RALEIGH — The cause of their protest occurred last month, thousands of miles away in their native land of Nigeria, where a terrorist group that opposes Western education kidnapped more than 200 girls from a school and torched the classrooms.
Still, about 40 Nigerians, carrying their national flag and signs that read “Bring Our Girls Back,” marched to the front of The News & Observer on Friday morning to protest the kidnappings on April 14 at the Chibok Secondary School in northeast Nigeria’s Borno State.
The small but determined group said they were demonstrating in support of the captured schoolgirls and in criticism of the Nigerian government, which they said has been slow to respond to the crisis. But they said they were mostly there to condemn Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has claimed responsibility for the abductions.
Liz Obi, a 49-year-old caterer who grew up in Nigeria and now lives in Raleigh, said she was “shocked and devastated” when she learned about the kidnappings. Obi said she has heard that Nigerian officials knew that Boko Haram “was going to be taking some girls.”
“It took the president almost two weeks to respond,” Obi said. “There were no resources allocated to get the girls. Right now, we are all scared. There are rumors that the girls have been offered for sale to the highest bidder. The Boko Haram leader is offering to sell the girls, $12 for each girl.”
Boko Haram in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria means “Western education is forbidden.” The group was founded in 2002, with the focus of opposing western educational values. In 2009, Boko Haram launched military operations, including bombings, kidnappings and targeted killings, that have left thousands dead with the aim of creating an Islamic state in Nigeria. Last year, the United States government labeled Boko Haram a terrorist group.
Threats to sell girls as slaves
The demonstrators noted that the country is about roughly 44 percent Muslim, 45 percent Christian and the rest are mostly followers of the country’s traditional religions. They said Boko Haram members took both Muslim and Christian girls from the Chibok Secondary School.
Ekele Ngwadom, a 49-year-old professor of psychology at Mt. Olive University, said about 80 percent of the population is Muslim in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram got its start.
“Some states have already become Islamic, with Sharia law,” Ngwadom said.
The Triangle’s Nigerian residents who marched in Raleigh are concerned that Boko Haram members may adhere to an ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their conquerors can have sex.
The Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, has threatened to sell the girls as slaves – into child prostitution – if the Nigerian government does not meet the group’s demands to release its members who are imprisoned. The demonstrators said they hope the Nigerian government does not give in to those demands.
“Definitely not,” said Chika Nwando, 42. “The point is if the government gives in, they will make more demands.”
Nwando, a native of Nigeria and a nurse who now lives in Raleigh, said stealing children is a crime and against Islam.
“Some of these girls are Muslim,” Nwando said. “We publicly condemn this barbaric act. We are really praying for these girls and ask God to strengthen them.”
People living in fear
Some of the demonstrators also noted that before the schoolgirl abductions, Boko Haram’s terror campaign included storming Christian churches and schools to kill women and children. Before the start of violence in 2009, people from the two religions in northern Nigeria lived in the same communities, attended the same schools and even married across religious lines, Ngwadom said.
“Ethnic groups who are Christian are fleeing the northern part of the country,” he said.
Nena Kalau, a 49-year-old native of Lagos now living in Raleigh, just returned from the country this week and said people there are living in fear.
“Women are afraid to speak out because they will kill you,” Kalau said.
No one seems to know where the girls are located. Soon after the kidnappings, there were reports that the terrorists had herded the girls into the nearby Sambisa Forest, which prompted parents to enter the vast woodland in search of their children. There were also reports that the children may have been taken into the neighboring countries of Chad and Cameroon.
Valerie Batta, a Cameroonian woman who works in Raleigh as a mediator, said the child kidnappings are not just a Nigerian issue, but one that touches everyone.
“The world should come together,” Batta said. “In Africa, when one person is affected, we are all affected.”