Former Education Minister, Dr Oby Ezekwesili has dismissed insinuations that she is being used by the opposition to lead the campaign for the rescue of over 200 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents from Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno state since April 14. She explained why she is at the forefront of the #bringbackourgirls advocacy.
Ezekwesili who has since then been at the forefront of the #bringbackourgirls advocacy wondered why Nigeria has turned to a society where people no longer bother about the welfare of fellow citizens, most importantly, the vulnerable. She insisted that being a mother coupled with her love for humanity has been her motivation to campaign for the rescue of the Chibok girls.
According to her “Our common humanity has been traumatized so badly that people would dare question why anybody would raise a voice concerning the daughters of peasants in Chibok just because they are not part of the elite. And so, whatever happens to them, we should all just carry on with our normal life. The reason that I am part of this as a strong advocate for these girls is because I have a soul. I will be accountable to my maker if it would actually be said of me that I was in this country at a time that over 234 children are still missing and I simply couldn’t be bothered.”
In this interview with AIDOGHIE PAULINUS in Abuja, the former World Bank Vice President, Africa Division, also took a swipe at the federal government for its sluggish response to the plight of the schoolgirls who are still in captivity two months after their kidnap. She spoke further on this and other national issues. Excerpts:
How far have you gone in this advocacy to bring back the Chibok girls?
You would recall that this advocacy started on the social media with the tag, #bringbackourgirls, for which I am closely associated. But by the 30th of April, we decided that beyond the social media advocacy, the initiative that Hadiza Bala Usman brought, that as women, we should come out and stand physically in a very clear advocacy and campaign for the rescue of the girls, much like we have been doing on Twitter, then led us to having the first gathering here at the Unity Fountain. From the Unity Fountain, we proceeded to the National Assembly and engaged with the leadership of the National Assembly. Over the period since that 30th of April, today is the 50th of our daily engagement on the advocacy for the Chibok girls.
In all of it, what we have seen is a massive build-up of awareness on the cause of the girls. The whole world has come to know about the Chibok girls and countries got interested in what it was that our own government was doing. Our own government which hadn’t formally responded to the situation of the girls for 19 days, then responded to it and began the process of engaging with the public by actually saying something about the girls. And then, countries began to offer support and our own government began to engage by revealing that it was trying to mobilize resources to go after the abductors of these girls. And we are at a stage today where not much is known in terms of the effectiveness of the rescue operation or the result that we expect from it. So, we continue to stand with these girls, standing in solidarity and continuing to call out to our federal government to bring back our girls.
How would you assess the result so far?
I think the fact that this was going to just drop into the abyss but it didn’t go that way, is in itself, an important milestone against the scourge of terrorism that citizens have been facing. You would recall the Boni Yadi incident where they raided a Federal Government College and killed boys and abducted girls and then, nothing was heard and everybody moved on. There are many other incidents that happened and everybody moved on. But in this particular case, I think we simply said enough is enough and there is no need for this society to keep moving on each time that tragedies happen. So, by being the voice of these girls, we have forced the important conversation that needed to happen. And beyond the conversation, we have seen some motion on the part of the government. We want to see movement; movement would have been either in the form of the negotiation or in terms of the military rescue operation, whichever one it is that guarantees that our girls are brought back alive. That is the one we would then thank the government for embarking on, that the result we want is for these girls to come back alive.
In that case, do you support the swapping of Boko Haram detainees with the girls?
I think that our government is in a better position to understand the means or instruments that would be appropriate. I just believe that the girls are premium to us. Those girls are premium to us. So, a combination of instruments would enable us get our girls. The girls are premium.
Are you in touch with parents of the girls?
Yes. A number of the parents of these girls have been here. They have been engaged with us here at the Unity Fountain at different times. Not all of them, but different batches of the parents have come up to Abuja. They have been very, very grateful to the Abuja family of the #bringbackourgirls group because what they consistently say to us is that their situation would not have been known and would not have attracted the kind of attention, the global attention, as well as the national attention that it has attracted. What they are of course, anxious about, is that as everyday goes, as days follow days, it begins to seem as if it is so remote and they become more anxious about the safety of their children. So, they really want the result, the result that their girls being brought back alive.
