Omoyele Sowore & Amber Khan

Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

Sowore, publisher of the Sahara Reporters website, and Khan, senior communications director of Women for Women International, examine the crisis of Nigeria’s stolen girls.

Omoyele Sowore is founder and publisher of the citizen journalism website, which he has said was inspired by how citizens were reporting on the protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and launched in an attempt to reclaim the media space from the mainstream media. Born and raised in Nigeria's Niger Delta area, he studied geography and planning at the University of Lagos, where he was a student leader and pro-democracy activist. He left the country in 1999 and holds a master's degree in public administration from Columbia University. He previously worked with Catholic Charities in the New York tri-state area.

Amber Khan is a 20-year veteran of social justice and interfaith advocacy work beginning during her college years in Memphis, TN. She's a respected strategic communications advisor to public interest groups, private foundations and campaigns and is currently the senior communications director for Women for Women International, which uses its voice to call global attention to the unique role that women play in advancing peace throughout society. Khan was formerly executive director of The Communications Network and a co-founder of the Muslim Advocates civil rights organization. She was also the first Muslim to chair the Interfaith Alliance Foundation.


Tavis: The kidnapping of more than 200 girls in northeastern Nigeria has once again focused the world’s attention on the continuing threat of terrorist groups like Boko Haram and the escalating repression of women and girls around the globe.

Joining us tonight to talk about this, Omoyele Sowore, who has just returned from Nigeria. He is the founder and publisher of the online news service Sahara Reporters.

And Amber Khan, the senior director of communications at Women for Women International, which for more than 20 years now has helped women rebuild their lives in the aftermath of war. Delighted to have you both on the program.

Amber Khan: Thank you.

Tavis: I wish under different circumstances, but I look forward to your insights as well. Omoyele, let me start with you, since you just got back from Nigeria. I want to start with what happened over the weekend.

So the news of the weekend was the president of France called together President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, a few neighboring African countries, for a summit meeting, I guess we’d call it, in Paris.

What do we know or what do we believe we know about what happened in that meeting?

Omoyele Sowore: Well the meeting was called to discuss the grim trend of, I mean threat of Boko Haram. It’s becoming a regional problem. What Boko Haram is trying to do is to create a lawless state between Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger from where they can operate and attack.

Because they have not succeeded in taking over three states (unintelligible) of Nigeria. So they’re creating this enclave where they can fully operate and do whatever they want to do, and turn that place also into a training ground for all the terrorists in the region, in the African region.

So the meeting in Paris was called to discuss how to declare full-scale war against Boko Haram, and that’s what it came back with. But in terms of action on the ground, we haven’t seen anything showing that that determination or the resolution of the meeting has been implemented yet.

Tavis: I think most Americans now, sadly, but we all know the name, the phrase, al Qaeda. Tell me about Boko Haram, number one, and number two, I wonder whether or not they pose any threat to Western Civilization.

Sowore: Any terrorist group anywhere in the world with the kind of weaponry, the kind of ideology, and the kind of manpower that Boko Haram has is capable of attacking America, because all they need to do is to find somebody who is willing to come over here and make a big statement.

That’s what Boko Haram did with the abduction of the 276 girls, is to make a global statement about their capability, to attract kind of attention that it got now. They’ve been trying to do this. They abducted some tourists in Cameroon and got $4 million from it between the government of France and Nigeria.

Now they’ve done this, and I can imagine if this dust died down, they want to make a bigger statement. Because the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, fashions himself after Bin Laden.

You can see it from the way he releases videos, his mannerisms on the video. He’s an actor, and he enjoys the kind of attention he gets. Each time there’s a video out there, it makes him want to release more videos.

And you can see from each of the videos, you see that he changes tactics, he changes his demeanor, he changes his attitude towards how he wants the world to see him.

The way he’s dressing, he wants to look like a bad guy. Somebody like who’s dreaded. This is what Boko Haram is looking for, and that’s why they do what they do. If they get away with this one or they don’t even get away with it (unintelligible) remain, they want to take it to another top notch, higher than what they’re doing now.

Tavis: What is their ultimate goal?

