Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has never been a fan of activists demanding his government focus more efforts to retrieve more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls. But after a group of the kidnapped girls’ parents refused to meet with Jonathan, he took it a step further, referring to their activities as “psychological terrorism.”
In the three months since nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from the Government Girls School in Chibok, located in northern Nigeria, the Nigerian government has been faced with increasing discontent over the security situation in the country. More than two hundred of them remain missing, though Nigeria’s government has for months insisted that they know precisely where the girls are, and international attention given towards the situation has lagged in the weeks since the initial abduction.
In light of that, Pakistani youth activist Malala Youseff visited the country to re-raise awareness of the girls’ plight. Since surviving a gunshot wound to the head in the course of a Taliban assassination attempt, Malala has been traveling the world to promote empowering girls through education, the very thing that militant group Boko Haram seeks to disrupt. Malala met with several of the escaped girls over the weekend before finally sitting down with Jonathan to discuss the matter.
“As you all know, in politics nothing is clear. In the circumstances nothing is clear really, but the President did make promises, and the President said that he feels that these girls are his daughters,” Malala said after her meeting, with CNN reporting that she “added that Jonathan had said he would meet the parents of kidnapped girls and provide support to those who had escaped Boko Haram.”
That promised meeting was due to take place on Tuesday. At the last second, however, it was cancelled. The BBC first reported on Twitter that the parents of 12 of the abducted girls who had been invited had rejected the offer to meet with Jonathan. Soon thereafter, Jonathan’s office released a statement in his name condemning the activists behind the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and labeling their activities “political” in nature.
“It now appears that our fight to get the girls of Chibok back is not only a fight against a terrorist insurgency, but also against a political opposition,” the statement read. “My priority is not politics. My priority is the return of these girls. Unfortunately, political forces within the Nigerian chapter of Bring Back Our Girls have decided to take this opportunity to play politics with the situation and the grief of the parents and the girls. They should be ashamed of their actions.
“Those who would manipulate the victims of terrorism for their own benefit, are engaging in a similar kind of evil: psychological terrorism,” the statement continued. “Despite the shameful and disgusting games being played by the Nigerian chapter of Bring Back Our Girls, as a father of girls, I stand ready to meet with the parents of our abducted children and the truly brave girls that have escaped this nightmare through the grace of God.”
Though never quite as strongly worded as the most recent statement, Jonathan’s government has a history of denouncing the work of #BringBackOurGirls since its inception. First Lady Patience Jonathan has been accused of ordering the arrest of one of the groups leaders, a charge that she has denied, and reportedly accused parents of the girls of fabricating the whole event. Protests in the streets of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, have been banned by the police and then restored. Recently, Marilyn Ogar, the spokesperson for Nigeria’s State Security Service described the group as a “franchise,” accusing them of smearing the efforts of security agencies and soliciting funds.
The group first came to prominence in the weeks after the kidnapping, when Nigerians began tweeting about the fact that two weeks in the girls were still missing using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The plea quickly gained international attention, drawing in support from celebrities and politicians in a bid to boost the signal. Multiple countries, including the United States, sent aid to the Nigerian military to help pursue Boko Haram after the group took credit for the kidnapping. One father credited the #BringBackOurGirls group with preventing his daughter from being forgotten all together.
All of this has led to Jonathan taking a hit in popularity, even as Nigeria has surged to become the largest economy on the African continent. To shore up lagging support at home and abroad amid the kidnapping, and highlight more positive stories, the government hired Washington, DC-based public relations firm Levick for $1.2 million last month. However, since then, despite well-placed op-eds and events, the Nigerian populace doesn’t appear to be convinced. “That op-ed backfired partly because the negative narrative was still so strong,” Bismarck Rewane, CEO of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives told Reuters.