How long are you going to continue doing this?
We are going to be standing with these girls. We said it. We are resolute to stand with the girls.
Since the abduction, we have also witnessed bombings in Jos and other parts of the country. What is your take on this?
It calls to question, the broader counter-insurgency effort of our government. It just requires that there should be a comprehensive review. There is necessity for us to do an operational review in order to understand whether we are winning the war or whether we are not winning. And if we are not winning, why are we not winning? What are some of the things that we need to take a very strategic redirection on? We have an instrument with which we engage the government called the Citizen Solution to End Terrorism. So, you need to take a look at that document because it is very comprehensive. It looks at the whole issue of financing the counter-insurgency effort, how effectively are we using the security budget and what are we financing under the security budget, whether in terms of the human resources. That is, soldiers on the ground, our troops, their welfare, whether in terms of air facilities, cutting-edge technology for intelligence gathering, whether it is in terms of logistics and all the other important matters that have to do with military: hardware and software as the case maybe. What are we really financing? And are we getting value for money in our security expenditure? So, that is an important piece in looking at the effectiveness of our counter-insurgency effort.
Look at issues of security governance. You have heard a lot of brit-brat between the federal government and the state government. It shouldn’t in an insecurity situation. That shouldn’t be what we are dealing with. The terrorists should see us as a united country of people who are totally, totally standing together against the common enemy. This is not a situation where there should be any kind of by-spat between the state government, the local government, and the federal government. We become one country when you are faced with a common enemy. So, that Citizen Solution talks about security governance. An important conversation needs to happen and a clarification of roles and responsibilities so that accountabilities would be very clear. It touches on issues of the community engagement in security and monitoring and the human intelligence imperative in engaging the community in a counter-insurgency effort. So, there are ten actions that we laid out in the Citizen Solution, which would help the government to look at the broader counter-insurgency effort.
Talking about the division between the federal government and state governments on the issue of terrorism, where would you situate the blame?
I don’t care to situate any blame. That is a wrong question to ask a citizen. Why should I situate any blame? I don’t situate any blame. The issue is that the federal government has a primary mandate for security in the country. So, it is not about situating blame. It is about saying that the federal government has the primary mandate for the security of citizens and their properties – security of life of citizens and their properties. And if it has that primary mandate, then it needs to lead. It needs to lead the effort and when it leads the effort; it needs to bring to the table, everyone, every stakeholder, and every party that is in anyway associated with security.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo recently said that we may not have the complete number of the girls back. How do you see his statement?
Well, what I know is that at the state level, they had compiled some data. And actually, when the local government chairman for Chibok came to visit with this group recently, he had folders and folders of the different children that are still missing, as well as the pictures of their parents. So, they are in a better position to speak on that.
Some people are really wondering, asking; why are you into this?
Why do you think I am into this?
No, no. You tell me. Why would anybody wonder?
I think you are into this for the love of humanity, for the love of our kids because you are a mother?
Very good. Very good.
But those who are out there want to hear directly from you?
Well, you know I don’t speak to those who are out there because they really should be here, standing with families whose daughters have been missing for 65 days. The kind of people who ask the question that you just asked me, they need to spend sometime and put themselves in the shoes of the parents of the Chibok girls. God forbid that this kind of a situation should happen to them and somebody ask them this question like you just asked me, they should tell me what kind of an answer they will be given.
Our common humanity has been traumatized so badly that people would dare question why anybody would raise a voice concerning the daughters of peasants in Chibok just because they are not part of the elite. And so, whatever happens to them, we should all just carry on with our normal life.
The reason that I am part of this and I am a strong advocate for these girls is because I have a soul. I will be accountable to my maker if it would actually be said of me that I was in this country at a time that over 234 children are still missing and I simply couldn’t be bothered.
Do you still have time for your international engagements?
Well, I have had to basically modify my programme because of these girls. Completely, I have to modify my programme. My programme was a programme that was full beyond measure and I completely said the benefit of engaging with my normal programme is actually too costly compared to my being here to be an advocate for the girls. So, the opportunity cost is too high for me to even begin to talk about it. But that is my choice.
Some have even said, is it not better for you to go back to your World Bank job than doing what you are doing here?