Sowore: The ultimate goal is to create, according to them, an Islamic country. It’s to take over Nigeria and run it completely according to Sharia, the Sharia laws. But all of the people we talk to who are religious leaders, who are Islamic clerics and intellectuals, condemns what they’re doing.

They said it’s just a criminal gang of people who want to do what they want to do to enrich themselves and become powerful. And of course just do what they do like any tribal regions of Pakistan, and become very wealthy and rich and powerful, and oppress women and men, and just be dreaded.

That’s what I think is the ultimate goal. But what it tells the whole world is that look, we want a pure Islamic country where everything is just according to the tenets of Islam.

Tavis: Who would run this? How would it be governed?

Sowore: As it stands, Boko Haram has a very, very sophisticated organogram and structure of governance. They don’t make the – this show you see, taken by Abubakar Shekau, is taken by a (speaks in foreign language) council.

He’s just at the top. They have soldiers, they have all kinds of groups, they have all kinds of structure that runs the activity, and you can see that from the way they carry out their activities, their attacks, and their targets.

For example, there was a day they went to an army barrack and broke the jail there. They’ve been to Cameroon to release some of their top commanders. So this is not something that people just would say, well, this is a ragtag army or group of militants who are just running wild.

Abubakar Shekau, each time he produces a video, he has armored tanks behind him. These are armored tanks they took from the Nigerian military during the attack.

They have very well sophisticated weapons. When they recruit, they recruit with nothing less than $3,000. That’s how much they pay their top commanders, their well-trained commanders.

Tavis: Let me cut in right quick. Where is this money – I’ve been dying to ask this question of the right person. Where is this money coming from and where is this weaponry coming from for Boko Haram? Where are they getting this?

Sowore: They started by robbing banks. The good old bank robbery, where they would go into banks (unintelligible) and just raid, and they still keep doing that.

In terms of their weaponry, they actually started by taking away weapons from Nigerian soldiers, each time they attack them. We have a video on our website which shows how they attack a unit of Nigerian army outside of a place called (unintelligible), and according to the soldiers we spoke to on the ground, they took 200 bombs, mortars, that are capable of firing 3,000 meters.

These are the kind of weapons that they get. But in addition to that, because they have money, you can imagine when they kidnapped the French tourists, they made $4 million. That’s a lot of money in the hands of a terrorist group as small as Boko Haram.

(Unintelligible) in Nigeria can make use of that money in doing a lot of, providing a lot of services. So when they get this money, of course they reinvest them back into, you know, strengthening their position and training their fighters.

They send their fighters off to places like Sudan for training; they go to Somalia for training. So it is unlike before, where you have a rogue state backing them. So what they’re trying to do is to create their own state and train their own soldiers and fighters, and see where it takes them.

Tavis: But what does it say about the nation of Nigeria, this country that’s just moved up on the list of one of the world’s economic superpowers – they’re ahead of South Africa now in terms of the size and the worth and value of their economy.

What does it say about the nation, about Nigeria and President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration that Boko Haram is siphoning off, stealing weaponry and cash from the country?

Sowore: You see, with due apology to Jay-Z, Nigeria has 99 problems.

Tavis: Yeah.

Sowore: And number one of it is leadership, and of course economic. All of the (unintelligible) economy, the GDP that you saw, you heard about, they’re all figures. They have not had any impact on the people of Nigeria, they have not had impact on providing security, education, and all kinds of services that the government needs to provide.

If you have read so much about, a little bit about Boko Haram, they started by mobilizing people who were economically disconnected, people who have been cheated out of the 500 billion economy you’re hearing about.

The multi-trillion dollar economy that made it to number one in Africa. Those are figures, those are statistics. They have no impact on the ground, and that is why you’ve seen for the first time the whole world not only focusing on these girls, they’re also focusing on the weaknesses of leadership.

They are focusing on the corruption that has taken $500 billion out of Nigeria in the last 50 years, stolen by Nigerian officials. We can’t stop talking about that, because that is now Nigeria’s chicken came home to roost with Boko Haram.

