The tragedy of indifference
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes, we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political view, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”– Elie Wiesel
WHEN he was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986, Elie Wiesel, a Jewish holocaust survivor of Hungarian descent, drew from the store of historic wisdom to pass a very important message to humankind. The quotation that begins this piece is an excerpt from Wiesel’s speech. Here was a man who had experienced first-hand the unspeakable horrors of Hitler’s perverted but nearly accomplished mission of annihilating the entire Jewish race from the face of the earth. In the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau, Wiesel saw with his very own eyes how truckloads of small children were brought, deposited in crematoriums and burned alive. “I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world will never tolerate such crimes,” was Wiesel’s initial conviction, until be became painfully aware from his father that “The world is not interested in us.”
Anyone who has read Wiesel’s Night first published in 1958 will be amazed by how much evil can happen in one single night. The systematic liquidation of human lives using different types of devilish methods became unbearable such that, one day at the public execution of three offenders (one of them a young boy), a man tired of witnessing the regime of death, exclaimed: “For God’s sake, where is God?” As Weisel later wrote, “To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter.” I believe that with these remarks, we can better appreciate the situation of the Chibok girls. Although no one has told us that they are dead (and we do not wish to contemplate that), it is already a month shy of 365 days since they were forcefully abducted from their school in Chibok. I do not hope that a day will come when the Nigerian government will say it could not find the girls. But we must really feel saddened that we live in a country where public accountability has reached its lowest ebb.
Nigerians are a people who do not demand accountability from their elected leaders, and this apathy has contributed to diminishing us as a people. Too often, we the Nigerian people encourage the criminality of our rulers by bowing to their whims and caprices. We invite their disdain by denying ourselves any claim to self-respect. We court their oppression by readily offering them our backs to ride upon. We cow when we should kick; we temporize when we need to toughen up. We smile when we should smite. In the end, we encourage them to convert the immunity enshrined in the constitution into impunity. Those who should stand up and speak have become bystanders to the collective oppression of the people.
Why have Nigerians failed to make the Chibok issue a rallying concern for national outrage like we did with the fuel subsidy removal protest in January 2012? This was the sole question that flashed through my mind during my first visit to the BringBackOurGirls sit-out at the Unity Fountain Square on Sunday evening, March 8, 2015. As I sat down to listen to the press release to mark the International Women’s Day and the 23rd day of the Nigerian government’s multinational rescue effort to end the insurgency in the North East, the question kept coming over and over again.
Looking back, I ask myself: Where are the Nigerians who rose up in defence of the masses during the fuel subsidy removal protest? Where are the human rights defenders and civil society activists who stood up against various military regimes in Nigeria in the past? Where are the religious leaders who have always preached about the sanctity of human life? Where are the religious leaders who have been voices of reason and prophetic outrage against the ills of society? Where are the millions of Nigerian parents whose children could ordinarily have been direct victims of the Chibok tragedy if they were inhabitants of Chibok? Where are our leaders who swore to defend the territorial integrity of Nigeria and the lives and property of its citizens?
If there was any massive national concern for the Chibok girls immediately after abduction, that concern has since frittered away under the altar of political, ethnic and religious polarisations. Indifference, apathy and cynicism have become the order of the day. Sadly, many Nigerians seem to have moved on with their lives. Chibok doesn’t concern them. But I believe that when we think about the thousands of innocent Nigerians who have been brutally killed as a result of this senseless insurgency, we must appreciate the fact that we cannot remain bystanders in this war to reclaim our national sanity, if only we know the worth of one single drop of blood. Our indifference and apathy are our greatest undoing as Nigerians in the Chibok saga.
One man who has amply demonstrated the attendant price of indifference is the famous German Protestant Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892– 1984), who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. In his provocative poem, “First they came…” he spoke about the cowardice of German intellectuals and leaders of the Protestant churches who chose to remain silent in the face of Hitler’s mad purgation of the Jewish race. In the end, they too were consumed in the inferno.
As a writer, I believe that I have a moral obligation to protest against the Boko Haram insurgency, but also against the dehumanization of life and the unaccountability of our leaders. As a protest writer, I have a duty to speak out, to take sides with the powerless, and to bear witness for the dead and for the living, for the sake of the youth of today and for the children who will be born tomorrow. I do this because I do not want our past to become their future.
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja.
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