she has spent her second year in captivity and I saw as some people congratulated her for holding on to her faith. She is not looking for their congratulations; she wants to be back home with her family. There are some people making comparison and I ask them if it is a good thing for them to compare. This government should be ashamed of itself that the same thing that happened in Chibok happened again in Dapchi. How come all the security people were taken out of Dapchi hours before the abduction? Who gave the order? How come that when the girls were taken through all the security stops, there was no one available to stop the vehicle taking hundreds of girls away? Sadly, Nigeria is not a country that asks questions. People say that when the Dapchi incident happened, the President quickly brought the girls back, is that an achievement? Is that the reason why they were taken? There are so many questions that need to be answered by this administration. One of the most heinous things that happened under this administration is that these terrorists were given access to bring back the girls. At that moment, the Nigerian government ceded power to the terrorists and you could see in the video that surfaced the way young men were cheering the terrorists. Teenagers are easily impressionable and you have no idea how many of them may have been recruited.
It has been five years since the Chibok girls have been abducted. As a crusader for their cause, how do you feel about the situation?
When I think about the situation, it makes me feel ashamed of being a Nigerian. It is very saddening and heartbreaking that these girls were abducted and 112 of them are still in captivity. Despite the fact that they are in captivity there seems to be some sort of negligence on the part of the government towards the issue of the girls and the parents of the girls that are still in captivity, and that for me is absolutely not acceptable because what it says is the fact that as Nigerians, we are not important to our government and they do not care about us. It is sad that when things happen to some people, others feel it is not their business because the victims are not from their demography, region or ethnic group. They forget that it can happen to anybody and as far as the Chibok girls are in captivity, we all are in captivity.
Over the past five years, we have seen as things have deteriorated in our country as far as insecurity is concerned. There are now places where you dare not travel by road. Our people are afraid and there is a palpable fear in the nation because as you go around, you do not know if you would be the next victim. In Nigeria, the issue of someone becoming a victim is no longer a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. When the Chibok incident happened, if we had rallied together as a nation and kicked against it and the government took the matter up ensuring that the incident was nipped in the bud; that the girls were rescued and the terrorists were arrested, it would have sent a strong signal to criminals in the country and around the world. As we did not do anything, we sent a signal to every evil and criminal minded individual that they can do anything. Since the Chibok girls’ kidnap five years ago, we have had different ‘Chibok’ incidents in different areas.
Some people believe that the Bring Back Our Girls campaign was more vibrant during President Goodluck Jonathan’s regime than President Muhammadu Buhari’s tenure. Do you agree with them?
People who make such remarks want to explain their empathy deficiency and nothing more. I would say that the government listened more during Jonathan’s era. Those that are in Buhari’s government are angry at us because they think that we are louder now than we were during Jonathan’s time. It depends on who you are talking to and the time you are talking to the person. As a movement, we are ‘administration-neutral’. Our movement is making a noise so that our girls can be brought back and whoever is in power must listen. I tell people that government is a continuum and it does not change because someone else has taken over power; the Nigerian government is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The BBOG movement has been coming out every day for over five years. April 30, 2019 marked five years that we started coming out to demand from the government the whereabouts of our daughters. We always converge at the Unity Fountain, Abuja. We have been arrested, sprayed with teargas and we have been faced with so much more.
People sit back in their corner and begin to make various insinuations instead of them to hide their heads in shame because young girls were abducted and they never came out to raise their voice, instead they would come out and say that BBOG is politically motivated so that they would feel good that they have said something. You cannot feel good if you do not have empathy. They would look for any point to bring down the movement instead of focusing on the issue. Whether BBOG is politically motivated or not, that should not be your issue, instead, ask if those girls are still in captivity. As long as these girls are in captivity, we will keep coming out every day to make demands about their whereabouts. Nigeria is a nation filled with hypocrites and I remember I once tweeted that if we could export hypocrisy, Nigeria would be a major exporter. We have different biases. For instance, there are people who have administration bias and that would talk about Leah Sharibu, one of the abducted Dapchi girls, but they would never talk about Chibok girls because the incident happened during Goodluck Jonathan’s time in office. They were the sycophants of the government and it was the government that they supported. They still deny it till date; however, when the Dapchi girls’ incident happened, they spoke about it. Some people would talk about the Chibok girls but would never talk about Leah Sharibu because they are supporting Muhammadu Buhari. There are people who have regional bias and would talk about the terrorist activities going on in the North-East but would not talk about what is happening in the North-West. We also have those that have religious bias. They would talk about Leah Sharibu because she is a Christian. They would not talk about the killings in Zamfara because it is a predominantly Muslim community. However, these people would talk about southern Kaduna because they believe that it is Christians that are being persecuted there. Some would not talk about southern Kaduna but Zamfara because it suits their religious bias. We are in a nation of hypocrites and we forget that we are the ones being killed. When one of us is killed, all of us are being killed little by little. We can no longer travel the Abuja-Kaduna Road the way we used to due to insecurity. When these criminals stop a person’s car, they would not ask for your religion, political party or who you voted for; they will just attack and kill Nigerian citizens on Nigerian soil. All of us are victims waiting to happen. We have this mentality of always abdicating our responsibility to God; we sit down and say, ‘God forbid, it will never happen to me.’ Ironically, the people that it happened to equally said, ‘God forbid.’ The fact that you pray and fast will not stop it from happening to you; God has given us the mental capacity to provide for ourselves and demand good governance. If we do not do what we ought to do, God would not come and do for us what we have the capacity to do for ourselves. We go to religious houses regularly and think we are safe but when they come after us, all those prayers will not work because God has given us the capacity to demand, and also ensure that the right thing is done.
