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
ON THE NIGHT OF 14 APRIL 2014,
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
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT
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