As the Chibok Girls Return …



Senator Shehu Sani, who obviously knows more than many of us about the negotiation leading to the return of the abducted Chibok girls, has urged caution in handling the matter. There is a lot of sense in the senator’s position because with the return of the 21 of the girls last week there are high prospects that 83 more of the girls may soon regain freedom from the Boko Haram captivity.

As we rejoice with the parents of the 21 lucky girls who are back home, our thoughts should continue to go to the other girls who are still held hostage in the Boko Haram war. The matter is even made more complex by the fact that like many things in Nigeria the discussion of the Chibok girls’ abduction is bedeviled with the problem of counting. It is only safe to say that counting the girls who had escaped earlier and the latest batch of 21 whose return was reportedly negotiated, more than 100 of the girls are yet to return.

It is 919 days today that the abduction took place. The occasion should be used to bring into focus once more the issues hitherto thrown up by the sad story of the Chibok girls. There is the primary question of the constitutional responsibility of the Nigerian state to ensure the security of all citizens including the schoolgirls. The manner in which the matter has been handled in the last 919 days speaks volumes about how much the Nigerian state is alert to this cardinal duty of the state anywhere. The attention of President Muhammadu Buhari as the Commander-in-Chief should be constantly drawn to this incontestable point.

Besides, the public response to this tragedy has brought out humanity in a dialectical contestation with inhumanity in this grossly selfish society. To demonstrate this point, it might be useful to recall what this reporter wrote in this column when it was 261 days that the girls had been abducted.

The reflection on December 31, 2014 was as follows:

“So the year ends today without the return of the Chibok girls to their parents! This distressing turn of events should worry the government and people of this country a great deal as the year is viewed in retrospect. Since that terrible night of April 14 this year, the phrase, Chibok Girls, has become the sore shorthand for the abduction of over 200 girls from the Federal Government College, Chibok in Borno State. After spending 261 of the 365 days of the year in captivity, at least 219 of the poor girls are yet to be rescued from their callous abductors. It is even more troubling that no one could give an account of the actual state of things with the girls.

“It is indeed an end-of- the-year sad commentary on the conduct of the war that the murderous group, Boko Haram, is waging against Nigeria. To imagine how sad the commentary has become, you only need to put yourself in the painful shoes of the parents and guardians of these helpless Nigerians who have tragically become the most publicised victims of the Boko Haram war. Some ‘commentators and public affairs/security analysts’ are wont to rationalise even the most absurd events. According to these rationalisers, ‘we should not be sentimental’ about the tragedy of the Chibok girls. If the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls does not provoke sentiments among a people, what else should justify sentiments? Which parent having his or her daughter held by some terrorists in an unknown place and condition would remain unsentimental in response?

“The outrage on the abduction and the handling of their rescue is a legitimate sentiment. It is an attribute of a society imbued with humanity. The story of the Chibok girls is a poignantly open sore on our collective humanity. So let no one add salt to the injury by cautioning against sentiments. Any one with a modicum of humanity in him or her should be sentimental about this national tragedy.

“Now, the Boko Haram insurgents have exploded bombs killing thousands of people and maiming several others. The insurgents have abducted hundreds of people including the Chibok schoolgirls. The violent activities of the group have led to the destruction of property worth billions of Naira. Indeed, the economy of the northeast especially has been put in a state of suspended animation by the devastation wrought by this group. Millions of Nigerians are also internally displaced. About 30 births have been recorded among the displaced persons in recent weeks.

“By the way, another unsettling aspect of the story is that valid statistics about this national disaster are hardly available. However, none of these heinous crimes of Boko Haram (reported or otherwise) has attracted more global attention than the holding of the Chibok girls in captivity. Terrorists employ what in the theory of anarchism is called ‘propaganda by the deed.’ Future historians of the Boko Haram war may one day record that no deed of the insurgents provided greater propaganda than the abduction of the Chibok girls. The solidarity of the whole nation should go to all those who are bereaved as result of the mass murders committed by Boko Haram as well as those maimed and abducted. As the year ends on this sad note, the solidarity of the whole nation should also go to the Chibok girls and their parents.

