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A member gestures while addressing a sit-in demonstration organized by the Abuja "Bring Back Our Girls" protest group at the Unity Fountain in Abuja January 25, 2015. (AFOLABI SOTUNDE/REUTERS)
A member gestures while addressing a sit-in demonstration organized by the Abuja "Bring Back Our Girls" protest group at the Unity Fountain in Abuja January 25, 2015. (AFOLABI SOTUNDE/REUTERS)

Activists ensure Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls aren’t forgotten Add to ...

After nine months of daily rallies for Chibok’s kidnapped schoolgirls, Aisha Yesufu admits that her own family is paying a price. She once heard her 13-year-old daughter praying that the abducted girls would be freed “so that I’ll have my mummy back.”

It was painful to hear her daughter’s quiet prayer, Ms. Yesufu said at the latest rally on Tuesday. “But even if I’m the last person here, I’m going to keep coming out.”

At the daily meetings of the “Bring Back Our Girls” activists who keep alive the plight of the schoolgirls, the number of supporters is dwindling. Only a couple of dozen people showed up at the rallies this week in a grassy park in Abuja. But they refuse to abandon their cause, even as the schoolgirls are increasingly forgotten by Nigerian and world politicians.

It was last April when Boko Haram extremists attacked Chibok and kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls. It became a global cause, boosted by a popular hashtag and a flurry of celebrity appeals. Since then, Nigeria’s military has often claimed to be on the verge of liberating the girls, but instead they remain in captivity, with rumours that they have been forced into involuntary marriages with Boko Haram gunmen.

At the rallies in the Nigerian capital, some activists are so weary that they can’t remember how long their campaign has lasted. Is it 297 days now, or is it 289 days? They debate it but can’t figure it out.

“It’s draining, physically and mentally, to come out here daily,” said Daniel Seun, one of the activists. “We don’t have a life of our own any more. This movement has taken its toll on us. But even if it’s just one person standing here, we are not discouraged.”

Ms. Yesufu is perhaps the most faithful of the activists. She remembers exactly how long it has been: 288 days since the kidnapping, and 273 days of daily rallies, she said immediately. “We’ve been intimidated, we’ve been harassed by the police, we’ve been beaten up, but we’re not giving up,” she says.

Nigerian police have sometimes disrupted their meetings, blocked their marches in Abuja’s streets and even briefly tried to ban their rallies. While the police pressure has now eased, Nigeria’s ruling party still sees the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement as a disloyal mob of opposition activists. Nigerian politicians often question the group’s motives and imply that it is giving comfort to Boko Haram by targeting its protests against the government, rather than the Islamist extremist group.

Ms. Yesufu rejects that accusation. “We’ve criticized Boko Haram more than the government has, but we can’t go to Boko Haram for solutions – we have to go to the government,” she said. “It’s the responsibility of the government to protect us, and it’s trying to abdicate its responsibility.”

Ms. Yesufu, who is 41 and runs an agricultural products distribution company, says she felt a connection to the Chibok schoolgirls because, like them, she grew up in a poor family in an impoverished district of northern Nigeria that was blighted by drugs and child marriage. “I can see myself in them,” she said. “I’m standing up for who I was 23 years ago. I can see myself struggling to be educated in a place where education wasn’t valued. If I gave up on them, I’d be giving up on myself.”

Many of the activists are exhausted and want to move on, she said. “It’s hard when you’re doing so much and seeing so little.”

But she fears that the government’s inaction on the kidnapped schoolgirls has emboldened Boko Haram to commit more atrocities, including the massacre at Baga this month. “It told them, ‘If we can get away with this, what else can we get away with?’ It’s as if they are daring Nigeria to say enough is enough.”

At the rally on Tuesday, another supporter spoke of her weariness and why she stopped attending the rallies for a while. “I had nothing left, I went blank and completely lost hope,” said Samirah Tahir. “But I couldn’t let go. If it weren’t for the Chibok girls, northeastern Nigeria wouldn’t be on the world’s map. We owe it to them to keep standing up for them.”

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