In the Face of New Violence, Nigerians Are Hopeful That Their Missing Girls Will Return

Activist Lantana Abdullahi, testifying before Congress, says that Nigerian communities need to be better prepared for the abducted girls’ return.

Lantana Abdullahi testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs May 15, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Lantana Abdullahi testifies before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs May 15, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.

Over the last two days, Boko Haram, the group claiming responsibility for the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls several weeks ago, has been blamed for several attacks on villages near Chibok, where they were kidnapped.

On Tuesday, the BBC reports, 118 people were killed in a bombing in the town of Jos, and on Wednesday, Al-Jazeera reports, the rebel group carried out bombings in three separate towns and burned the Alagarno village to the ground. These reported atrocities, which have become commonplace in the northeast region of Nigeria, have involved the kidnapping and murder of journalists and children—boys as well as girls—and several videotaped beheadings of self-identified Christian men and woman who refuse to renounce their religion.

Last week the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs held a hearing to discuss the current state of affairs and the mass kidnapping, which has launched an international movement known by its hashtag #BringBackOurGirls—an effort to draw attention to the plight of the girls, some of whom have reportedly been sold into sexual slavery in neighboring countries. Although France and five African states “declared” war against the extremist sect and the U.S. has pledged to help bring back the girls, Boko Haram continues to apply terror, making many doubt whether the schoolgirls, who have now been missing for more than a month, will be returned safely.

Despite a diminishing hope that the girls will be returned to their families—or that the Nigerian government will gain control of Boko Haram—many in Nigeria remain optimistic. Lantana Abdullahi, who testified (pdf) at last week’s Senate hearing, is one of those people.

A peace builder, trainer, mediator and women’s activist in northern Nigeria, Abdullahi specializes in interfaith violence prevention and community reconciliation. Through her work as a project manager for Search for Common Ground, she has also worked to bring civil society groups together with the government and security forces to document and prevent human rights abuses in the north-central and northeast regions of Nigeria. Adbullahi has worked extensively with Christian and Muslim teenage girls to raise their voices, reduce the risk of violence and inspire the next generation of Nigerian leadership. 

The Root spoke with Abdullahi to discuss the psychological impact of the kidnappings on the girls’ communities, what resources are in place for them if they are found and returned home, and how Nigerians remain hopeful, despite what looks like a situation that has spun completely out of control.

The Root: You work with young girls in northeast Nigeria all the time. Tell me about your work with them and how this incident has impacted girls.

Lantana Abdullahi: We actually started working with young girls that are dealing with the conflict between Muslims and Christians in the middle belt of Nigeria, which has negatively impacted interaction between young people coming up.

Because of the nature of the conflict, there are segregated communities based on religion. We find that young people don’t have the opportunity to interact with each other across religious faiths. We have exclusive Muslim communities, exclusive Christian communities, and that means also exclusive schools. While boys can be engaged in the family and community in decision-making processes, girls are often marginalized due to gender discrimination, particularly when it comes to issues of involvement, peace processes and decision-making.

Because of this social and religious context, we started a small pilot project to work with young girls from the ages of 11 to 15, trying to bring them together to improve interaction, to learn about one another. For most of them, that was the first time they had the opportunity to interact with girls of other faiths. We trained them on so many things—trauma, resiliency and conflict transformation.