'First Mom' Obama calls for release of schoolgirls
Celebrities join Twitter campaign for Nigeria's kidnapped children
Published 11/05/2014 | 02:30
IT WAS a plea from the heart of a woman who has often been styled America's 'First Mom'. With a mix of compassion, anger and sternness, Michelle Obama yesterday took over the US president's weekly address to the nation to call for the release of 276 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls.
"In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters," she said, referring to Malia, 15, and Sasha, 12. "We see their hopes, their dreams and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling now."
Her intervention came at the end of a week of mounting international indignation at the abduction of the girls by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, whose name translates as "western education is forbidden".
The First Lady said: "Like millions of people across the globe, my husband and I are outraged and heartbroken.
"This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education – grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls."
Delivering the weekly address for the first time since President Obama took office, Mrs Obama used the opportunity to highlight both the particular plight of the missing Nigerian girls and the general deficit of education for girls in many countries.
She praised both the courage of those girls who had returned to schools across northern Nigeria to take their exams despite threats against the schools and their parents for daring to let them go.
Meanwhile Pope Francis encouraged prayers for the kidnapped girls, writing online: "Let us all join in prayer for the immediate release of the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria. #BringBackOurGirls."
As British and American advisers deployed to Nigeria to assist in the search for the missing girls, international anger continued to grow.
The United Nations Security Council issued a statement late on Friday demanding the "immediate and unconditional" release of the girls and promising "appropriate measures" against Boko Haram.
The first lady had joined the social media "hashtag campaign" to free the girls last week, tweeting a picture of herself holding up the now ubiquitous slogan '#BringBackOurGirls', that was first coined by a Nigerian lawyer.
The internet campaign went viral, partly as a result of a striking photograph of a mournful-looking African girl taken by the National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale, which became the face of the campaign and was retweeted many thousands of times, including by the BBC.
Unfortunately, the pictures came from Guinea-Bissau, a country 3,200km west of Nigeria, leading to claims of misrepresentation by the photographer, who wholeheartedly supported the campaign to free the Nigerian girls, but not the unethical use of her work.
"Can you imagine having your daughter's image spread throughout the world as the face of sexual trafficking? This is misrepresentation," she told the New York Times.
The campaign to pressure Abuja into action began soon after the girls were taken, on the night of April 14.
Their parents took to the streets of Chibok to demand action. When the government failed to answer their pleas, the protests spread beyond Borno state and were picked up in the capital, Abuja, and echoed around the world.
It took Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian president, almost three weeks publicly to address the issue, before finally accepting David Cameron's and William Hague's offer of assistance. On Friday the first British and American experts arrived in the capital, Abuja, to assist efforts to locate the girls.
Yesterday, the Nigerian army said it had dispatched two divisions to hunt for the girls. The soldiers are stationed in the border region close to Chad, Cameroon and Niger and will work with other security agencies, said Gen Chris Olukolade, spokesman for defence.
Last night, local media in northern Nigeria claimed that the wife and two children of a retired police officer had been abducted by Boko Haram, and 3,000 people had fled the town of Liman Kara, near the border with Cameroon, after another attack.
Fleeing residents said that the insurgents blew up the bridge that linked the states of Adamawa and Borno, both of which have been under a military state of emergency.
Last Monday, Boko Haram blew up a bridge linking Nigeria to Chad as part of their attempts to prevent police from following them.