Woman Meet the still try­ing to Bring Back Our Girls

It’s been 16 months since 276 girls were kid­napped from their school in Chi­bok in northeast Nige­ria by Boko Haram ter­ror­ists, but pas­tor Es­ther Ibanga has never stopped fight­ing for their re­turn. GLY­NIS HORN­ING speaks to her in this exclusive in­ter­view

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the un­think­able hap­pened: 276 girl stu­dents aged 15 to 18 were kid­napped from their govern­ment sec­ondary school in Chi­bok, a mainly Chris­tian vil­lage in the northeast of ige­ria, a ve-hour drive from the city of Jos. Re­spon­si­bil­ity was im­me­di­ately claimed by Boko Haram, fun­da­men­tal­ists ght­ing to es­tab­lish an Is­lamist caliphate in the area. They are ve­he­mently op­posed to western ed­u­ca­tion, which they be­lieve lures chil­dren from Is­lamic teach­ings. Ac­cord­ing to ac­counts from girls who have es­caped, they were taken to be cooks and sex slaves, forced to con­vert to Is­lam and marry their kid­nap­pers. ‘Slav­ery is al­lowed in my re­li­gion,’ said Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a May 201 video, ‘and I shall cap­ture peo­ple and make them slaves.’ The girls should not have been in school, he said, but mar­ried, as they were suit­able for mar­riage from as young as nine.

‘It was the rst time I’d heard of any­thing like this hap­pen­ing,’ says pas­tor Es­ther Ibanga, whose daugh­ters are the same age as the kid­napped girls. ‘I al­most had a heart at­tack – I couldn’t be­lieve the is­sue of Boko Haram had de­te­ri­o­rated to the level that young women be­came the vic­tims of their ter­ror­ism like this. I wept for days.’ But she also swung into ac­tion. ‘I rst did what any pas­tor would do – I got the church to start a chain prayer for the girls. e ob­tained pic­tures of each of those ab­ducted, and got ev­ery church mem­ber to pray for one by name and face – adopt­ing her as if she were their own, and in­ter­ced­ing for her with God.’

It was this swift, col­lec­tive ac­tion, and her sub­se­quent tire­less cam­paign­ing for peace, that won Es­ther the 2015 Ni­wano Peace Pri e for ‘contributing signi cantly to in­ter-re­li­gious co­op­er­a­tion, thereby fur­ther­ing the cause of world peace’. She is a warm, unas­sum­ing 5 -year-old who, un­til 2010, lived what she de­scribes as ‘a very com­fort­able life, en­tirely un­in­volved in the is­sues around me’. The sev­enth of 10 chil­dren of a trader mother and a po­lice­man fa­ther who died when she was 11, Es­ther was raised ‘to love God and ed­u­ca­tion’. She ex­celled at school, stud­ied busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion at univer­sity to mas­ter’s level in her home­town of Jos in cen­tral Nige­ria, then worked qui­etly at the Cen­tral Bank of Nige­ria for 16 years. She mar­ried a lo­cal doc­tor and re­tired in 2001 to fo­cus on their two young daugh­ters, and the min­istry of her Pen­te­costal church.

Then Es­ther ru ed the feath­ers of some of the tra­di­tion­al­ists in her ock by be­com­ing the rst fe­male pas­tor in her state, at the same time mak­ing the rst of what would be­come tsunami-si ed waves in Nige­rian so­ci­ety in 2010. That year, Is­lamist fun­da­men­tal­ists, who had been wag­ing at­tacks in the coun­try for the past two years, killed 520 women and chil­dren in ogo-Na­hawu, a vil­lage near her home. ‘It was hor­ren­dous – they hacked some to death in their bed­rooms as they slept,’ she says. ‘And be­cause I was a fe­male Chris­tian leader, other women looked to me for an an­swer.’ She cred­its her hus­band, who runs a health NGO, with help­ing pro­vide an an­swer, when he chal­lenged them. ‘ e women were hold­ing meet­ings and cry­ing, and he said, ‘Is that all you are go­ing to do? Meet and cry? e told him we were just women, what could we do? And he said, “Don’t say you are just women – there must be some­thing you can do. So we talked among our­selves and the idea of a rally caught on.’

Es­ther or­gan­ised the rally in Jos along with four other women lead­ers ‘to let the govern­ment know the women on the plateau were not go­ing to keep quiet any more’. It was at­tended by 100 000 Chris­tian women and brought the city to a stand­still. Then Mus­lim women in Jos held a rally of their own, point­ing out that many of their women had been killed too – the Dogo-Na­hawu slaugh­ter had been a reprisal for an ear­lier at­tack by Chris­tian mil­i­tants. ‘The killings con­tin­ued on both sides, and I un­der­stood that the prob­lem isn’t about Chris­tians and Mus­lims – it’s po­lit­i­cal,’ Es­ther says.

