There’s nothing to see at first: a widening of the median between two busy lanes of Abuja traffic. A few people sit under scattered trees finding limited peace a few meters away from the horns honking on either side.
Then a few cars start turning off the road and onto the grass. The new arrivals lay out mats on the ground, unstack plastic chairs, distribute water bottles, and pass around an agenda, and within minutes a hundred people or so are in an intense outdoor meeting.
It looks practiced, precise, and professional because they’ve done this before. Once a day for the past twenty days, in fact. This is the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria’s capital, an effort to secure the return of nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by the insurgent group Boko Haram last month.
Oby Ezekwesili, former federal education minister and former vice president of the World Bank’s Africa division, leads the group. She moves from inspiring repeated chorus chants of, “Bring back our girls, now and alive!” to discussions of various committee reports and details of the planned march to the president’s office on Thursday. She and other speakers emphasize over and over that their cause has nothing to do with politics, ethnicity, or religion. They seek only the freedom of the girls, and they won’t stop till they see that achieved.
Naysayers point out the relatively small number of people at the gathering – just as others have criticized the Twitter hashtag campaign – as being ineffective against the viciousness of Boko Haram, particularly when combined with the haplessness of the government and the brutality of the military. But together, activists like this in Nigeria, and concerned individuals around the world, have helped get global attention focused on the violence in Nigeria’s north like never before.
For years, Boko Haram has conducted bombings, kidnappings, killings, and destruction of entire villages in a widespread campaign of systematic murder and persecution, likely amounting to crimes against humanity, and all contributing to a humanitarian disaster in the northeast. However, that – as well as the heavy-handed, abuse-ridden response of the security forces – was all happening largely outside mainstream attention.
Now, there’s no ignoring it. Even those who may be wary of the new spotlight on this issue can’t help but join the conversation sparked by committed activists like these, who keep returning to this highway median every day.