Don’t forget that Boko Haram is not the first of those militant groups that saw Nigeria brought to its knees. The Niger Delta militants did so a few years ago. They also shut down almost all of our export of petroleum resources by blowing up pipelines and attacking soldiers and kidnapping foreigners and oil workers.

So anybody, including a Boy Scout platoon, can become a major security threat to the kind of leadership you have in Nigeria today, because it’s a very, very weak leadership.

It’s a leadership that has not had any kind of responsibility to Nigerian people, in such a way that people don’t believe today that President Jonathan and his leadership is capable of protecting them, including even his soldiers who are fighting on the front lines.

Tavis: So I wanted start with Omoyele in part because I wanted to kind of lay some groundwork here for those who have been kind of covering this story particularly, Amber, because of the abduction of these girls.

They’ve been kind of following this story as it’s being covered, but didn’t and don’t up until now perhaps know as much about Boko Haram as they need to know. So I wanted to start with that conversation to kind of give us some intel about this terrorist group.

Now let me switch the conversation to this abduction of these 200-plus girls. There are many who believe that whatever Boko Haram had intended, they, pardon the phrase, overplayed their hand when they kidnapped these young girls, because the whole world now has taken notice of this.

What do you think of this move by them as a strategy that may backfire on whatever their intent is?

Khan: I think that that’s a really important point to remember, because I think the unanticipated consequence was the mobilization, and I think the way you just described the marginalization and the limited prosperity that Nigerians have been feeling, and the corruption, frankly, has manifested in this way in which the insecurity where the abductions and the kidnappings, which were going on, but they were not on this scale.

The magnitude of it, I believe, has really moved civil society organizations to mobilize, and it cuts across women and men. So you see men and women together joining into the streets and mobilizing beyond Nigeria.

For Women for Women International, our program where we’ve graduated over 50,000 women, when I talked to our life skill trainers and to our country directors, what we hear is just this. It’s insecure.

We have been championing the importance of educating girls and boys, and the inability to feel safe and secure is no longer acceptable. The galvanized kind of global voices have strengthened, I think, the resolve, and the protests continue.

We have civil society groups meeting together, issuing statements. They did that last week on the one-month anniversary, once again. So I do think there’s an unanticipated consequence.

I think the challenge, right, is going to be how we respond and maintaining that pressure so that these actions cannot take place without consequence.

Tavis: You said a few things I want to follow up on.

Khan: Sure.

Tavis: First, let me go right to this. What should those actions be, at least on the part of our government?

Khan: Well I think that maintaining support for the rescue efforts by providing assistance is essential, and I think that right now we have committed to technical information and surveillance. There are questions about additional resources that may be available, coordinated with other allies who are equally committed to supporting the rescue of the girls.

Tavis: My read of this is that every woman who’s in the United States Senate, all 20 of them, whatever the number is, 20-plus, every woman that I’ve seen quoted who sits on the United States Senate right now, and even some more – my word – hawkish people like John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has suggested that we ought to do more.

But I sense some tension between what members of the Senate, women and others, are calling for, I sense some tension with what they want or think we should do with what the Pentagon thinks we can do. Do you sense that tension as well?

Khan: Yeah, I think that there are lots of different undercurrents here in terms of strategies to take in addressing the, not only addressing the need to immediately rescue the girls and what kind of resources are available.

But there is also, I think what you’re picking up on is that this issue kind of lifts the veil on the important need of investing in education and in strategies that we can take today to prevent violence against girls so that these kinds of actions can’t occur without consequence.

Tavis: But militarily, do you think that anything in the very near future will happen on the part of the U.S. military?

Khan: That’s a question I can’t – I don’t know that there’s going to be the mobilization of support. I think that the public will is going to play a pretty big role in that, Tavis.

You saw that the mobilization and even the emergence of First Lady Obama, when Michelle held the placard with the name, the hashtag, that was powerful, and it was a signal. It provided, I think, a boost in the arm, but it didn’t happen immediately.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I’m glad you said that, because that is the truth. It took a while, we all know, for President Goodluck Jonathan to say anything about this. The day after this abduction, the story is he was at a party in Nigeria, hanging out.

