Young Pakistani Activist Urges Nigeria To Do More For Kidnapped Girls

It's been three months since Islamist extremists kidnapped more than 250 schoolgirls in northeastern Nigeria. Education campaigner Malala Yousafzai appealed to the captors to free the girls.

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When more than 250 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Islamist extremists in Nigeria, the president of Nigeria was accused of a slow response. That was three months ago. Now trust between the families of the girls and their government is all but gone. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The latest international personality to call for the release of the Nigerian girls is Malala Yousafzai. The 17-year-old Pakistani activist survived being shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girl's education. In Nigeria, she held emotional meetings this week with parents of the missing girls and some of their schoolmates who escaped.


MALALA YOUSAFZAI: I consider those girls as my sisters. They are my sisters and I am going to speak up for them until they are released.

QUIST-ARCTON: On Monday, Malala met Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan and later told reporters he promised to hold talks with the distraught families. It would've been the first such encounter, since the mass abduction on April 15. But the meeting was called off. The parents declined the president's invitation. Speaking for the families in a BBC interview, Dauda Ilia, and from Chibok town, where the girls were kidnapped, gave these reasons for the last-minute no-show.

DAUDA ILIA: The level of trust is very poor today amongst the people in Chibok. So we agreed as a family that if the president wants to see people from Chibok - we would've wished that the president goes to Chibok - that's how it should be.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: What we are saying is bring back our girls now and alive.

QUIST-ARCTON: Chanting at one of the peaceful rallies, organized by the #BringBackOurGirls global social media campaign, which American First Lady Michelle Obama and actor-activist Angelina Jolie have joined. #BringBackOurGirls was set up in Nigeria to demand the release of the missing girls and support their families. The group has blasted the president and the authorities for not doing enough to ensure the girls are freed. One of the campaign leaders, and former education minister, is Obiageli Ezekwesili.

OBIAGELI EZEKWESILI: Listening to public officials leaves you wondering whether the government understands the kind of traumatic experience that this is been for the families and for the entire community of Chibok that continues to face assaults and attacks by the terrorist group.

QUIST-ARCTON: A presidential statement blamed political forces within the Nigeria branch of the #BringBackOurGirls movement for psychological terrorism - playing politics and scuttling President Jonathan's meeting with the families. Presidential spokesman, Doyin Okupe, called it a dark day for Nigeria.

DOYIN OKUPE: The president is extremely distraught. He cannot understand this. He cannot fathom this. That Nigerians will do this - it is unthinkable.

QUIST-ARCTON: It is the anti-Western Boko Haram network that abducted the schoolgirls three months ago. The group's leader has threatened to sell off the teens as slaves and marry them off. Boko Haram, which has vowed to establish an Islamic state and religiously diverse Nigeria, has terrorized the northeast of the country. Gunmen have slit the throats of schoolboys in their beds and warned schoolgirls to give up Western education, go home and get married. The Nigerian security forces appear powerless to contain the insurgency. But education campaigner, Malala Yousafzai, says she's hopeful and appealed to the captors to free the girls.

YOUSAFZAI: It's the message of everyone here in Nigeria that the girls should released freely. And they should be freed as soon as possible.

QUIST-ARCTON: Until then, Nigerians are hoping and praying that with the help of U.S. military advisers and other foreign assistance, the girls will be freed, returned to their families and allowed to continue their education. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakar.

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