The discipline of leadership
On 18 January 2016, the journalist Kadaria Ahmed tried out a few tweets about the BBOG movement.
The sum of her thesis? Its leaders needed to change. According to her, the ‘activists’ have become the story rather than the girls.
“Campaigns should not be static,” she said. “To succeed, they should be alive and evolve based on prevailing circumstances.”
This was on the face of it, a non sequitur.
The criticisms that the movement was facing were the exact same they have always faced, only this time Buhari’s supporters had taken the place of Jonathan’s supporters. The girls were still missing. Their mothers were still weeping. As @anwana_ime asked her that morning: “What is the prevailing circumstance. And how has it changed from the previous circumstance?”
But of course, ultimately, this criticism was a hammer by by the irritated to shut down BBOG by targeting its leaders. It had become apparent that the movement itself could not be delegitimized successfully, and this was the next best thing.
Now, it is true that BBOG protesters can be combative on occasion, but it is as true as it is inevitable. History doesn’t have records of strong, passionate campaigners on major potentially divisive issues that haven’t, in that moment, at those times been seen as belligerent.
We remember Martin Luther King Jr now with the afterglow of hindsight, now that the world completely agrees with him, but at his time, the prevailing peacefulness of his protests were seen by ‘polite people’ as offensive – and his leadership, corrosive.
Reviewing Gallup polling from King’s time in a 1995 piece, political scientist Sheldon Appleton made this clear. “The overwhelming approval with which king is remembered today stands in ironic contrast to how he was perceived … while he was alive and active,” he reports. “A number of survey items asked about King in the mid-sixties show him more reviled than revered – in fact, as one of the most disliked American political figures in that age of public opinion polling.”
The first time King was assessed on a scalometer in 1964 – the year just before he was awarded the Nobel Prize – the only person the majority of citizens i.e. white Americans disliked more than King was the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
You can’t evoke strong passions in people and retain your likeability numbers. Criticism of movement leaders – whether they are national icons like Gani Fawehinmi or global legends like Nelson Mandela – for being strong and attracting the disdain of those who disagree is therefore both unoriginal but, as in examples past, disingenuous.
Of course, where this attack works, it can be very effective: once you are able to cut off the head, the rest of the body dissembles. No movement is truly without a leader, formal or informal. The way the human being organizes is around passions, directed by a leader.
Beyond Ezekwesili, the attacks have also found another easy target – Aisha Yesufu, a strong voice who has put her neck on the line.
She is too loud, some have said, too strident. She has been accused her of focusing too narrowly on this one issue (rather than broadly, one would have to assume, on all the issues that concern Nigerians), and in one case someone actually asked why her husband wouldn’t keep her in check.
It is the kind of vitriol that can fell lesser (wo)men. But BBOG has disciplined itself to avoid this trap.
It has stuck with its natural leaders mostly because they have led by example. Those leaders have also been disciplined in lifting up those within the movement – elegantly ceding authority, credit, voice and authority in turn over the course of almost three-years.
Even corporate institutions with clear hierarchies and formal appointments, not to talk of robust remuneration, do not often achieve this feat.
The discipline of amplification
If BBOG has understood anything intuitively, it has been the strategic importance of media and messaging.
In addition to a consistent message, it has maintained opened lines with the media, been transparent with its affairs, opened its hands to scrutiny and maximized social connections and conversation.
To be sure, all of this is not of its deliberate making. The media has been drawn by the righteousness of the cause, willing itself as its champion, the Guardian placing a daily countdown on its homepage cover page, YNaija.com tracking each milestone, Channels TV leaving an open door.
But, there is also the fact of the leaders’ huge moral authority, the movement’s towering integrity, and its ability to handle itself both with dignity and with common sense.
