Malala Yousafzai spent “Malala Day”, her 17th birthday, in Nigeria. Since she was shot by the Taliban on her way to school nearly two years ago, she has become a complex, important global symbol.
Wearing a headscarf, she confidently advocates for young girls’ rights to education. While the backdrop of her story is one of messy religious conflict, her message is quite simple: boys and girls should have the same rights, and equal chances at life.
I have the greatest respect for anyone with such clarity of purpose. She has used a personal, no doubt frightening, life-changing experience to push a very worthy public agenda and has helped to achieve the passing of Pakistan’s first Right to Education bill. Imagine what she might accomplish in another seventeen years. The world needs people like Malala.
Her visit to Nigeria saddens me though, and here’s why: it has banged yet another nail into the coffin that houses the Nigerian government’s sense of humanity where its people are concerned.
“Your voice should be your weapon”, Malala told the BBC during an interview on Monday, referring to the girls as her “sisters”. When she met Mr. President, she was accompanied by some of the families – they were meeting him for the first time, but had already sat and cried with Malala and her father.
Mr. President himself has responded to Malala’s voice, lifting her up with grace. For her birthday, she asked for the safe return of the Chibok schoolgirls and pleaded with him to meet with the other families. He reassured her and has agreed.
She told us that the Malala Fund has earmarked $200,000 for the girls’ education, once they are home. Our government followed by announcing that it has set up a committee to determine the operation of a Victims Support Fund for people whose lives have been affected by Boko Haram. Members will be inaugurated two days after Malala’s announcement and include at least a handful of people who have the means, either personally, or within their networks, to match Malala’s pledge.
The committee comes three months after the girls were taken and five years after Boko Haram began displacing families. At current count, over 90,000 Nigerians have lost their homes. In a country of 180 million people, perhaps it is easy to close our eyes to such a tiny fraction.
Malala’s voice stands, it would seem, in contrast to those of the family members, mother figures and civil society groups that have rallied in Abuja regularly, some daily, for three months. They have not received a similarly kind response. Oby Ezekwesili, for example, has, instead, been ridiculed by a presidential spokesperson who accuses her of jealousy and of using the schoolgirls’ cause to further her personal ambitions.
But so what if she were? Would the situation be less desperate if she admitted to having political aspirations? Is the cause not the same as Malala’s? Or did its worthiness change because the voice was Malala’s?
Before now, our government has kept its distance from the families and the activists, at times using physical barriers – police, gates, security – to keep them quiet and out of sight. Perhaps Mr. President intended to visit the families all along and perhaps the committee was contemplated weeks ago. Would that he had bestowed the honour given to Malala on his own people, rather than delivering these promises in response to the birthday wishes of a 17 year old girl from Pakistan. But perhaps now I am being unfair.
Maybe, ultimately, none of that matters. We mustn’t lose sight of the wood for the trees: over 200 girls are still missing and that needs to stay in the public consciousness. Grace demands that the focus remains on the Chibok cause, which Malala’s birthday has helped to bring once again to the front pages globally, if only for a few days.
But, of course, these things do matter. They matter because they speak to our humanity.
Now, after one or two days in Abuja, Malala has returned home. The families and activists will continue to make their daily demands in Abuja. They have said they will not stop until the girls are home, like Malala is now.
When their efforts help to bring the Chibok girls home, I hope the TV cameras will broadcast their own strength and grace, like Malala’s, to the world. They’ve been at this for close to 90 days.