Major-General Chris Olukolade stood outside the Nigerian Defence Headquarters in Abuja last
Tuesday and raised his hands for silence, as 100 or so men and women sat in the road blocking traffic.
In front of him, opposite the Old Parade Ground, the protesters, most of them dressed in red T-shirts
and carrying banners, noisily adapted the words of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance.
“All we are saying,” they sang to the tune of the Plastic Ono Band’s anti-war anthem, “is bring back
Armed police in black and army personnel, ramrod straight in combat fatigues, bullet-proof vests and
helmets, blocked the crossroads ahead, staring back menacingly at the demonstrators.
An army officer took photographs of the crowd. Olukolade, Nigeria’s defence spokesman, finally
took advantage of a pause.
“Be sure that we listen to you and your protest is understood,” he told the demonstrators.
For three weeks now, the families of 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram militants in the remote
town of Chibok, in northeastern Borno state, have been pleading for help to find their sisters and
They have found growing support across Nigeria and around the world, which has staged similar marches on the back of a social media campaign
#BringBackOurGirls taken up by civil rights groups and activists.
Condemnation of the kidnapping and criticism of the Nigerian government’s handling of the
situation has been widespread.
President Goodluck Jonathan made his first public comments on the
crisis on Sunday, as delegates began arriving in the capital for the World Economic Forum on Africa.
Olukolade and senior officers returned to Defence HQ with a delegation of protesters, to update them about their operations — a small victory after a short march in the afternoon sun and a rare
concession to public pressure from Nigeria’s elite.
A total of 223 girls are still missing.
Their families’ anguish has been heightened by claims from Boko
Haram leader Abubakar Shekau this week that the teenagers would be sold as slave brides.
The chief of the Chibok community in Abuja, Hosea Sambido, broke down as he said the uncertainty had left mothers in his home town unable to eat with worry and forced their fathers into the bush to frantically look for the girls themselves.
“Please, we are begging the Federal Government of Nigeria, please, we are begging our army, which we
depend on, please intervene in this matter for us, intervene in this matter for us,” he said, his voice
“Our community is relatively small. If a generation of the same age — 276 — are out, in the future where are we? Who cares? Can our girls go to
school now. Help us. Please! Please!”
Boko Haram fighters have kidnapped girls before in the five-year insurgency but never on the scale of
Chibok, explaining why the abduction has captured attention beyond Nigeria’s borders.
‘I went to sleep crying’
For Yasmin Othman, who had draped a red “Bring Back Our Girls” T-shirt over her brown, red and yellow-chequered shawl during the march up Mohammed Buhari Way, the effects of the abduction could be felt for years to come in rural
“For the first three days, I went to sleep crying,” said Othman, from the African Women Agribusiness Network, walking alongside
protesters carrying banners proclaiming “Our girls,
our future” and “Educate a girl, educate a nation.”
“I belong to an NGO and we have been trying extremely hard to get girls back into school, then
this happens,” she told AFP. “It’s going to take another decade to let parents leave their girls (in
Meanwhile, forensic DNA technology could help identify and reunite with their families the more than 200 girls still held by the militants, scientists
Software already exists to match missing people with their relatives, and it has been used worldwide
to identify and return more than 700 children who were trafficked, some across international borders.
Most of all, forensic scientists in the United States and Spain say they are ready to help, free of charge. All they need to get started are DNA
samples from family members of the lost schoolgirls.
“We would do this absolutely for nothing,” said Arthur Eisenberg, chairman of the department of
molecular and medical genetics at the University of North Texas (UNT).
“This is clearly a humanitarian effort,” said Eisenberg, who heads the UNT Center for Human
Identification, the laboratory that works with a 10-year-old international program called DNA-Prokids,which aims to reunite families and deter human
First, the girls’ family members — mother, father or another close relative — could provide a DNA
sample by swabbing the inside of their mouths with a cotton tip or giving a blood sample.
Then, Eisenberg said, he and colleagues establish DNA profiles of the families using a software
system called M-FISys (pronounced “emphasis”).
The software was developed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks to help forensic
scientists in New York City meet the enormous challenge of matching nearly 20,000 pieces of human remains to the more than 2,700 people who died in the Twin Towers.
Prior to 9/11, no such software existed. Forensic experts were overwhelmed by the scale of the
identification effort, and quickly learned that Excel spreadsheets were not sophisticated enough.
M-FISys also protects the identities of the missing by encrypting unidentified DNA profiles, thereby
avoiding potential diplomatic conflicts when cases cross borders.
“No one is giving up any confidential information that they might not be able to under their local statutes,” M-FISys developer Howard Cash told
That capability is important because the group that took responsibility for the Nigerian kidnapping, an
Islamist faction called Boko Haram that is opposed to Western education, has threatened to “sell them in the market.”
The US State Department has said there were indications that the girls had been moved into neighbouring countries.
Local leaders have said the
hostages, aged 16 to 18, were sold as brides to Islamist fighters in Cameroon and Chad.
If true, that means a key part of the identification process may come down to the actions of good
Anyone who encountered a girl they suspected was one of those kidnapped could take a DNA sample
from her mouth, blood or hair, and provide it to authorities so it could be analysed to see if it matched any of the missing girls.
Even if Nigeria does not have a forensic lab ready to handle such a task, Eisenberg and DNA-Prokids
founder Jose Lorente said they could work with saliva, blood or hair samples if they were shipped
to their labs in either the United States or Spain.
DNA-Prokids was developed in 2004 by Lorente, a forensic expert and doctor who heads the
University of Granada Genetic Identification Laboratory.
Lorente said he was first motivated to use DNA to track missing children many years ago, after seeing
scores of street kids begging for money during his international travels.
He asked police what had happened to these youths, and learned that often they’d been stolen
or sold as babies.
After so many years had passed,
their families would no longer recognise them, so they were unlikely to ever be found.
“Of course, I started to think about the DNA,” he told AFP. “There is a way to identify them.”
DNA-Prokids has since been implemented in Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras,
the Dominican Republic, Peru, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and a
handful of other countries.
The program is credited with helping stop a surge of illegal adoptions from Guatemala to the United
States, as well as identifying hundreds of illegally
An estimated 27 million people are living in slavery around the world, in the second largest international criminal industry after drugs.
Lorente and Eisenberg said they have reached out to local authorities to offer their help in Nigeria,where another eight schoolgirls were kidnapped by gunmen on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry has pledged to send an expert team to help Nigeria
with the search and rescue operation.
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