There is also its practical skill in commanding attention by its strategic protests (speaking to 2000 young Nigerians protesting the corruption at the Nigerian Immigration Service memorably advised them that to be effective, they had to suspend their Saturday protest and resume on Monday when the president would be at work), its crystallising of the issues, the marking of crucial milestones, and its partnership with organisations like EnoughisEnough Nigeria and arm-linking with strategic voices like Chidi Odinkalu, former chairman of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission.
The discipline of integrity
I spoke about this above, and it bears speaking about again: BBOG’s integrity.
There is the fact that it is very quick – and smart – to loudly disavow those who seek to deploy its name or its goodwill for dodgy gains including the ambiguous October 2016 fundraiser by the president’s daughter, Hadiza Buhari-Bello.
But that is simply icing on the cake for an organization that holds itself to the highest standards of demonstrable integrity.
There is nothing that it has done or said that has been a lie – and it has severely curtailed exaggeration. Even at the times when it has been misconstrued and deliberately mis-interpreted, it has been aggressive in ensuring that the truth, or at least a balanced narrative, prevails.
It insisted on the fact of the girls’ kidnap, on correct numbering of the girls, on a consistent message, ceding the stage where necessary to the parents, refusing to be drawn into an artificial conflict with Malala Yousafzai courtesy of the Jonathan government, altogether earning immense credibility for its integrity.
That integrity continues to serve it well.
The discipline of financial responsibility
Linked to the above is the matter of financial probity.
BBOG made the wisest decision from the start of the campaign not to raise any money, not to open any account, not to accept funding from any outside forces.
It is impossible to overstate the significance of this step.
Every organization needs money. Especially one like BBOG that has been sustained optimally for over two years. And if BBOG had chosen to raise money, its immense network and credibility would have been enough to pull in millions of dollars.
The uses of the funds are easy to identify: the education of the rescued girls, the sustenance of their poor parents, the administration of a group with several networks.
However, BBOG understood that the easiest way cynics bring down a movement is to accuse it either of financial impropriety or pecuniary interest.
An accusation with legs can run. One without legs often dies on arrival.
So at great pain to the pockets of the members and its leaders, it has stuck with contributing monies within itself and spending those small amounts on the barest of minimums – water for those who gather, printing of documents, transportation for protests, the very basics.
Of course, many organisations will find it incredibly difficult to be effective without financial resources, and neither should they. Impact, after all is more important than naysayers.
But what BBOG teaches is that it is important to identify what activities or projects need resources and what activities do not.
It is useful to know what kind of monies are useful, and what kinds of monies are destructive.
The disciple of consistency
Then there is consistently, already alluded to above, but necessary to isolate in its particular case.
For those who insisted that BBOG was a tool of the All Progressives Congress to delegitimize and remove President Jonathan, immense confusion emerged when the movement continued the exact same agitation, with the exact same aggression, upon the change of guard at the Presidential Villa.
Even the new government cannot believe it. After all, it hosted that lavish photo shoot where it bestowed hugs on the mothers of the girls and blew kisses at the conveners of the protests.
But as it was with Jonathan, it has been with Buhari. And history has repeated itself.
Just like the former, the latter has attacked BBOG with everything – the army, the police, spokespersons and recently, with the information minister tarring them as an opposition party.
This has been a gift to BBOG.
The attacks have had the unintended effect of making it clear that it is a non-partisan movement that would approach and confront anyone that stands against its mission.
That consistency has enabled it to weather the storm of cynics who cannot identify selflessness, and the status quo, that would fight accountability.
The discipline of essence
Whoever has left the movement; BBOG has remained unstoppable.
Hadiza Bala Usman left to join the APC government, Maryam Uwais left to join the government (assuredly, this transition into governments would have happened whatever party won the presidency) and the movement continued, stronger.
The politicians who joined in for their own selfish interest inevitably left, those who took on jobs that required separation also left, and yet the movement continued stronger, better leading ultimately to the release of many girls.
The essence of it remains; through thick and thin, beyond agenda and personality.
