The sounds and cries of Nigeria rang out in front of the state Capitol on Sunday as more than 100 protesters beseeched the world to aid their country in rescuing 276 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, a group of Muslim extremists in northeastern Nigeria.
“All we are say-ing is bring back our girls,” sang a chorus of Nigerians flanked by Liberians, Ghanians and African Americans. The crowd prayed, wept and demanded military help to find Boko Haram. The name of the group translates in Hausa to “Western education is sinful and prohibited,” explained Professor Ernest Uwazie, director of the Center For African Peace andConflict Resolution at California State University, Sacramento.
Uwazie joined the Sacramento Association of Nigerians, representing some of the estimated 5,000 Nigerians in the region, in calling for aid to the families of the missing girls and other victims displaced by Boko Haram violence. They also urged international mediation to resolve the conflict.
The rally was the first of several planned in Sacramento to keep international attention on the brazen April 14 kidnapping, in which more than 300 girls ages 15 to 18 were seized from Government Secondary, a school in Chibok, Borno State, Uwazie said.
During the rally, several Nigerians played traditional animal-hide drums and wooden flutes to call the ancestor spirits. Others carried signs declaring “Bring Back The Future Leaders of Nigeria,” “Do Not Enslave The Girls,” “Keep Calm and Bring Our Girls Back” and We Don’t Have To Fight To Make Things Right.”
Aside from U.S. Marines and France, Germany, Israel and other nations joining in the international response, “we call upon our ancestors to help Nigeria,” said Chief Solu Atanda, a Sacramento resident who performed a traditional libation ceremony.
Atanda placed bitter kola nuts into a bowl representing courage. He added regular kola nuts signifying achievement, victory and success. He then poured water, “the element of peace for the whole world, to let all this terrorism wash away.” He and others shouted “Ashe!” – Yoruba for “May God accept this.”
About 50 of the kidnapped girls managed to escape from the Sambisa Forest game reserve, a Boko Haram hideout. But some died of snake bites while getting away, said Uwazie, who is in contact with an adviser for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Uwazie said he fears the rest of the girls may have been sold into slavery, prostitution, forced marriages or even for body parts in neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
“The girls in Nigeria are the future of the country, the mothers, sisters, aunts – they cannot be held hostage,” Uwazie said. “We ask the world to show us you care ... please do not judge us harshly. Nigerians are peace-loving people.”
There have been incidents of religious extremism in many parts of northern Nigeria, including Borno State, since the early 1980s. However, Uwazie said, “Boko Haram is a fringe minority ethnic group that does not reflect in any way the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who make up about 40 to 45 percent of the 170 million Nigerians.”
Boko Haram sees any symbols of Western culture – whether education, Christianity or politics – as corrupt institutions, Uwazie said. It has demanded the release of anywhere from 500 to 1,000 Boko Haram members in government custody in exchange for the girls.
Many schools in impoverished northeastern Nigeria have been shut down by Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 in Borno State and began pushing for the adoption of Shariah law instead of Nigeria’s British-style system of justice. Several months ago, Boko Haram killed about 50 teenage boys at a school, Uwazie said.
But Uwazie called the kidnapping of schoolgirls in a state where the government had declared a state of emergency and stationed troops “mind-boggling – can you imagine the number of buses and trucks that had to make it in and out of the town of Chibok on a very bad road – it would have taken at least 20 or 24 hours before they disappeared.”
Diamond Longjel, a Nigerian who works for the California Department of Social Services, was infuriated by the failure of the Nigerian government to act: “More than 200 people missing and no outrage?”
But others, noting that an estimated 2,000 people this year have died in Boko Haram violence, said the Nigerian government is overmatched by the group, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
“The kidnappers have more ammunition and are stronger than the Nigerian government,” said Kate Onejeme-Okafor, a registered nurse. The presence of U.S. Marines that President Barack Obama has sent to Nigeria “speaks volumes,” she said. “We need help!”
Nigeria hasn’t asked for help because of a misplaced sense of national pride, added Sonny Eboigbe, who marched in a white Nigerian buba shirt with matching sokoto gown. “But this is an international issue,” he said. “The world can nip this in the bud once and for all.”
John Igwe of the Igbo Catholic Association of Sacramento told the gathering, “I am the father of a daughter. If my daughter is missing tomorrow, I’m going to arrest everybody. The only crime they’ve committed is to seek an education.”
Patricia Ezeli of Nigeria’s Edo State, added that she too was the mother of a girl. “We are crying, weeping and moaning, please bring back our girls,” she said. “I haven’t slept well since this happened. We pray they do not die in captivity.”