Michelle Obama Tweet Gives Lift to Effort to Free Nigerian Girls

In Nigeria, women say they are proud that U.S. first lady Michelle Obama is standing with them, a day after she tweeted a picture of herself holding up a #BringBackOurGirls sign. But some security analysts fear that U.S. involvement could do more harm than good in the effort to rescue nearly 300 kidnapped girls.

Outside a busy conference room, Hauna Ali, a Nigerian journalist and mother, grins as she holds up her cell phone. Her new Blackberry avatar is a picture of Michelle Obama holding up a sign that says #BringBackOurGirls.

"It's just wonderful," Ali said, near tears. "Michelle doing it, standing in the White House. It's just mind-boggling."

Even after five years of the Boko Haram insurgency that has killed thousands of people, the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls nearly four weeks ago was a shock to Nigerians. Protests led by women broke out across the country and online activists rallied around Twitter hashtags like #BringBackOurGirls.

Nigerians have never been louder in their demand for security, and Ali says Mrs. Obama's tweet proves they have finally been heard.

"We now have this feeling that we are not alone in this fight," she said. "Women in Africa now have a voice and our voice is being heard. Not just in Nigeria but in the whole world."

In the past two days, the United States, Britain, France, Canada and China have offered assistance in finding the girls and Nigeria has accepted.

But the girls are believed to be held in a remote region either controlled by or infested with well-armed militants who say they are holding the girls as slaves to be sold. Some security analysts fear that foreign involvement could do more harm than good. 

Ade Ogundeyin is the CEO of Proforce, a security company that builds armored cars and other military equipment. He says if the girls are rescued, it will only be with the help of local people, who will not work with Western forces. 

A Western presence in northern Nigeria could also aggravate the fighting.

"We have to be very, very careful," he said. "This is a typical Nigerian situation. And if it is escalated, yeah, they could get the girls. But they may be all dead."

Boko Haram means "Western education is sin" and Abubakar Shekau, the man who says he leads the group, regularly threatens to kill any Nigerian who associates with the West and Western leaders.

Damiola Awesu, a Nigerian human rights lawyer, says the missing girls are not just a security issue, but a women's rights issue. Even before the kidnapping, most girls in northeastern Nigeria didn't go to school. 

She says it will be years before education levels for girls in the region will rise again to even minimal standards.

"We want our children free," she said. "We want them to come back home. It's their right to live their life. It's their right to go to school. And the government has the responsibility to protect their rights."

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has promised that the girls will be rescued and says they remain alive and healthy. But information is scarce and he hasn't said how he knows anything about their condition or when they will be saved.

VOA News / May 09, 2014 08:21 KST