Interview – Meet the Man Who Generated #bringbackourgirls Hashtag that caused the global protest

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As at May 31, a Twitter analytic tool, Topsy, estimated that more than 3.1 million tweets have been sent using the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag.

Ibrahim M. Abdullahi coined the hashtag via his twitter page, @Abu_Aaid, after a speech by ex-World Bank Vice-President, Oby Ezekwesili, at the Port Harcourt World Book Capital 2014 event on April 23.

Mr. Abdullahi, a managing partner in cooperate commercial law firm, Path Solicitors, who started using twitter in January, 2011, currently has about 1000 followers

The #BringBackOurGirls movement, which began in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, nine days after the abduction of the over 250 schoolgirls, would go on to trump most global issues including the war in Syria, the missing Malaysian airline – Flight MH370 – and the on-going crises in Ukraine.

At its peak, the #BringBackOurGirls movement spread to 69 countries with its strongest external online support coming from United States, Britain and Canada.

In an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mr. Abdullahi said he did not feel fulfilled having generated a hash tag that called for global action towards the release of the schoolgirls that were abducted on April 14. He said his fulfilment will definitely come once the girls have been rescued.

PT: What inspired the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag?

Abdullahi: The inspiration for the creation of the hashtag came after the story of the abduction broke out on April 15. I first read it via my handset on PREMIUM TIMES on April 15. Since then, what kept worrying me was the lack of information about the abduction. There was not much noise about it from the media. There was no outcry from people on Facebook, Twitter and the social media generally.

I wondered how this could happen in a country where we have leadership. We lose over 200 girls and nobody cares to find out how this happened and there was no information from the government. I became very disturbed about what was happening. Then, I started tweeting about the abduction, trying to create more awareness because so many people did not know about what had happened.

I was tweeting with so many hash tags then. At a time, it was #AbductedBornoGirls. I was tweeting with #ChibokGirls – several hashtags and maybe for a day or two and then I will start another one. I remember so many other people were tweeting with the hash tags I created or formed their own which I also used, trying to create more awareness on the abduction.

Then I was in Port Harcourt on the 22nd and 23rd April where I went for a matter. I remember I was in my room. I was packing my things to come back to Abuja, and then it happened that on the TV there was a live telecast of a UNESCO event going on in Port Harcourt city. At a point, I watched Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, the former education minister, and she drew the attention of the guests to the abduction of the girls. She requested or asked the audience to demand for the release of the abducted girls. I think specifically, she said that they demand that they should bring back our daughters.

I was so happy seeing highly placed people there. Governor Amaechi was there; so many of them stood with the guests, demanding that they bring back our daughters. I tweeted that instantly and it came to my mind that maybe most of them have daughters while others do not have, but at least everybody has sisters, nieces or cousins.

PT: So, Mrs. Ezekwesili’s demand from the guests inspired your creation of the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag?

Abdullahi: Yes, it did. I tweeted the two immediately, #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters. A few minutes later (Mrs. Ezekwesili) retweeted my tweet and some other people too. Then in a tweet she asked people to tweet based on that hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. From there, it started flying and everyone tweeted with the hash tag.

PT: How long have you been tweeting?

Abdullahi: I think about three or four years now.

PT: Do you use Twitter all the time?

Abdullahi: Yes, I use Twitter to express my views.

PT: When you were tweeting with the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag, did you envisage it was going to go viral?

Abdullahi: No, but I just believed that the hash tag will create more awareness and that was why, when Mrs. Ezekwesili drew people’s attention to the abduction, I was very happy. And I believed we could get a response from the government which may lead to the rescue of the girls.

PT: Are you from Chibok?

Abdullahi: No, I’m not from Chibok. In fact, I’m from Zamfara State.

PT: Do you have a sister, daughter among the abducted Chibok schoolgirls?

Abdullahi: I am a father, I have a son. Aside from being a father, I’m human; things like this can happen to anyone. It happened in Chibok, it could have happened in Jos or Zamfara. I thought it was a duty upon me to create the awareness and demand that government bring back our girls.

PT: A TV host in May had credited a Los Angeles movie director, Ramaa Mosley, for generating the hashtag. At the time, she didn’t deny starting the Twitter conversation. How did you feel when you read about it?

Abdullahi: I think I saw it on CNN a day before she went on air. We did contact each other. I commended her for what she was doing in the US and I also asked that she contact me back so we could work together. Later, the next day or so, I saw her on CNN. Maybe she was credited for the hash tag but I wasn’t bothered at all.

PT: You didn’t think someone was taking your glory?

Abdullahi: No, because I know it is not a glory for me to take or for anybody that participated in the campaign; it is for all of us: PREMIUM TIMES, Oby Ezekwesili, and all other people who marched and stood with the Chibok girls.

PT: Do you think the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag is doing enough to persuade the government to intensify their efforts in rescuing the girls?

Abdullahi: I think it is doing a lot. Only that from the government side, I don’t think they have done enough to #BringBackOurGirls. The campaign has gone international. So many people are aware of it and many citizens are demanding and pressurising the government to bring back our daughters. We can see that with the general outcry, even in America.

