It’s been two years, April 14th to be exact, since the world witnessed the abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls from their dormitory rooms at the hands of Boko Haram – a West African terrorist group that has lodged atrocities against its own people including the burning of children alive and sending teenaged girls on suicide bomb missions.
But one member of Congress, a former principal and mother now in her third term in office, said she refuses to rest until the remaining 219 girls still missing have been safely returned to their families.
On Thursday, April 14, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) sponsored a press conference and panel discussion in the Cannon House Office Building in Southeast that included experts and advocates who offered their perspectives and solutions for addressing the ongoing crisis in the region. Several girls who escaped their abductors and now live in the U.S. also shared comments and expressed their thanks.
Wilson has visited Nigeria several times along with other members of Congress where they’ve met with some of the victims and their parents. She remains a staunch supporter of the Bring Back Our Girls movement.
“I was shocked and deeply saddened when I first learned that Boko Haram had abducted the Chibok girls to punish them for seeking to learn and better their lives,” she said. “My concern began with the girls but has since expanded because of the near-daily atrocities that Boko Haram commits, which has escalated since the girls were kidnapped. They’re trafficking girls and women as sex slaves and slaughtering boys.”
“They have no conscience and they must be stopped. Even though Boko Haram has been ranked as the world’s deadliest terrorist group, it’s actually a group of cowards, which is why they send girls out, some as young as seven, to do their dirty work.”
Panelist participants included: John Yearwood, moderator and executive board chairman, International Press Institute; Malcolm Nance, executive director, The Terror Asymmetrics Project on Strategy, Tactics and Radical Ideology; Jana Mason, senior advisor for government relations, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Tunde Odunlade, a Nigerian artist and activist; Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Emmanuel Ogebe, international director, Education Must Continue Initiative; and Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, Africa deputy program director, International Crisis Group.
Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, also gave an update on actions initiated by the U.S. government.
Wilson said building support among her colleagues has sometimes been a challenge.
“Several congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers have introduced legislation and support my efforts like Wear Something Red Wednesday, the daily Twitter campaign and events like the forum and press conference that I recently hosted. But we’ve got to hold Nigeria’s government more accountable, keep the pressure on those lawmakers and let them know that if they don’t increase their efforts to find the girls and defeat Boko Haram, that they can be voted out of office.”
Ogebe said U.S. officials and leaders from other countries initially failed to take Boko Haram seriously.
“World leaders allowed Boko Haram to spread like a cancer. What’s needed is greater intelligence on the ground and the assistance of the U.S. with technology that can pinpoint where the terrorists are hiding. What’s happening in Nigeria should be deemed as an act of genocide,” he said.
Hogendoorn believes the U.S. could do more but that Nigerian officials must take the lead.
“Ultimately it’s a Nigerian problem — they’re a country that remains in crisis,” he said. “Their military, police and elected officials are all going through major reform and that process cannot be forced.”
Odunlade said he won’t give up, even though Boko Haram continues to grow more powerful and dangerous.
“These terrorists have to be fought on all fronts,” he said. “I just hope that Nigeria’s neighboring countries will provide more assistance. And the country’s youth must be supported. They’re talented and many are hungry for more education. They could be the real answer to the problem of terrorism.”
Thomas-Greenfield said she remains optimistic but noted that defeating groups like Boko Haram requires long term determination.
“The truth is Boko Haram only represents a minority of people among Muslims and Africans,” she said. “Many of the foot soldiers in their organization are young boys and girls who have been forced to participate. Those who want to leave must be supported and not ostracized. Nigeria also has to be willing to use more of its assets. They have had recent success fighting Boko Haram with the help of countries like Cameroon and that’s encouraging. Ultimately, the U.S. needs Congress to vote to give more financial assistance and America needs other countries to commit themselves to this fight.”
“The bottom line – if I weren’t optimistic I would have given up long ago. We’re making progress but it’s going to be a long process. The question is whether world leaders, along with Nigeria, are willing to take on this fight for the long haul. That’s what it’s going to take,” she added.
On Wednesday, April 20, Wilson led a candlelight vigil in front of the U.S. State Department in an effort to keep the world focused on the plight of the still missing girls. Last week, CNN released a “proof of life” video, obtained from a source “close to the negotiations,” in which several of the missing girls appeared to be in good health but anxious to return home.
Wilson believes they’re likely being treated better than the majority of Boko Haram’s abductees because they can be used by the terrorists as bargaining chips.
“We’re fighting to keep this in the news and keep it in the hearts and minds of people so it won’t fade away because we’ve got to bring those girls back,” Wilson said.
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