Looking back on the activities marking the second year since 276 girls were abducted from their secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria, a few things come to mind about the types of events that can occur within two years: a person could earn a Masters’ degree (one in the US and/or — for the extremely ambitious — two Masters’ degrees in the UK, back-to-back), a woman could not only conceive, carry, and deliver a baby, but she could also celebrate the baby’s first year of life with family and friends; in Nigeria, a university student would be halfway through their journey towards a degree, and if the student receives that degree and lives in Nigeria, he or she could complete the mandatory year-long National Youth Service Corporation (NYSC) assignment and emerge with hopes of embarking upon a career path or setting up a business.
Funnily, it’s the same kind of hope that has kept me advocating as a member of the #BringBackOurGirls movement for the Chibok girls’ safe rescue and return. For two years, many supporters of the Chibok girls have nurtured the hope that the girls might one day be able to choose to carry out any of the activities mentioned above — or not too. Indeed, our basic hope is that they and other captives of Boko Haram will soon be reunited with their families.
Two years ago in February, we saw this kind of hope snuffed out when Boko Haram lined up and slaughtered 29 boys in their secondary school in Buni Yadi, Nigeria. I have to admit that although, Boko Haram had been terrorizing the Northeast region for some years prior to this, my consciousness to the gravity of their pernicious activities was awakened when I learned that the school boys were dead. I suppose my interest in these boys was somewhat selfish — they were killed in a Federal Government College, the same type of school that my mother insisted moving the family from the US to Nigeria for my sister and I to attend. At 11 years old, I could not understand it at first, but the accolades I received for scoring top marks in the entrance exams told me even then that I was about to enter one of the best school systems in Nigeria, if not Africa.
The values and the purpose of the school system was evident within my first few weeks of being there. I had transferred from a secondary school owned by the university where my mother lectured to the Federal Government Girls’ College, Abuloma, and instantly met girls from around the country who would become my friends till this very day, despite my returning to the US in my final two years to go to high school so that I would be eligible for university scholarships and financial aid.
In February 2014, I truly believed that the Nigerian government would acknowledge the tragic irony of a vicious separatist group descending on and slaughtering young boys whose only crime was to attend a school that symbolized national unity. I thought expressing outrage would be relatively easy for the government to do especially since the massacres coincided with the government’s preparations to celebrate a century of having northern and southern Nigeria unified by the British. The “Centenary” was one of those types of events that attracted dignitaries from across the continent and around the globe. Surely, before embarking upon the celebrations that defied the doomsday prophecies of Nigeria splitting by 2015, the government would kick off the event with a moment of silence for these unintentional young heroes.
But there was not even a whisper about their deaths. Perhaps next to their parents, I think many alumni and educators felt the blow the most; many I know were incensed. But Nigerians have a curious ability to remain incensed while doing absolutely nothing — a phenomenon that outsiders have referred to as “resilience”.
Resilience is quite contagious because for several weeks, I also did nothing but take part in a handful of discussions about the incident. Then one day, on my way to the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja, I saw people dressed in black gathered at the Unity Fountain. They were clearly immune to the “resilience” disease because they found the strength to march from the fountain in the hot Abuja sun, carrying placards, complaints and a little bit of water — all the way to the Ministry of Justice. A jolt of energy burst through me and I jumped out of the car and ran across the street to the crowd dressed in black, affirming them in my heart as “my people”.
The group was eventually given a bureaucratic reception in front of the Ministry and the matter died — perhaps more quickly and peacefully than the Buni Yadi boys did. I felt that there was something else we could have done, but there wasn’t because the boys were dead. (I had assumed that the government would reach out to the parents and school officials but learned the following year that this never happened. In fact, they had not been contacted — save a letter from the government — until the #BringBackOurGirls group called them during activities marking the first year of the boys’ deaths.).
So, when I was outside of Nigeria in April and heard that 276 girls had been kidnapped — there was no doubt where I would be when I returned. At least with the Chibok case, the girls were still alive. With the Chibok case, there was hope.
Despite the sense of hope, I approached the Unity Fountain — this time littered with people dressed in red, sitting either on white chairs or colourful mats, passing round a megaphone — with a mixture of excitement, apprehension, and caution. First, I was excited because I might have found a new set of people who believed in speaking out for marginalised groups. Next, I was apprehensive because there were already whispers of words like “scam”, “set-up”, and “secret meetings” circulating that implicated everyone including the Federal and State governments, the Chibok school administrators, and even the parents themselves. Finally, I was cautious because the #BBOG was already being looked upon as an “enemy of the state” because it was comprised of people who dared to ask questions of a government that was not used to being questioned.
Three days later, I found that I was right to be cautious. The group realized that the fears for our safety weren’t unfounded when thugs arrived at Unity Fountain and — with several armed policemen standing a few yards away — physically attacked members of the group, breaking chairs and destroying the equipment of journalists who were covering the daily sit-outs. Shortly afterwards, we learned that both men and women had been paid to harass and physically attack us. This should have been a big enough deterrent but it wasn’t. Instead, I was moved by the fact that the fight for the Chibok Girls challenged several dominant stereotypes and trends which I will attempt to describe below:
1. Boko Haram members are brave. Wrong — they are bullies. This may seem fairly obvious but it became extremely obvious to me when I visited Chibok late last year. When I surveyed the minimal infrastructure and development that the Chibokians had and seemed content with, it was even more painful to witness the extent of the damage Boko Haram had inflicted on the community. Like an itinerant neighbourhood bully, Boko Haram truly picked on its most vulnerable in the nation — both in terms of geographical reach and in terms of gender.