Ask yourself, where the #ChildNotBride, #OccupyNigeria, and other popular protests and campaigns have ended up despite the endurance of the problems, and appreciate the beauty of a movement that will not die.
The discipline of courage
They have continued on this mission without care for their lives, without care for their pockets, without care for the friends they lose and the enemies they gain.
They have, many of them, travelled to Chibok to see things for themselves (they inspired me to also visit Chibok for myself) and to connect with the communities, and they have spread across the dangerous cities and villages of North-East to draw the nation’s attention to the twin carnage of terrorist violence and government abandonment.
Then the Nigerian government decided to test their resolve by inviting them, inelegantly and with transparent bad faith, to come to the Sambisa Forest for themselves to search for the girls. They considered it, ignored the double speak, and decided: it was worth the sacrifice.
Their critics, especially those aligned with the government, had already begun to snicker, confident in the belief that these women would not undertake a journey very many would not dare undertake.
With that singular act of courage, entering into enemy territory (not only of the terrorists but of a hostile government) Yesufu and Ezekwesili forever established the credibility of their mission and the courage that gives it authority.
But in addition to the public sacrifice, there is the more instructive matter of personal sacrifice, refusing to trade the focused demand of the movement for the ability to be liked by people who just want them to ‘tone it down’.
In a remarkable (to me, shocking) instance, in January of 2016, the writer Molara Wood switched on an attack on the mothers of the missing girls for faking their tears.
“2 years on, Chibok parents, once there’s a camera about, grab their heads almost in sequence, wail and weep and shed tears demonstratively,” she complained, lecturing a movement. “There is no nuance to their grief, sometimes no dignity. A tear doesn’t trickle out in silence. They shed tears that demand: see me, see me. Nobody wails two years without variance/exhaustion. Chibok parents seem able to cry and thrash on cue. They’re beginning to look rehearsed.”
Around these worrisome tweets, she took the time to highly praise the personal integrity of Ezekwesili, as if to inoculate herself from deserved criticism.
In return, Ezekwesili impressively ignored the praise, and focused on the issue.
“This is the UNKINDEST THING to say to those parents, Molara. I heard those deep agonizing cries as we marched with them. SAD,” she tweeted. “Yes. Another’s pain can look like Drama. Who are we to JUDGE another’s EXPRESSION of their grief?”
In that reaction, she proved that the adoration of an influential culture critic was less important than the underscoring of a national tragedy. The pain of the Chibok parents of higher priority that those who would not give them help, or allow them dignity.
The discipline of hope
“Hope is inexhaustible,” Ezekwesili preached to the audience at The Future Awards Africa 2014, leading the hall to tears. “When all else fails, hope yet remains, and it springs eternal. It is that hope that keeps us looking for the girls, no matter how dim the chances are.”
And BBOG has continued to hope.
Indeed hope is all that it has armed itself with. Hope that, I must confess, even I grew weary of, because it appeared to me in 2015, after a year of no results, that these girls were never going to be found.
But all real change movements need to have real hope. They need to have real hope that the problem will be solved, that their campaign is not just about the motions.
It must come down to the conviction that the work matters, that the outcome is possible, and that collective action is powerful.
The discipline of action
And at the end of the day, action.
BBOG is not just about words, BBOG is decidedly about action.
It does its research, it keeps fidelity with its weekly sit outs, it calculates its numbers, it responds when called to Sambisa, it undertakes those long walks under the sun to the Presidential Villa.
It keeps track, it stretches itself, it shows up, it walks the talk.
At the end of the day really, that’s what it comes down to: do what you say you will do, act how you say you will act; stick with the issue until it is resolved.
Never stop, never let go.
Whatever happens, keep moving. Because change is always possible.
Jideonwo is co-founder and managing partner of RED (www.redafrica.xyz), which brands including Y!/YNaija.com and governance communication firm, StateCraft Inc. Office of the Citizen (OOTC) is his syndicated essay series.