So it took him weeks to say something about it, it took the Obamas, with all due respect, weeks to say something about this. People did not jump on this thing right away, which raises the question for me of why it took so long for them and for us, number one.

Number two, why, to your earlier point, when this has happened heretofore – it just happened with 48 boys some time ago.

Khan: Yeah.

Tavis: Now you say scale – I’m just trying to get a sense. Are we talking just scale, are we talking gender, why does it take so long? That’s a lot in there, but –

Khan: I think there’s a lot in there. I think that what you’re raising, and I think that the question that underlies what you’re asking is is there political will to engage.

That’s why the social engagement of everyday Americans, Canadians, Australians, Europeans going onto social media, using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been so powerful.

Because I think it has indicated that there is an attention to and an expectation for action. Now what does that action look like, to the political question. I don’t know what they’re, what types of resources are under play, and I’ve even talked to my colleagues in Nigeria, who’ve said, frankly, there may be things happening that they’re not revealing.

But we do know that there’s another side to this, and that’s what we’re all about, which is there is a reaction to an extreme hijacking of both faith and the oppression and corruption and poverty.

But there is an opportunity for us to not only address what’s happening in the Borno state, but also to look at the condition of girls and women, and what happens when we’re unable to invest in education and resources to support them.

Tavis: Which raises this question, and I’m not naïve, obviously, in the asking of the question.

Khan: Sure.

Tavis: Which is why we have you on the program. But what is it in Nigeria, or in Iran with the young lady Malala, around the globe, what is it about educating girls that we’re so scared of?

Khan: Well educating girls is the key to stable societies.

Tavis: I’m not saying we’re scared of it. You know what I’m talking about.

Khan: Well I –

Tavis: There are these insurgent groups –

Khan: Right –

Tavis: – want to do anything they can to stop girls from being educated.

Khan: I think the insurgent groups are able to draw power from illiteracy, from marginalization. You just said it, that part of what is the recruiting tool is marginalization, illiteracy, lack of education and economic opportunity.

When you educate a girl and you educate a woman and increase her ability to generate an income, influence decisions in her household, learn about her rights, and insist that they are enforced, you are transforming a community.

The truth about Boko Haram is they are completely outside the teachings of Islam, and it is completely outside the teachings of Islam, and Nigeria’s Muslim community have been rallying around this.

In the United States and Europe you’re hearing those voices emerge, because in Islam the mandate is to be educated. So I think that what are we afraid of or what are they afraid of?

Look, if you educate girls and women, you create more stable societies. If you are seeking to exploit, if you are seeking to destabilize, well, there’s something powerful there.

Tavis: I’m glad you raise this point about Islam. Going back to Omoyele here, because there are some networks, who shall remain nameless, TV networks, who are having a field day with this because it’s just more fodder for them to push their anti-Islamic agenda.

What do we say to the American public who see the way that Boko Haram is misbehaving, hears tonight and elsewhere that they want to establish their own nation-state, that they want to have that nation-state governed by Sharia law?

It does, it taints Islam in a way that ought to be untenable, and yet there are some people who are really pushing that agenda.

Tavis: Well let me tell you – Boko Haram is an Islamist militant group, it’s not an Islamic organization. In the same way you have the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and you don’t say because of that the whole of Christianity is tainted.

But it suits the agenda of, of course, a lot of these fringe, ultra-right-wing groups to just use that opportunity to go after a religion that there’s so much hate. Because right now, in this country and all over the world, the only religion that you can belong to that you need to explain who you are is Islam.

If you go into anywhere in the world you don’t have to explain if you’re a Christian. You don’t even have to explain if you don’t belong anywhere. That’s unfortunate. But we cannot continue to play along that route.

We have to call Boko Haram what it is. This is mostly a criminal organization that is using Islam, that is using the Qur’an to propagate whatever their agenda is. Just the same way there are criminal organizations of Christians.

Like I said, most of the Niger Delta militants were Christians, and nobody ever went after them or went after Christianity because of the Niger Delta militants. I’m not saying that the level of atrocities committed by Niger Delta militants were in any way equivalent to what Boko Haram, but there were times that the Niger Delta militants – and I’m from the Niger Delta – were kidnapping two-year-old kids to make money.

