ABUJA: Major-General Chris Olukolade stood outside the Nigerian Defence Headquarters in Abuja 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 our girls.”
Armed police in black and army personnel, ramrod straight in combat fatigues, bullet-proof vests and helmets, blocked the crossroads ahead, staring back blankly at the demonstrators.
An army officer took photographs of the crowd.
Olukolade, Nigeria’s defence spokesperson, 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 daughters.
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 into this matter for us, intervene into this matter for us,” he said, his voice cracking.
“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.
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 Nigeria.
“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.”