What kind of intimidation have you faced for your involvement in the BBOG?
From day one, we have been attacked and we are still being attacked. BBOG has gone through so much mentally, physically and health-wise. Some of our members have died; we have parents of some of the abducted girls who have died due to heartbreak. We have a parent of one of the girls who is battling heart issues. Most of them have hypertension. Even among the movement, we have been sprayed with tear gas. In April 2016, the police used tear gas to try to disperse us. I am a very vocal person and so I was picked out among the group. I remembered a policeman saying that they threw two tear gas canisters to where I was. I stood there with my hands up. I could not breathe at the moment and I remember saying a silent prayer that even if I was going to die, it should not be in the presence of my oppressors. I did not want to give them that pleasure. So I inhaled a lot of that chemical. Over time, I have had health challenges and I was sick for about three months and could not go out. One of the beautiful things about social media is that you can be tweeting from your bed and no one would know. So when I am ill, people do not know because I am still active online. Sometimes I wonder how Muhammadu Buhari became a general considering the level of insecurity in the country. This is an incompetent regime. There was a time I went out for a march and slumped at the gate of Aso Rock Villa and they had to take me away. I had a series of health issues and it took me about a year before it dawned on me that since the time I was sprayed with tear gas, I had not been fine. I had to travel out of the country for a medical check-up when I realised that my nails were falling. I’d been to Nigerian hospitals and they all said I was healthy. I have had failing health issues. Some other members of our group have been attacked. We have been beaten by the police and they have removed our chairs from the Unity Fountain during President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. During Jonathan’s time in office, we were beaten, attacked, and taken to the police station. We have faced a lot of persecution from Nigerians, the government and even terrorists. We have been called different names but the beautiful thing is that we have been consistent.
How have you been able to fund BBOG for the past five years?
We are a self-funded group. No organisation or individual can come out and say that they gave us money. We have never collected money from anyone. People have offered us money but we declined. We do not need your money, we want your empathy so come and join us to demand good government. In 2016, the BBOG was given an award in Argentina, which was sponsored by their government and it came with a $5,000 cash prize. We took the plaque but rejected the money; we made them know that we were a self-funded movement and could not accept the money. This was prize money that was attached to an award and we could have collected it but we did not. We need people’s empathy and sacrifice and not their money. What people do not know is that the BBOG protest was meant to last for a day; people were meant to meet, hold a peaceful protest and disperse. But when the government was not serious about locating the girls, we began to come out every day. Some people say that I come out because I am looking for an appointment. I am a trader, I have never worked for anyone and I do not intend to work for anyone. BBOG was meant to be a one-day event but it went on. The chairman of the community knelt down and begged us that we should not go because if we did, government would not listen to them. So we listened to him. The truth is that if we did not continue to demand the whereabouts of these girls, Nigerians would have forgotten about them. In this country, if you are poor, you are voiceless, nameless and faceless. A poor person is only a thumbprint that is relevant once every four years. As a movement, we have faced adversities not only from the people and the government but also from the terrorists. During the era of Goodluck Jonathan, there was a time we did not even know where we were going to meet. We had to be changing venues because we were threatened by the terrorists who said that they were going to attack us. So we had to send messages to our members 30 minutes to the time of our meeting to inform them of the venue. After all, we have been through, at the end of the day some people would come out and say that we are politically motivated. They should be ashamed of themselves because they were silent when atrocities were being meted out on our country and children.
