U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai joined a global campaign to free hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamists as growing violence threatens Africa’s biggest economy.
“Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families,” Obama said in a personal message on her Twitter account. She posted a photo of herself holding a piece of paper with the message “#BringBackOurGirls,” referring to the phrase that’s mobilized support and been used more than 1.6 million times on social-networking platforms. Yousafzai, a 16-year-old shot in the head by Taliban gunmen in October 2012, has added her voice to the campaign, appealing on Twitter for donations toward Nigerian education and empowerment programs.
The U.S., U.K. and France plan to send security personnel and other unspecified support to the West African nation to help locate the students, some of them as young as 15, who were taken from their dormitories in the northeastern state of Borno by Boko Haram gunmen on April 14. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group, which means “western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, has threatened to sell the girls in “markets” and marry them off.
The incident has spurred demonstrations in cities including the capital, Abuja, and the commercial hub of Lagos over the slow response of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration and its failure to protect citizens. Jonathan’s first public statement came 20 days after the kidnappings, in which he pledged to carry on with efforts to save the girls. As many as 53 of the students may have escaped on their own, according to community and school leaders.
Another eight 12- to 15-year-old girls were kidnapped from Borno on May 4, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
In the first three months of the year, Boko Haram’s insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has left 1,500 people dead, more than half of them civilians, according to Amnesty International. Boko Haram in the past few years has increasingly targeted teachers and students, and more than 50 schools were attacked, partially destroyed or burnt down between July last year and January in Borno state, Unicef says.
A 200-minute “social media march” from 11 a.m. in Abuja today asks people to create awareness about the situation using online tools including Facebook Inc. and Instagram Inc. A petition on Change.org calling for the acceleration of rescue efforts has garnered more than half a million signatures.
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest crude producer and its most populous nation with 170 million people, is hosting the World Economic Forum on Africa this week in Abuja under tightened security. Two separate explosions have hit the city since mid-April, leaving a total of at least 94 people dead.
The growing economic opportunities in Nigeria should not be overshadowed by the recent violence, Chief Executive Officer of Heineken NV Jean-Francois van Boxmeer said today at WEF.
“The fantastic chance of this continent is its demographics,” Van Boxmeer said. “We have survived many tragic events on this continent. I want to be an Afro-optimist.”
(An earlier version of this story was corrected because the quote in the eighth paragraph was misattributed.)