Protesters demanding the release of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped six months ago by Islamist militants, demonstrated in front of the president’s home on Tuesday, urging the government to do more to free them.
Around 60 people in red T-shirts that read “Bring Back Our Girls” marched to the residence of President Goodluck Jonathan in a leafy part of the Nigerian capital, which was guarded by more than 150 armed police.
Scores of other protesters were prevented from joining the rally by other police lines at the top of the street.
“I want the president to try and bring back my friends,” said Rebecca Ishaku, who managed to escape from the clutches of the Boko Haram militants after they attacked a remote northeastern school in April.
“I can’t even imagine what’s happening to them.”
The kidnapping of around 270 girls from the northeastern village of Chibok shocked the world and raised doubts about Nigeria’s ability to defeat the Islamist radicals.
Some of the girls were able to flee or were released, but more than 200 remain in captivity and Nigeria’s slow response to the crisis coupled with its failure to locate the captives has brought it widespread criticism at home and abroad.
A leader of the organisation of Chibok parents, Hosiah Lawan, struggled to hold back tears as he addressed the crowd, some of whom were also crying. He said government reassurances of an imminent rescue had originally given him hope.
“That hope is now fading fast,” he said.
Jonathan sent his minister for lands and housing, Akon Eyakenyi, to meet the protesters, who were chanting “Bring back our girls now, and alive!” and waving banners.
“The president will do something …. by the grace of God the girls will be brought back home,” Eyakenyi said.
Jonathan’s administration has said the military is overstretched in the northeast and that a botched rescue would seriously endanger the girls’ lives.
Boko Haram is fighting to carve an Islamic state out of religiously mixed Nigeria and is seen as the biggest security threat to Africa’s top economy and leading energy producer. It is also seen as a growing menace to neighbouring states.
In the past two months Boko Haram has seized territory near the Cameroon border, possibly inspired by similar moves by Sunni Muslim militants in Iraq and Syria.
Leaders of Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Benin on Tuesday announced plans to step up the fight against Boko Haram with an extra battalion and a command centre.
A few hundred other mostly women protesters gathered just north of the town centre on Tuesday, a Reuters witness saw, under the watchful eye of some 60 pro-Jonathan youths, a few of them armed with whips.
“Every day I’m crying,” Rebecca Samuel, whose daughter is still with the rebels, told Reuters, her face in her hands. “I believe the government can do it. They can get them back.”