I don’t respond to this kind of a thing. Can you ask me something better please?
Dr Sarah Jubril said recently that you are doing the All Progressives Congress (APC) bidding by organizing this advocacy. What is your take on this?
I am not even going to dignify Sarah Jubril.
There is also this insinuation in some quarters that you have been tipped as APC vice presidential candidate. Is it true?
You think I am going to waste my time answering that kind of question that is specious and up in the air? What kind of question is that? Have you ever seen me as a politician?
What hope do you have in getting these girls back?
It is the greatest hope and the joy of knowing that this society did not turn its back on children. These children are the children of the weakest and the most vulnerable in our society. Anything that concerns the weakest and the vulnerable would reveal to us what kind of a nation we are. If on the issues that matter to the weakest and the most vulnerable, you have people who ask you this kind of question that you are asking. Irrelevances! Things that don’t matter! There is a single issue that concerns me in all of this. The single issue is the issue of the children that were taken. We feel these girls. The fact that terrorists successfully carried over 200 children out of Nigeria, out of their school system, children that trusted and went to school were taken successfully and it took 19 days before our government spoke a word concerning them, that is an indication. It is a statement on our value system. And for those who asked you some of those strange questions that you were asking me, I need you to please help me ask them what happened to their souls. What happened? I do this on the basis of the empathy that I feel. You know, every person who is an elite in Nigerian society today, did not come into the world having Rockefeller as their father. They came from lowly backgrounds, they came from poor backgrounds. Education became the greatest weapon for their social and economic mobility. They have so quickly forgotten. Can you help me ask Sarah Jubril if any of her daughters were amongst these girls that were abducted, would she be sitting and saying the kind of absolute outlandish thing that she said to you? Help me to ask Mrs Jubril. Help me to ask Mrs Jubril that if she had been voted female President of Nigeria when she sought to become that, would this be her attitude toward girls who have been abducted by terrorists from their school? Help me to ask people like that; what happened to their souls. At what stage do you stop this absolute denigration of our society and actually arrest the derogation of our values? At what stage would they stop? Can they please just stop? The parents of these girls are Nigerians. These girls are daughters of Nigeria. It is so unfair that people would leave the matter of rescuing these girls. Oby Ezekwesili is not their issue. They should stop making Oby Ezekwesili their issue. The issue is, rescue the Chibok girls. Bring back our girls. That is the issue. They are wasting energy, wasting effort, wasting time, focussing on the wrong target. The people they should be concerned about should be our Chibok girls and it is a big shame on everyone of them that has decided to focus on the wrong thing. I mean, they have perfected the act of digression, the distraction and diversion. And Oby Ezekwesili has absolutely no intention of being distracted, of being diverted, of being digressed from the core issue. The core issue is that we will be a failed nation in every sense of the word in the eyes of the global community if two hundred and something of our children who could be rescued from the enemy’s camp are abandoned and ignored simply because people are obsessed with the obscenity of power. I don’t care to get into that with them. I am not a politician, I have never been a politician, they all know that and if they are hearing strange dreams, that is their business. But let them not move the focus from the girls.
How do you see the visit of the United States (US) Congressional delegation?
It was a visit in solidarity. A number of them are personal friends and it was good that they could come out here and to offer the kind of solidarity that they offered. And US is one of the important countries that have offered support to Nigeria. And as you know, it is a society that requests for accountability. It is a society that they don’t see the demand for accountability by citizens as the work of opposition. They don’t see it that way. They don’t see the demand for accountability as the work for enemies. No! They understand that the primary responsibility of government is to provide security to life and property of the citizens and they know that when there is any kind of failure, that they know exactly who to demand, should make right that failure.
At this all important moment, do you have any message for the government?
The one message that I have, is the message of why don’t you stop this whole distractions, these digressions, these diversions and these divisions. This advocacy group for the Chibok girls is the best rallying point that the federal government could have worked with in order to convey to the entire nation, the importance of being a united Nigeria fighting a common enemy. For them, it continues to be a missed opportunity because they leave the issue and they have decided that the important issue of a focus on the girls is not as important as looking for an enemy. I am not an enemy of the federal government. If they want to be my enemy, that is their business. But I am not their enemy. I don’t see them as an enemy. The Sun