Abuja - Pakistani rights activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls' education, pledged while on a trip to Nigeria to help free a group of schoolgirls abducted by Islamist militants.
On Sunday, Malala met parents of the more than 200 girls who were kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram from a school in the northeastern village of Chibok in April.
Boko Haram, inspired by the Taliban, say they are fighting to establish an Islamic state in religiously mixed Nigeria. The group, whose name means “Western education is sinful”, has killed thousands and abducted hundreds since launching an uprising in 2009.
Some of the parents broke down in tears as Malala spoke at a hotel in the capital Abuja on Sunday.
“I can see those girls as my sisters... and I'm going to speak up for them until they are released,” said Malala, who was due to meet President Goodluck Jonathan on Saturday, her 17th birthday.
“I'm going to participate actively in the 'Bring back our girls' campaign, to make sure that they return safely and they continue their education.”
The girls' abduction drew unprecedented international attention to the war in Nigeria's northeast and the growing security risk that Boko Haram poses to Nigeria, Africa's leading energy producer.
A #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign supported by Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie heaped pressure on authorities to act, and Jonathan pledged to save the girls, drawing promises of Western help to do so.
“I can feel... the circumstances under which you are suffering,” Malala said. “It's quite difficult for a parent to know that their daughter is in great danger. My birthday wish this year is... bring back our girls now, and alive.”
Several weeks on, the hostages have not been freed and media interest has waned. Around 200 Nigerians gathered in the Unity Fountain park in central Abuja on Sunday to call on authorities to explain what they are doing to get the girls out.
“Nobody has told us anything about where the girls could be, what they are doing to try to rescue them. In three months, we've heard nothing,” said Haruna Fetima, one of the parents at the gathering. “We live in Chibok, and we haven't seen any soldiers or police in the area since the attack.”
Boko Haram, now considered the main security threat to Nigeria, is growing bolder. Police said on Saturday they had uncovered a plot to bomb the Abuja transport network using suicide bombers and devices concealed in luggage at major bus stations.
Pakistani Taliban militants shot Malala for her passionate advocacy of women's right to education. She survived after being airlifted to Britain for treatment, and has since become a symbol of defiance against the militants operating in the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
She has won the European Union's prestigious human rights award and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Some see Nigeria's local #BringBackOurGirls campaign as a rare, albeit small, piece of civil activism in a nation famous for its shoulder-shrugging indifference in the face of atrocities or bad governance.
“The negative side of our resilience... is that things that would compel other citizens to demand accountability, demand answers, wouldn't move the Nigerian,” said Oby Ezekwesili, a chartered accountant who has spearheaded the campaign to get the girls freed.
“That has been broken... People are saying ‘We can't leave 219 girls and just get on with our lives’.” - Reuters