PT: Following your hash tag, a protest ensued, and then global attention; do you feel fulfilled?

Abdullahi: I don’t think that it is me that did all these things. Yes, I feel happy but not fulfilled.

PT: Why is that?

Abdullahi: Because the girls have not been found yet. Until when they are rescued, I’ll feel fulfilled that I have contributed to their rescue.

PT: Aside from the Twitter campaign, have you been joining ground protests?

Abdullahi: Yes, whenever time permits me, I join the meetings. I was at the march to the Borno State governor’s lodge, the march to the Chief of Defence Staff, and to the presidential villa where we were met by government delegates. I have been at the Unity Fountain several times to participate in the meetings that hold daily.

PT: Before the #BringBackOurGirls protest, have you been part of any protest?

Abdullahi: Yes, in school, we protested for light, school fees and campaigns for change. But since after school, I have not been involved in any form of activism, but I can always say that being a lawyer, it is natural that as a lawyer you uphold the letters of the constitution, and it is our duty to stop any violation of the constitution. Any human or civil rights violations, we should defend it and make sure that people are not allowed to violate rights.

PT: Before now, over three million people were tweeting with the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag; did you ever envisage that Twitter or social media could be this strong for activism?

Abdullahi: Yes, I think so. There was the Occupy Nigeria campaign, when we mobilised on Twitter to come out and protest the increase in fuel pump price. Twitter was used to mobilise people to demand that government reverse that decision; that worked. So I think social media can be used to bring change.

PT: How did you feel few days ago when a counter hash tag #ReleaseOurGirls were used by some group of people who said that Boko Haram should be held responsible rather than the government?

Abdullahi: I think that was a misplaced effort because Boko Haram is not a leadership in this country. We have the Federal Government which is in charge of security of lives and property. In any breach of peace and security in the country, it is not the criminal that we should be asking not to commit any crime or offence but we should ask the government to punish anybody that does wrong and that’s what we have been saying. The government should secure our lives; they should bring back our girls. So, for anybody to say we should go and ask Boko Haram to release our girls is not only distracting people from the campaign but also an abuse on our intelligence.

PT: What is your view on the initial ban of protests by the FCT police chief, Joseph Mbu?

Abdullahi: Mainly the police rely on the Public Office Holders Act, which is an old law, but the constitution, which is the grand law, goes contrary to it and thus it is null and void to the extent that its compatibility is caught up with the Public office Act. That is why renowned lawyer, Femi Falana, went to court challenging that law and so many sections of the law were voided by the Supreme Court. I don’t know why the police still rely on that law; maybe out of mischief or lawlessness. If not, why would anybody rely on a law that contradicts the constitution?

PT: Are you saying the police have no power to ban protests?

Abdullahi: Of course, the police do not have the power to ban a peaceful protest in Nigeria.

PT: The Abuja family of the #BringBackOurGirls protesters have said they will continue with the protest irrespective of the ban (the ban was later reversed by the police), will you join them?

Abdullahi: Of course, even though I am sure the court will uphold the letters of the constitution. I don’t know why the police are afraid of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.

PT: If the group as a non-profit group approaches you to defend them as a lawyer; pro bono will you do that?

Abdullahi: Surely, of course. I have been doing a lot of pro bono cases. And I think I will also join the team that will secure an injunction against the police; allowing the protesters to march peacefully without disturbing traffic or normal activities.

PT: Why do you think the Federal Government is afraid of the #BringBackOurGirls protest?

Abdullahi: We have been hearing stories. Like when one of the Chibok leaders was arrested, some people said that it was on the orders of the First Lady, Patience Jonathan. Some also said the initial protesters were embarrassing the government. I think that is the same feeling they have towards the #BringBackOurGirls protest. But I believe this will not stop until the government does what the constitution obliges it to do.

PT: What do you think the endgame will be? Do you think these girls will be rescued?

Abdullahi: I am an optimistic person. I still believe the girls will be brought back home safe and alive. And I pray daily that God will aid to bring back our girls safe and alive.

PT: Do you have any recommendations for the government on rescuing the Chibok girls.

Abdullahi: Personally, I think that the Federal Government should collaborate more with the states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa to see the end of the insurgence. That is what the government would have been doing. But there’s a lot of politics, a lot of distrust between the two arms of government; that is why we have not seen much effort towards ending the insurgency.

The president should take it upon himself as the leader of the nation, as the Commander in Chief of the Federal republic of Nigeria. He should see this as the most important obligation to rescue the girls and end the insurgency. Without security, I don’t think we can achieve much development economically.

PT: Would you support that the government negotiate with the Boko Haram to free the girls?

Abdullahi: Yes, at this point we don’t have any option but to negotiate. I don’t see any reason why we should not negotiate with them. The lives of 200 girls are worth more than the live of one million terrorists. If we negotiate and bring back our girls, then we come back and plan to see how we can end terrorism in Nigeria.

PT: Do you, probably later, when this whole issue is over, intend to use this for financial or political gain?

Abdullahi: No, I don’t. I am not a politician and I don’t even have any political ambition now.

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