Photo 2: The shell of a church bombed by Boko Haram in Chibok in December, 2015
2. The girls don’t listen to the news. The Cameroonian bomber who claimed Chibok status must have done so for a reason — she must have heard about the Chibok girls perhaps before she was kidnapped or while in captivity. But either suggests that the girls might have an idea that groups like #BringBackOurGirls and the Chibok community are advocating for their safe return, which might be a source of strength.
3. Men don’t cry. For the first time, I saw a number of men crying openly. This totally went against the “Universal Principles of Masculinity” that I’d seen upheld for most of my time on earth. I saw young men crying and old men crying; Muslim men crying and Christian men crying. There were Northern men crying, and Southern men crying. Tall, slim, fat, dark, yellow, you name it — they cried.
4. Nigerian fathers prefer their sons and do not value their daughters. In the rare moments that men do cry openly, it’s usually at funeral or football match (These two are nearly interchangeable if you have a heavy attachment to a team that has just lost a match). Not even the current fuel queues in the country can elicit a tear from the ever-macho Nigerian male. But here, not only were men crying, but they were crying over girls. Some men were related to the girls, particularly those from the Chibok community, but the majority had never set eyes on these girls. Many men vocalized their fears of what might happen to the girls in the hands of Boko Haram, whereas most female participants avoided vocalizing their fears, as if speaking the words would immediately make them come true. With the rescue of hundreds of women and girls having escaped Boko Haram, we now know that many of them have survived our worst nightmares.
5. Speaking about gender issues and the girl-child is passé. As a young development specialist in Washington, DC, I recall being enamored by the gender activists that participated in women’s conferences such as “Beijing”, and often wondered what was happening to gender issues. Part of my own doctoral studies answered that by demonstrating that the most sustainable movements and discussions around gender were the truly organic ones. With the onslaught against girls’ education in many parts of the world, now is as critical a time as ever to engage in the importance of girls’ education and set up structures that ensure girls’ safe learning environments. Thanks to women like Malala, Michele Obama, and the movement’s own Oby Ezekwesili, Aisha Yesufu, and Hadiza Bala Usman, there’s been an opening-up of discussions around the future of the girl-child, and the peculiar challenges girls face as they endeavour to be educated. The recent accounts of how women and girls have become terrorists themselves should only ever feature in fiction. But for the past year, this issue has been a major concern for the movement — especially as talks begin to center around de-radicalization of conscripted or involuntary Boko Haram members.
6. “Southern Nigerians” value education more than “Northern Nigerians” do. First of all these binaries desperately need to be frayed. The monolithic and homogeneous notions of a Muslim North and a Christian South persist but are dangerous if Nigeria is to be united. Afterall, Boko Haram has demonstrated that they are an equal-opportunity predator, and that they do not care about the backgrounds of their victims — why should we?
7. Nigerians are selfish people out to swindle the world. No, not all. First, the Boko Haram crises has reminded people that recognition of our shared humanity is critical to repairing the nation. The Unity Fountain for several months was a journalist’s or researcher’s dream site for obtaining leads to stories about Boko Haram. While many problems were told there, many solutions emanated from there, as well. Groups such as Adopt-a-Camp, LikeMinds, The Purple Hearts Foundation, and the Noonday Foundation were all founded by individual members of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and work to support victims of the insurgency.
Photo 4: US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Powers at a #BringBackOurGirls sit-out (April, 2016)
It has often been said that the best way to defeat Boko Haram is to do the exact opposite of what they forcefully try to get people to do — which is primarily to separate through fear, ignorance, and distrust, and to stop seeking knowledge. Several conversations and forums have begun to take place around assisting internally displaced persons, and providing counselling and psycho-social support (terms that had never been part of the national lexicon) to victims of the insurgency. It is clear that rebuilding the Northeast is going to be a herculean effort and that doing so effectively will require a departure from religious, partisan, ethnic, etc., politics that threaten to erode these efforts.
8. Lingering questions can be ignored. They can’t, which is why when President Buhari announced that he had no credible information, his statement generated more questions than answers. With the BringBackOurGirls’ two-year commemoration activities behind us, it is clear that there are still a lot questions to be answered. For example, what does “credible information” actually mean? What is being done to obtain credible information? If the answer to the latter is not for public consumption then how close is the government to finding credible information? Could any of the former Boko Haram kingpins that the government has captured be pointers to the credible information President Buhari seeks? What about first-hand eye-witness accounts from former Boko Haram captives like Monica, who said last February that she had seen some of the Chibok girls while in captivity? Can accounts like these coupled with security technology lead to the gathering of critical data for locating and rescuing our girls? While it is evident that the Nigerian government has stabilized security in the Northeast — to paraphrase from reports of President Buhari’s inauguration speech — victory over Boko Haram is incomplete if the Chibok girls are still with their captors.
So while most of the stereotypes and trends listed might seem to paint a faint silver lining behind one of the darkest, gloomiest clouds that has ever hung above Nigeria in recent history, the fact remains that the world cannot truly move on until the girls are back alive. Indeed, CNN’s release of the now viral “proof-of-life” video, showing fifteen abducted Chibok girls whose identities were confirmed by several parents and classmates, should be enough — along with the hopefully already-gathered intel gathered by the Nigerian government, with the support of the US as reiterated during the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers’ recent visit to Nigeria — to keep us from moving on and point the government towards the credible information it requires. If nothing else, for now, the video offers hope to all of us who are waiting, praying and advocating for the Nigerian government to #BringBackOurGirls.