Pro­pelled by this re­al­i­sa­tion, she reached out to a lo­cal Mus­lim re­li­gious leader, Khadija Hawaja. ‘She didn’t trust me at rst I was Chris­tian and a pas­tor! But I said, “We’re sis­ters, moth­ers, daugh­ters. We have to stop the killings. Let’s not be part of the prob­lem, let’s be the so­lu­tion.” It was dan­ger­ous. Khadija and I could have been killed go­ing into each other’s ter­ri­tory, but we met on neu­tral ground in a restau­rant, and trust was won.’ As Khadija later told a con­fer­ence ar­ranged by Vi­enna-based ad­vo­cacy group Women With­out Bor­ders and its Sis­ters Against Vi­o­lent Ex­trem­ism (Save) cam­paign, of which Es­ther and Khadija both be­came part: ‘I could see courage, I could see per­se­ver­ance and bold­ness in what Es­ther did.’

‘It was a big sur­prise to nd out these Mus­lim women are just like us,’ Es­ther says. ‘They’re not what I thought, and for the rst time I was see­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween us.’ Get­ting their sup­port­ers on board was more di cult. ‘The Chris­tian group I be­longed to was to­tally against reach­ing out to the Mus­lim women. But it was some­thing I strongly be­lieved in my heart – what­ever it would take for us to stop the killings, I was ready to do. Men had failed to do the right thing and as women we had the re­spon­si­bil­ity to come to­gether and do what we should.’

She, Khadija and other women formed the Women With­out Walls Ini­tia­tive (WOWWI). As they said in a state­ment shared with Save: ‘We are to­tally against the killing of in­no­cent peo­ple for what­ever rea­son. Hu­man life is sa­cred and in­vi­o­lable. No per­son has the right to act in such an in­hu­mane man­ner. Re­li­gion, whether Is­lam or Chris­tian­ity, re­spects life. These acts put a ques­tion mark on the faith of per­sons who have lit­tle or no re­gard for life and yet claim to ad­here to these faiths. We hope that Nige­ri­ans won’t give in to the calls for di­vi­sion that are tak­ing over our coun­try and stay united.’

Through WOWWI, Es­ther and Mus­lim women, along with fe­male tribal lead­ers, launched and over­saw ad­vo­cacy, peace-build­ing and de­vel­op­ment projects in the volatile parts of the state, but the killing con­tin­ued, and in 2013 the Nige­rian govern­ment de­clared a state of emer­gency. A year later, the world woke up to the news that 276 girls had been taken from their beds one night and the plight of Nige­rian women and chil­dren shot into the in­ter­na­tional spot­light.

As the Nige­rian govern­ment ap­peared in­ca­pable of mount­ing an e ec­tive in­ter­ven­tion, in­ter­na­tional out­rage saw #BringBack­OurGirls go vi­ral on so­cial me­dia. Es­ther spoke out on ev­ery plat­form she could – from the UN to the US In­sti­tute of Peace and or­gan­i­sa­tions in the UK, The Nether­lands and Aus­tria, ad­vo­cat­ing for the girls to be found and re­ha­bil­i­tated. More than a year later, she still has not stopped. ‘The Mus­lim women in our or­gan­i­sa­tion have been just as horri ed,’ she says. On 30 April 2014, they marched on the govern­ment, de­mand­ing state and mil­i­tary ac­tion against the kid­nap­pers: ‘We could all re­late to the pain of the Chi­bok moth­ers.’

Even af­ter in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion shifted away from Nige­ria, the WOWWI women shared the same fury at re­ports last June that their ill-named then-pres­i­dent, Good­luck Jonathan, and his govern­ment had awarded US pub­lic re­la­tions com­pany

OP­PO­SITE Pas­tor Es­ther Ibanga lead­ing

BE­LOW a protest in Jos


Women protest­ing the Nige­rian govern­ment to find the miss­ing girls; Chi­roma Maina holds a pic­ture of her ab­ducted daugh­ter, Com­fort Amos, with her hus­band and daugh­ter He­len; a rally in Abuja de­mand­ing the re­turn of the girls


Former Nige­rian pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan, who has been crit­i­cised for not tak­ing ac­tion against Boko Haram; a protest de­mand­ing the girls’ re­lease; Nige­ria’s Boko Haram is part of the Isis ter­ror­ist group

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