Joining the Effort to 'Bring Back Our Girls'

May 9, 2014
Joining the Effort to 'Bring Back Our Girls'

On April 15, 2014, members of the jihadist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school in northern Nigeria and threatened to "sell them in the market, by Allah, in an effort to end Western education." Nations around the world condemned the abduction, which inspired an international movement to "Bring Back Our Girls."

In response, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan vowed to secure the victims' safe return and to "conquer the terrorists." His government contacted recent HDS lecturer and Women's Studies in Religion Program research associate Hauwa Ibrahim, the first female lawyer in Yamaltu District, from the country's predominantly Muslim Gombe State, to participate on a 17-person Presidential Committee assembled to investigate the kidnapping.

HDS contacted Ibrahim in Nigeria for her assessment of the situation, of the prospects for its resolution, and of the country's future.

HDS: Boko Haram attacks have reportedly resulted in 1,500 deaths in recent months. Leader Abubakar Shekau pledged to either sell the kidnapped girls into slavery or marry them off to group members. In the meantime, the abductions continue. What can the Nigerian government do to end the kidnappings and get the victims back?

Ibrahim: First, I need to make it clear that I'm speaking for myself only here. What I say is not the official opinion of the committee. I also want to say that I've spent most of the last few years in Boston, so I'm not as grounded in the details of what's going on in Nigeria as those who have been here throughout that time.

That said, there are short-term goals and there are long-terms goals.

In the short term, we want to get these girls back and safe with their families any way we can. Our goal is to make sure that they don't spend one day more in the hands of their kidnappers. So, one of the first things I said to our group is that we should not play politics with the lives of these girls. No one has the right to do that.

In the long term, I think we need a more inclusive strategy. Boko Haram has been around for several years. The more you kill them, the more you produce them. We have to ask ourselves, "What do we want to see in Nigeria 30 years from now?"

HDS: What does Boko Haram want? Is there a basis for negotiation? Should the government negotiate?

Ibrahim: There's always a way to work for peace.

The separatists want Sharia law in Nigeria, starting with the North. That's their mission—not to kidnap girls. There are many in Boko Haram who want to focus on Islamization and not kidnapping or terror. We're trying to see if we can reach some of them to help us return the girls and to work on where we want to go as a people. For us to rescue the girls, I think we will need the help of these members of Boko Haram.

The country is like a mother and the people—all of the people—are like its children. We're responsible for our own children. We don't want to kill our children. We want to put them in the right place. If you want Sharia law, then show us how to move the country forward using Sharia. There are other non-Muslims who have passion for their beliefs. How can we work together in a way where everybody's ideas are thriving?

This strategy is very controversial, but I believe in an inclusive approach. My strength is my ability to work with people who are opposed to what I think. When I was a lawyer in Nigeria, fundamentalists called for my death. I let them know we are not enemies and we can work together. We have to bring on board people who disagree with us.

HDS: How can Boko Haram use Islam as a justification for the kidnappings?

Ibrahim: There is no Islam in kidnapping young girls. Boko Haram use Islam in a very misinformed way. No Muslim would kidnap another Muslim or non-Muslim. Their actions are not Islamic.

There is a passage in the Quran that speaks about mission:

“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided” (Quran 16:125)

When you get off track, you are likely to lose your mission. Boko Haram's mission is Islamization. When they go into kidnapping, they get the opposite of a blessing on their mission. There is no Islam in kidnapping.

Saying that, we don't consider any people bad. We consider their actions bad. The moment you start calling people names, you lose the ability to work with them. So we say that the actions are terrorism, but we don't call the people terrorists. The moment you label someone, you lose the ability to create a common structure that enables different people to work together peacefully to create positive change.

HDS: What role does the Presidential Committee play in the government's efforts?

Ibrahim: The committee was inaugurated on Tuesday, May 7, so we're talking now about what we want to achieve. I think our first order of business should be in Chibok, Borno State, where the girls were kidnapped. We need to talk to the families of the girls to let them know that the government is with them and for them. Right now we're in Abuja, where nothing much is going on because Nigeria is hosting the World Economic Forum. Even so, I've met with dozens of people in Abuja to gather their thoughts. Again, our focus is on getting the girls back home to their families and friends.

HDS: How did you come to be involved? Why did President Jonathan ask you to serve?

Ibrahim: Some ministers in the federal government contacted me. They said that my name came up at the federal executive meeting where they decided to create the committee. They felt I could bring neutrality to the process, which is important because of the cultural and religious divisions in the country. They also thought I could bring credibility. I knew I could bring my passion to the issue of education, particularly for girls and the powerless.

I didn't know if I wanted to participate. I was preparing to go to Jordan at the invitation of HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal for the West Asia-North Africa Forum on 'Legal Empowerment: A Platform for Resilience, Innovation and Growth.' I finally decided to come back to Nigeria because of my passion for the voiceless and powerless. I grew up in the North. These could be my children. Also, girl's childhood education is my focus. I wanted to bring the passion I have in this area and see if I could assist with the efforts to get the girls back home.

HDS: Should the international community intervene?

Ibrahim: The United States is already offering to help provide actionable intelligence through technology, satellites, etc. In the short term, that could be very valuable.

In the long term, though, the international community can help by not believing all the unverified information out there. The media should try as much as possible to get news from the source—persons working on ground—and cross-check information before they report what is happening. When they spread bad information, it does damage to what people are trying to do on the ground.

The international community should also understand that the issue of terror is not throughout Nigeria, neither is it a Nigerian factor. I'm in Abuja. I drove all around today. It's peaceful. There are pockets of trouble, but generally the country is peaceful. The media has to try to balance its reporting.

HDS: What's next for your committee and for Nigeria?

Ibrahim: I think we need to get a hold of our communications and temper our rhetoric. We can't make statements without a strategy and a sense of the end game. If we are not strategic, there will be too much information for some Boko Haram elements to use for its own ends. We can't be weak, but we also can't be too strong to be approached.

We also have to understand the differences in culture between the South, where the president and some of his advisers come from, and the North. Northerners are quieter. In some areas, when we want to achieve something, the northerners are not very keen about press. They would rather settle issues without making it public. It's a cultural nuance, and we have to be put it into context.

Nigeria is a great country with the ability to do good. If it goes a good way, the world will be better for it. We have to come together to make sure that every life matters. If we do, we will not only have a better country, but also help ensure global peace and security.

—by Paul Massari