The grilled dry-aged Wagyu beef flavored with chermoula and crispy plantains were minutes from being served at last month’s White House dinner for African leaders when U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson spotted her prey 12 tables away.
Decked out in a yellow suit and red cowboy hat, the Miami Gardens Democrat sprang into action.
“I walked over, sat next to him and said, ‘I’m Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. I traveled to Nigeria to meet you but you were unavailable,’” she said to a puzzled Goodluck Jonathan, president of Africa’s most populous nation. “I would like to know if you have made any progress in finding the girls.”
The girls are some 300 schoolgirls from Borno State in northern Nigeria who were kidnapped by the Boko Haram militant group in April. Some have since escaped but almost 220 remain in captivity.
The United States, France and Nigeria’s neighbors, among others, have launched a massive search without success.
Wilson has initiated a massive campaign of her own to push her colleagues in Congress — who return Monday after the summer recess — and Nigerian leaders to intensify efforts to locate and rescue the girls. She has now become the face of the effort in the United States to free the teenagers.
Shortly after the abductions, the first-term congresswoman pushed for the passage of a House bill condemning Boko Haram and urging President Barack Obama to “immediately strengthen United States security, law enforcement and intelligence cooperation with appropriate Nigerian forces” to rescue the girls.
But her most dramatic move was hopping a plane for Nigeria to meet with U.S. officials and parents of the girls. She even traveled to Borno state for a briefing from Gov. Kashim Shettima at a time when supporters of the girls and journalists were being warned against traveling there for security reasons.
Jonathan, for example, has yet to visit the area where the girls were kidnapped. He canceled a planned trip in May, citing security fears.
Wilson, 71, said she was deeply disappointed that Jonathan, who is in the middle of a heated election campaign, declined to to see her and the three fellow House members when they were in Nigeria.
“That annoyed me,” she said. “That made me wonder whether he had something to hide.”
But Wilson returned from Nigeria convinced to do more to champion the girls’ case, largely because of her emotional meeting with some of the parents and five of the girls who escaped from the militants. They met in the Nigerian capital of Abuja after the women made an unsuccessful trip from Borno to meet with Jonathan. The seeming lack of support from Aso Rock, the presidential complex, compounded the women’s pain, Wilson said.
“When I was meeting with the parents, it was like death,” she said.
The women explained how they live in constant fear of the militants and they revealed new information about the kidnappings, much of which had not been made public.
Boko Haram has waged an insurgency in northeast Nigeria since 2009. It seeks to set up an Islamic state, one where girls are banned from attending school. It has sought to achieve its aims through brutal force, including kidnappings and street bombings. The group has killed more than 5,000 people in Nigeria and neighborinig Cameroon over the past five years, about 2,000 of those this year.
The world took note of the group on April 14 when it staged the brazen abduction of the girls from their school in Chibok, a town in Borno state.
The men were apparently looking for boys to join the insurgency, according to Wilson.
“When Boko Haram broke into the dormitory, they asked the girls, ‘where are the boys?’’’ Wilson said. “They said boys don’t sleep here. It’s only girls. They then said, ‘we’re going to take you.’”
One of the girls who escaped described a frightening encounter with one of the insurgents.
“He was going to rape her. He pushed his hand under her dress and came up with blood. The girl was having her period,” Wilson said. “He recoiled in horror and ran away. The girl took off running and ran until she couldn’t run anymore.”
Wilson later met with a group formed to spur global action to rescue the girls using Twitter hashtag, #Bringbackourgirls. Millions around the world have since retweeted the hashtag, including Pope Francis, first lady Michelle Obama and Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai.
“I asked them how I could help,” Wilson said. “They said when you go back, please help us rev up our Twitter war. I said that I’ll tweet and tweet and tweet until we find those girls.”
Back in Washington, Wilson has tweeted daily, waging frequent “Twitter wars” and encouraging colleagues to tweet about the girls. During the summer recess when most members were back in their districts, Wilson walked from one office to another encouraging their staffs to post tweets.
She plans to work after the break to garner support for a new bill calling for the Obama administration to present Congress with its strategy for dealing with Boko Haram and to increase funding to Nigeria only if it “demonstrates a commitment to transparent and accountable reconstruction in Boko Haram-affected areas.”
Wilson said the Jonathan administration should do much more to locate the girls, adding that she was surprised that he attended last month’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.
“Everything should be on hold as they try to find those girls,” Wilson said. “He should be on TV every day.”
That’s why Wilson said she jumped at the chance to confront him at the White House dinner. At one point, she told Jonathan that his military should target Boko Haram’s leaders.
“He said I should tell that to his security team. I asked if his security team was here tonight. He said they will be at a dinner tomorrow. He was getting annoyed,” said Wilson, who kept pressing.
“I asked if he had children and he said yes. I told him so do I and I don’t understand how he could be at the White House and so cavalier. He should be more upset. He repeated that I should speak to his security team.”
The next day, Wilson organized a three-hour demonstration outside Jonathan’s business-sponsored dinner. He acknowledged the criticism near the end of his speech.
“Let me reassure you that, well, of course we have challenges,” Buzzfeed quoted him as saying. “The issue of terror [is] very very negative for us … we are receiving our fair share of terror in the local [group] called Boko Haram, that’s recently has been taking some school girls. But we are working very hard to bring it under control, and surely we’ll bring it under control.”
In her Miami Gardens district, which has a small Nigerian population, Wilson has won praise for her work. The Coalition of Nigerians of South Florida said its members were proud of her “principled, consistent and unrelenting advocacy for the girls and for a united, peaceful and just Nigeria.”
Bukky Shonibare, a leader of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria, answered a few questions from the Miami Herald about the impact of U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami Gardens, in the effort to bring attention to the missing girls.
How do you know Congresswoman Wilson?
Other than knowing her as a vibrant and energetic U.S. congresswoman from afar, I was part of the #BringBackOurGirls strategic team members who had a meeting with her when she came to Nigeria as part of a delegation from the U.S. to have an on-the-ground assessment of the state of things as it relates to the abducted Chibok girls.
How helpful has she been to your efforts to bring attention to the girls’ abduction?
Her efforts in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign is immeasurable. First, she provided very useful strategic advice during our physical engagement when she, alongside her colleagues, came visiting. Secondly is how she has unrelentingly continued to amplify this issue and ensure it is kept in the front burner. This she achieves through her social media engagement using her twitter handle. The reach is not only limited to her followers, but also retweeted and spread around. I have also spotted her in protest matches organized in the U.S. for this cause, thereby taking her virtual support to physical engagements. Her presence in such rallies does not only encourage others, it is a huge way of endorsing all necessary efforts to #BringBackOurGirls.
How would you describe the meeting Rep. Wilson had with you group in Nigeria compared to meetings with other celebrities and politicians who have visited?
I was part of the organizers that Congresswoman Wilson met, and have also been involved in several other engagements with other critical stakeholders and supporters of the #BringBackOurGirls cause. What stood out in the meeting with her is the practicality and immediate usability of the advice she provided. Her display of passion, keen interest, and deep concern didn't go unnoticed. The most obvious of the difference is that she did not only come to Nigeria to talk about the issue and problems, she returned to her base and has not relented in showing solidarity and unwavering support towards this cause. This, for us as a movement, is hugely appreciated as it is relieving to know that a non-Nigerian is able to continue in this campaign even when, apparently, many Nigerians have moved on. Our gratitude to Congresswoman Wilson knows no bound. We can only hope and pray that all efforts translate to success where our girls are brought back within the earliest possible time.