These are also criminal activities. So we can’t – it’s just the way it is. It’s a global trend right now that is controlled by global powers. We must continue to defeat that in argument.

This is not about Islam, it’s not about Christianity. We are talking about fringe elements who are using all of these religions to do whatever they’re thinking.

Tavis: Is it your sense, Omoyele, that the longer this goes on, the less the chances are that these girls will be returned? I think about the plane that went down somewhere, and the hope everybody was saying.

Everybody knew that if we didn’t find this thing sooner than later, that black box was going to stop beating and the risk increased every day that that plane would never be found, and we’re still trying to find this plane.

I wonder, again, whether or not you think that the longer this goes on, does the risk decrease or increase that these girls won’t come back?

Sowore: Let me approach this from the angle of the plane.

Tavis: Sure.

Sowore: In that if we have half of the resources spent on looking for the plane, we’d have found the girls weeks ago.

Tavis: Point well taken.

Sowore: Yes.

Khan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: (Laughs) Point well taken, yeah.

Sowore: So if we had the number of civilian planes, military planes, number of troops that were just looking around through binoculars or telescopes into the ocean, if we had them over this small forest called Sambisa Forest –

Tavis: The size of West Virginia, basically.

Khan: Right.

Sowore: – we would have found the girls by now. My worry is that nobody’s really looking for the girls.

Khan: Well, and that goes back to the point of the importance of civil society groups and organizations keeping the attention on the issue. The accountability, not just of everyday individuals but holding our elected leaders, who have the ability to ensure that resources are dedicated to the rescue efforts.

Sowore: Absolutely.

Khan: And to the coordination among nations. I think it’s the accountability and the public’s engagement is very important, and we feel that that is absolutely essential. I know the civil society groups in Nigeria, the women’s organizations, are organizing (unintelligible).

Tavis: (Overlapping) So here’s the exit question for both of you. We’ll start with you first, Amber. So while some might see this as hoping against hope, I do not. I’m not an optimist, but I’m a prisoner of hope.

So let’s assume that these girls, every one of them, ultimately ends up being returned. What happens next? Then what?

Khan: Well I think that if these girls are returned, I think that it creates an exciting opportunity for us to maintain attention and look at ways that we can strengthen and ensure that there is security for these girls to continue to be educated.

One of the consequences of what has happened and the ability to kidnap on this scale with impunity is that it creates a ripple effect of fear. Nigerians have made significant progress in their commitment to educating girls and educating women.

We don’t want to see that undermined. I think that – so the challenge then is how do we prevent. Investing in education, investing in providing women and girls with life skills so that they can contribute to the economy and contribute to their communities makes a difference.

Tavis: So the girls come back, Omoyele. What happens to Boko Haram then?

Sowore: Let me put it this way – if we find the girls pretty soon, and I hope we do, it will fit into the attention span of celebrity activism. This is not an anti-apartheid struggle.

Nigerians need to bring back their own country too, so that boys, girls, men, women can be safe in their country. If these girls come back today, the best they can get is more protection, maybe some of them will be flown out of the country.

They’ll be sent to schools to complete their education. But if Boko Haram remains in Nigeria, if the kind of clueless leadership we have in Nigeria remains in that country and we have (unintelligible) Boko Haram will come back and re-abduct.

They’ll even abduct more girls and boys, and kill more boys. They have killed boys in two dormitories in Yobe state. Those number of boys combined together is almost 100.

Nobody had talked about that. Boko Haram has not stopped after the kidnapping of the girls. As of yesterday, they killed 49 people. They bombed a beer joint in Kano.

So after this, as I always say, Nigeria needs to have their country back. If we don’t have a country in Nigeria, if the world does not support Nigerians to have a real country, the girls will have no country to come back to.

Tavis: Omoyele Sowore and Amber Khan, thank you both for coming on. Appreciate your insights.

Khan: Thank you.

Tavis: On a difficult story, but glad to have you on. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: May 21, 2014 at 11:18 pm