Nine hundred and counting
September 30, 2016 was the eve of Nigeria’s 56th independence anniversary. The anniversary arrived at a time of extreme difficulty for the Nigerian people, a time when many public servants went home without money in their pockets, when the generality of the people felt the severe bite of the economic recession in their stomachs and their wallets. Despite these irritations it is a landmark event worth marking for despite all the trials and tribulations including a civil war and many mini civil wars, Nigeria is still standing. An Onitsha trader was asked by his friend: “How are things?” He said: “The ground is not even but I am standing on it.” Nigeria can say the same thing today about its journey to nationhood.
We have had our wilderness years and this moment is the winter of our discontent. Nigeria is Fubb (fouled up beyond belief) and we now seem ready to sell the family silver. To balance this, we also have enough rosie scenario economists to give us hope for a future festooned with feathers. But my unsolicited advice is that we must avoid extremities of boomsday and doomsday scenarios and stay somewhere in the middle recognising that there is no royal road to development.
But this article is not about the dialectics of development. It is about the monkey wrench that was thrown into our lives on April 14, 2014. On that day, 219 female students of Chibok Government Secondary School aged 16-18 years were stolen before our very eyes by a group of terrorists called Boko Haram. Since then only one girl, Amina Ali, has wiggled her way out of the dungeon to safety. The rest, all 218 of them, are not yet accounted for as we know not whether they are dead or alive and if alive where their abode could possibly be.
September 30, 2016 was the 900th day since the girls were kidnapped and ferried to no man’s land. The 900th anniversary of their kidnap has certainly been swallowed up by the marking of our independence but its importance (the kidnap) is not diminished by our temporary absentmindedness. It is 900 days of delusion which have turned into a diary of disaster because 900 is not just a number, at least not to the parents of those girls. If a parent says my daughter will earn a degree in 900 days it is good news. If a parent says my daughter will get married in 900 days that, too, calls for celebration. But when a parent says “my daughter has been missing for 900 days,” that is bad news, very bad news because when someone is missing there is no certainty about the person’s safe return. And when that person is abducted by terrorists there is little certainty about anything because terrorists operate under the influence of jejune logic and a cynical code of conduct.
To the parents of those girls these 900 days seem like 900 years because they do not know whether or not they are simply waiting for Godot. In situations of misery, time takes its own sweet time to pass; it doesn’t glide past; it simply crawls like a snail thus lengthening in your mind the minutes of your misery.
When Amina Ali was rescued in May this year she informed us that six of the girls had already died. She must have been able to give the security authorities more information about the other girls. But, of course, her information may, by now, be outdated since the terrorists may have shuffled the cards. In his inaugural address to the nation on May 29, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari had said that his government could not claim “to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held by Boko Haram.” He added reassuringly: “The government will do all it can to rescue them alive.” On June 12, 2015 he, his wife, Aisha, and the Vice President’s wife, Dolapo Osinbajo, met with some mothers of the girls assuring that the government will pull all the stops to get the girls back.
The government set up a special task force on the matter, held meetings with the Presidents of neighbouring countries and also attended a security summit in France. At the international level Israel, United States and UK offered to give assistance in locating the girls and in providing intelligence generally. There were also protests in various countries including United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Portugal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Togo. These protests put the matter on the global agenda but 900 days down the road not much has been achieved and the parents as well as the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) campaigners in Nigeria are worried about the apparent loss of interest in the matter.
The BBOG group has been having a raw deal from the Nigeria Police who still live with the archaic, autocratic idea that demonstrations are not allowed without permits. I thought that it is a settled matter that in a democracy you can have peaceful demonstrations and that you only need to “inform” the police, so that they can protect the protesters. Even in America where people can buy guns easily like ice cream, demonstrations are allowed with the police monitoring the proceedings. The BBOG group led by that indefatigable lady, Oby Ezekwesili, has done a great job for the Chibok girls’ cause and the cause of democracy by its unwavering war against those who would be pleased to drive nail after nail into the coffin of our hard-won half-democracy.
However, the greater worry comes from Buhari’s recent statement that Boko Haram has been “defeated”. When the slogan was that “Boko Haram has been degraded” it was a somewhat comfortable and closer-to-reality summary of the situation although, in truth, this gave only cold comfort. To say that Boko Haram has been defeated is to engage in raw revisionism when the 218 Chibok girls and many other Nigerians are still in the custody of Boko Haram. It seems a roundabout way of reversing the terms of the Chibok girls’ mandate.
One must admit however that dealing with the terrorists could be very frustrating. Buhari has said there have been three attempts at working out an agreement and all three attempts have failed because of certain factors. One of them is the inability to decide who, among possible negotiators, truly, have access to the terrorists and who are simply trying to make money out of our misery. Two, the terrorists see the Chibok girls as their trump card and are ready to use them as pawns on their chessboard. Being a group that has been globally recognised, the Chibok girls constitute their publicity oxygen and the most important category of captives that they have in their possession. Even though the Nigerian military has rescued thousands of men, women and children they have not earned the level of credit that they would if they brought home the Chibok girls. It is unfortunate because it tends to give the false impression that we do not care as much for the other Nigerians as we do for the Chibok girls. The truth, however, is that the Chibok girls have become the wall paper and the metaphor for abduction.
Additionally, we must prove to ourselves as a nation that we are a country ready to stand guard over the rights of the girl-child to societal protection and her right to receive western education which the Boko Haram insurgents are opposed to. Boko Haram insurgents believe that western education takes people away from the Islamic way of life and that women should only be wives, not career persons. This pernicious doctrine is a deep descent into the depths of primitivity in the 21st century and runs counter to the Federal Governments’ exertions in the area of making western education at all levels accessible to Nigerians of all creeds and all forms of belief or unbelief.
The Chibok girls’ issue must be put back on the front burner by the Buhari government. In August this year, we saw a Boko Haram video with about 50 of the Chibok girls and a masked man. Some of the girls appeared on the video with babies, perhaps their babies. The masked man said that some of the girls had been killed by airstrikes of the Nigerian airforce and that 40 of them had been married off. These statements are not verifiable so no one knows the veracity or otherwise of them. But it does appear that some of the girls are still alive. We can do nothing about the ones who are dead but we can do something for those who are still breathing. On this matter, Buhari has his feet to the fire. He does not need to tell us whether he knows where the girls are or not but we need to be briefed on the efforts that his government is making on it. The stopping of people’s demonstrations by the Police sends a wrong and disturbing message, namely, that the Chibok girls’ cause is an unnecessary inconvenience to the Buhari government. Abduction has, since Chibok, become a rising tide and no state has immunity from it. As the saying goes a rising tide can lift all the boats.
We do not want this rising tide to lift all the boats. We want the tide to be tamed by proactive exertions on the Chibok girls’ matter. That will send a positive message. The government must find out where the girls are, whether in Chad, Cameroun, Sambisa Forest or somewhere else. It must seek to get the support of those who have the technology for locating where the girls are – whether in buildings, bushes or bunkers – and continue to search for an agreement with the terrorists. If they want their fighters captured by Nigeria’s armed forces exchanged for the Chibok girls, the government should be willing to do so once certainty of persons and sincerity of motives are established. It is better to have the detained terrorists out of our custody than to continue to have our young girls in their own custody.