Of all the horrific stories Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) heard and traumatized families she met on a recent trip to Nigeria, one particularly vicious crime of Boko Haram sticks with her the most.
The terrorists cut off the head of a policeman in front of his wife, set his head next to her, and left the woman with deep slashes of her own. “He thought it was his duty to protect,” said the congresswoman.
The daily crimes of Boko Haram read like something from a horror script, such as the “very smart girls, very young little girls” who outsmarted the terrorists, donned disguises and escaped, only to run for their lives through the forest for three days before they reached safety.
“It was like a story, like you were reading a novel,” Wilson recalled.
As the toll of Boko Haram has mounted — at least 2,053 civilians in the first half of 2014, according to Human Rights Watch — the world momentarily snapped to attention with a spring hashtag campaign after the kidnapping of more than 230 girls from a school in Chibok state on April 14.
First lady Michelle Obama posed for a photo with a placard bearing the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag. Members of Congress appealed directly to the Nigerian government to work quickly to rescue the girls. And all 20 women in the Senate, led by Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), sent a letter to President Obama calling for international sanctions against Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 and was conducting terror operations for years before being designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. last November.
Then the hashtag fizzled without resolution to the girls’ case. Several dozen of the girls escaped earlier this month, and this was followed by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau releasing a video Sunday bragging about the girls still in their clutches — and mocking the grassroots PR campaign.
“Nigerians are saying #BringBackOurGirls, and we are telling [President Goodluck] Jonathan to bring back our arrested warriors, our army,” Shekau said.
A month ago, Wilson joined a congressional delegation to Nigeria with members as diverse as Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) to Steve Stockman (R-Texas), and met the Nigerians who started the Twitter campaign.
And they continue #BringBackOurGirls with a meeting every morning at 9 a.m., across the street from the hotel where the lawmakers stayed in Abuja.
“While I was there, they asked me if I would help them by keeping it going in America when I got back,” Wilson told PJM.
So each day her staff brainstorms new entities to enlist in the Twitter war, and has racked up more than a million mentions for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign through their tireless efforts.
“What has disappointed me is that it has disappeared from the normal news cycle and it’s just a Twitter war that’s going on,” Wilson said. “Hopefully they will begin to pick it up again… the mainstream media has abandoned us.”
Wilson is hoping that the public will tweet a #BringBackOurGirls message at 9 a.m. EST each morning in solidarity with the Nigerian girls and their families, as they rally each morning a continent away.
The congresswoman authored a resolution that passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support in May condemning the kidnapping as well as all of Boko Haram’s “violent attacks on civilian targets, including schools, mosques, churches, villages, and agricultural centers in Nigeria.”
It called on President Obama “to immediately strengthen United States security, law enforcement, and intelligence cooperation with appropriate Nigerian forces, including offering United States personnel to support operations to locate and rescue the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, and to support Nigerian efforts to counter this United States designated foreign terrorist organization,” as well as delivering to Congress “a comprehensive strategy to counter the growing threat posed by radical Islamist terrorist groups in West Africa, the Sahel, and North Africa.”
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said today that there is nothing new to report on the U.S. assistance to Nigeria in the search, only that they’re still using “manned and unmanned” surveillance.
Wilson’s meetings with grieving mothers and fathers included one gentleman who “cried throughout the entire meeting,” and stories of men who had taken it upon themselves to wield machetes and go into the brush in search of the girls and their Boko Haram captors with no success.
“At least two hours before they kidnapped the girls from the school, they knew they were coming,” she said of the warnings to local authorities that Boko Haram was moving toward the school. “The police did nothing and the army did nothing.”
Girls told the lawmakers that the terrorists asked where the boys at the school were. The boys don’t sleep here, the girls responded, “so they kidnapped them.”
Wilson said Congress needs to encourage a regional and multilateral strategy involving the African Union, the United Nations, and members of the international community who have reached out to help Nigeria including Israel and Saudi Arabia, which last week sent Nigeria $100 million.
She said Saudi Arabia is likely “trying to show that this is not a Muslim-orchestrated fight” as the Muslim community “has been trying to disown Boko Haram.”
“They have bombed so many mosques,” Wilson noted, adding that the day the delegation was leaving three Muslims were killed in a Boko Haram attack.
She characterized the terror group as “some hooligan people who are bent on destruction living off terror and crime, a group of men and boys who have no future and no hope.” She added that recruits come from “poverty that you just couldn’t even imagine” and here comes a group “offering food, shelter, clothing if you come fight with us.”
“This is all these kids have to look forward to — they have no shoes, no education, no work.”
The name Boko Haram means that Western education is sinful. “Anytime the world ‘western’ is used that’s a threat toward the United States,” Wilson said.
“It has mushroomed and it’s like a wildfire, and we’ve got to rein it in,” she stressed. “Boko Haram can become another al-Qaeda at this point.” Shekau voiced support for his al-Qaeda “brethren” in Sunday’s video.
Thus, Wilson suggests that the administration view the threat much like the terrorist gains in Iraq, stepping up drone, manned and satellite surveillance and working with neighboring countries Chad and Cameroon, which have felt the effects of Boko Haram spillover.
Nigerian government officials also need to step up to the plate, said the congresswoman, and the UN should heap pressure on Jonathan.
Wilson came away from her conversation with the governor of Borno state, site of the Chibok kidnapping, feeling that “he is corrupt, too,” as he spent the “whole conversation criticizing the government without even realizing he is the government.”
“To me, there was no urgency,” she added.
Nigerians also told the lawmakers that they would like to see a victims fund established to help the survivors of Boko Haram, who may be ostracized by their villages, infected with HIV, pregnant, or suffering from psychological trauma.
Wilson continues to support the Nigerians each day on the floor of the House, enlisting colleagues in the Twitter campaign and posting pictures of young African women to drive home that there is a story behind every statistic in Boko Haram’s grim toll.
“Every day I go to the floor and speak about our Twitter war,” she said, adding that the glue that holds the campaign together is the belief that “all girls across the world are entitled to an education if they choose to pursue one.”
How can Americans help? Start by reviving the hashtag, Wilson urged.
“They should join in our Twitter war and they should tweet,” she said. “Say something. Send a message to the girls. Send a message to the parents. Send a strong message to the Nigerian government. Send a stronger message to Boko Haram.”