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Nigerian State Security Service agents this morning arrested Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar. Their crime? Leading protests that criticized the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. They were arrested after an all-night meeting with his wife, Patience Jonathan, at the presidential villa in the capital, Abuja.

The two women are Abuja residents originally from Chibok, Borno State, where alleged Boko Haram insurgents abducted 276 girls from the Government Girls Secondary School on April 14, 2014. Both have led hundreds of women in protest of the Nigerian government’s seeming inaction on the abduction of the Chibok girls. While Ndirpaya was released from the Abuja police station, Nyadar remains in custody. 

Ndirpaya said that during the presidential villa meeting, Patience Jonathan accused the women of being members of Boko Haram and of fabricating the story of the girls’ abduction to embarrass the Jonathan government. Human Rights Watch’s attempts to confirm this allegation with the government have received no response.

Women in Abuja and other Nigerian cities have protested the slow and seemingly confused response of the federal government to the mass abduction. Following a major demonstration in Abuja on April 30, there have been daily rallies where different women’s and labor groups have demanded that the government rescue the girls.

Attention from the international media, galvanized by the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, has apparently embarrassed the government, which this week is hosting in Abuja the World Economic Forum on Africa. The government responded to the pressure by setting up a committee to, among other things, articulate a framework for the rescue of the missing girls.

The arrests of Ndirpaya and Nyadar, on the heels of the creation of this committee, show the government’s confused response to the girls’ abduction. The SSS and the police should immediately provide an explanation for their arrests and, unless Nyadar broke the law, should release her immediately. Government officials should ensure that peaceful protesters are free to express themselves without harassment, intimidation or threats of arrests.

With 276 missing girls and an insurgent threat, you would think that the government had more important people to arrest than two women who wanted to see these children come home.

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