Why did you join the BBOG movement?
I grew up very poor in the slums of Kano. I am from Edo State but I was born and raised in Kano State. I lived in a place where I call the Ajegunle of Kano, where the ragtag of the society lived in the state. Where I grew up was so bad that while I was growing up, if you told someone you lived where I was raised, they would not want to associate with you. They were afraid of us. I loved to read and so I wanted to be educated because I knew there was a world beyond what I was seeing. There were times when I would go to school without food and after trekking several miles, I would return home and there would still be no food so it was easy for me to connect with the Chibok girls. About 28 years ago, I was taking the same examination the Chibok girls were taking when they were abducted and I know what it means to be poor and live in a place where education is not seen as important. At the age of 11, I had no female friends because all my mates had been married off. I was ridiculed and insulted because I decided to go to school. I got married at the age of 24 and by that time, most of my peers were grandmothers. Growing up I felt the injustice and hated our nation and leaders. I have always spoken the truth even when it would put me in trouble, especially with my parents; they did not like it but at the end of the day if there was an issue, they always called me because they knew I would always say the truth. By the time I finished school, I had already known that one needed to be financially independent in this country so I faced my business.
By the time I turned 40, I realised that I was the problem of Nigeria and what I mean by that is; I was not saying anything about the ills of the society. I was just keeping quiet. I had got to a stage where I was financially independent. I decided to focus on education because I realised it is the easiest way to break the shackles of poverty. I always say that the greatest injustice in Nigeria today is that access to good education is dependent on the economic status of a person’s family. This should not be so as everybody should have access to good and quality education. If I did not go to school, I could not be as vocal as I am; I would have been married off like some of my peers who got married as early as when they were nine years old. The first time I knew about a protest was the massacre at Buni Yadi. I was with my husband when I saw some people marching and I told him that if I knew about the issue, I would have joined them. As at that time, I was not active on social media and I only had a Facebook account which I visited about once a year. When the Chibok incident happened, it filtered through and I heard about it. The military came out to claim that they had rescued all the girls except eight of them and I was happy. I thought it was over. On April 30, 2014, I had finished exercising in the gym when one of my friends asked if I would join in the rally. I did not know about it so she told me about it and made me know that the military lied. Since I had been interested in a protest since the Buni Yadi killings, I simply asked my friend for the dress colour code and assured her that I would be there. I called my husband and informed him that I would want to be a part of the rally and he gave his consent. On that day, I went to the Unity Fountain and that was when we held the first march in the heavy rain. The downpour discouraged a lot of people from joining us but the few of us that were there defied the rain. We marched on the National Assembly on that day and the leadership of the National Assembly under David Mark and Aminu Tambuwal came out in the rain to address us. There was a lot of tears and anguish on that day and you could see the pain on the faces of the parents. That was how I joined the movement. I joined the march because I am a mother and I have two children; a boy and a girl. My son was a teenager but my daughter was not and I felt that if anyone took my children, I would not stay at home. I would be out there. The reason I continued was not because I am a mother but those girls represent me many years ago. I feel like if I give up on those girls, I would have given up on the little girl that I was. The poor girl that was begging for help but no one answered. I remember when I was taking my exam and begging people to help me get textbooks for my exams but they did not help. On May 2014, I told myself that I was ready to dedicate the next 20 years of my life to the issue of the Chibok girls if need be. I never imagined that five years down the line, we would still be talking about them.
What do you think would have happened to the girls?
Different things would have happened to them. Some of them would have died. Some would have given birth. They have gone through so much anguish that no one can think about. Psychologically it would take them the rest of their lives to get themselves back to a stable state. They would be afraid for their lives every second of their lives. This is something that is unbearable. I am sure that every day, they would keep wondering if the people have forgotten about them. The youngest girl that was abducted was 16 years old, by June this year; she would be 21 years old now. The lives of the Chibok girls have been truncated and for five years, their lives have been put on hold. What has been done to the girls and their parents is evil. What pains me the most is the hypocrisy of Nigerians because these children are from poor backgrounds; in fact, such a thing cannot happen to the children of the rich as their school would be heavily guarded. The kind of security that is given to Zahra Buhari is the same security that should be given to Dorcas Yakubu who would clock 21 in captivity this June. You cannot segregate children based on the economic status of their family. The primary responsibility of any government is the protection of lives and property and if the government cannot do that, it is not fit to be called a government.
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