“A nation could go to war because of one girl. That is how patriotism is engendered. A girl who knows that her nation would go any length to save her life would most likely grow up to become an ardent patriot. The brave Malala Yousafzai is a soul. She survived an assassination attempt by terrorists in her home country, Pakistan. Her ordeal attracted global attention with the concomitant solidarity. Malala is today a Nobel Laureate for her activism in promoting the female education. The other day, she visited Abuja and was received by President Goodluck Jonathan in Aso Rock. In Nigeria, 219 schoolgirls have not been properly accounted for and some cynics dare suggest that the nation ‘should move on’ on the matter. Well, the nation may choose to move on, but the pain in the heart of the parents of these girls will not move an inch especially given the manner in which matter has been handled.

“The defence authorities have become unduly sensitive to the criticisms of their prosecution of the Boko Haram war. Yet they should be told that the handling of the abduction of the Chibok girls has been less than satisfactory. Within a month of the abduction, defence spokesmen announced that most of the girls had been rescued. This cheery statement was withdrawn shortly after it was made, in a way that was bereft of accountability to the public. Some months ago, the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh, told reporters to ‘leave us alone’ as the military authorities knew the ‘location’ of the girls.

“Without prejudice to the secrecy of military operational procedures, there is hardly any official update to the public on the matter of the Chibok girls. The last time there was a categorical statement in respect of the Chibok girls was when the public was fed with the tales of a ceasefire with Boko Haram that never was in the first place. The release of the girls was alleged to be one of the terms of the ceasefire. The military authorities owe the public more explanations on this matter. This demand should not be misconstrued as asking them to discuss their operational strategies on the pages of newspapers. All that is required is to humanise defence briefings as it is done in other civilised societies.

“The other sore point is the inexplicable hostility by government officials to those who have elected to uphold our collective humanity by sustaining a campaign for the recue of the Chibok girls. The counting of the days of the girls in captivity is even offensive to some government officials and politicians. It is disheartening watching on television ministers visibly irritated at the protest march by the #BringBackOurGirls (BBOG) group. Instead of joining hands with their compatriots in the group in solidarity, they respond with verbal assaults.

“You wonder in what way the BBOG campaign is inimical to government’s interest! It is charitable to assume that the government is concerned about the condition of the abducted girls and working hard on their rescue. In that wise, the noble activities of those making personal sacrifices to keep the matter in public view should be seen as complementary to the official steps. What then is the basis of the official antagonism to the efforts to keep the matter in public view? The campaigners are simply saying that this nation should not ‘move on’ with the fate of the Chibok girls unknown. No humane nation can so easily ‘move on’ on such matters.

“For clarity, it is also important to stress that the issue of the Chibok girls is beyond partisanship. It is indubitably a Nigerian problem. It is not just the headache of the government or a political party. It should, therefore, offend the sensibility of all decent people when the tragedy is politicised or trivialised. In fact, the wish of all persons of goodwill should be that the girls are rescued before the election so that no one would say the election is a referendum on the Chibok Girls or indeed the tackling of the insurgency.

“Meanwhile, the military authorities should be supported by the affected local and state governments in ensuring the return of the Chibok girls and indeed in defeating terrorism in the land. Yes, there are shared responsibilities in this matter. But the ultimate responsibility is that of the Commander-in-Chief when hundreds of girls are abducted in a place where a state of emergency is imposed. The whole nation should, therefore, be unambiguously behind the Commander-in-Chief in this war in which the Chibok girls appear to be helpless hostages. Both the government and opposition should acknowledge this inescapable fact in their rhetoric in the coming weeks of campaigns for the 2015 elections.”

As they say, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since the foregoing lamentation appeared on this page on December 31, 2014. But some things remain the same. The BBOG has continued valiantly to keep the plight of the girls in public focus. Ironically, the official hostility experienced by BBOG from the Jonathan administration has continued in this dispensation. It is a measure of the humanity residing in this country that some persons still deny the abduction of the girls all in the name of politics. When the sad story was still fresh more than two years ago government officials, politicians and their media epigones callously asked: ‘are you sure any girl is missing’?

Even a state governor said in a most irresponsible and inhuman manner recently that the abduction of the Chibok girls was all a political game. It is a great pity that because of the impunity that reigns supreme in this country, none of these callous public officials would be held accountable for public deception and hate speech now that girls are returning home.

For now, let us hope that the other girls still captivity would soon return to the warm embrace of their parents.