About 22 years ago, the deeply human story of a five-year old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez, caught the attention of the whole world. He was the subject of an intense diplomatic row between the governments of Cuba and the United States.
Gonzalez lost his mother, Elizabeth Rodriquez, in late 1999. While attempting to leave Cuba in a boat, the woman drowned. Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, remained in Cuba while the accident happened.
The poor boy survived the accident and he was found by fishermen in an inner tube floating on the sea. The fishermen kindly handed Gonzalez to the States Coastal Guards to be taken ashore for proper care. After the boy was discharged from the hospital, the U.S. immigration granted him a temporary deferral and handed him over to his great uncle, Lazaro Gonzalez in Miami, Florida.
Meanwhile, the Cuban president at the time, Fidel Castro, stepped in and quickly had a meeting on the developments with Elian’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. The Cuban government subsequently sent a diplomatic note to the American State Department, demanding an immediate return of the boy to Cuba. The relatives of the boy and, indeed, the community of Cuban exiles in Miami resisted the moves to return the boy to Cuba. A battle for the boy’s custody ensued from the dispute. At the end of the day, the government of President Bill Clinton complied with the legal position that the father should have the custody of his son.
Only late last year, the United States special forces staged an operation in this country to rescue an American citizen, 27-year old Philip Watson , who was kidnapped from his farm by some gunmen in southern Niger. America reportedly embarked on the overnight mission conscious of the fact that insurgents with links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of West Africa were active in northern Nigeria and southern Niger. None of the American military men was injured during the operation.
On the highly successful mission, an official of the U.S. Department of State proudly said: “This American citizen (Watson) is now in the care of the U.S. Department… The United States will continue to protect our people and our interests anywhere in the world.”
The foregoing is to demonstrate the primacy of the responsibility of security on the part of the state with the telling stories of two citizens of two markedly different countries. The life and security of one person in foreign land warranted the supreme attention of the government of his respective country. Little wonder that a citizen of such a country would not hesitate to die for his or her fatherland. A country that could send seals across oceans to save your life is certainly a country that is worth defending at all times.
Now, compare the stories of Elian Gonzalez and Phillip Watson with those of hundreds of Nigerians who have been kidnapped by bandits, terrorists and other criminals in different parts of the country. The Nigerian victims of abductions seem to be as helpless in the situation as the Nigerian state itself. This is another aspect of the tragedy of the climate of insecurity enveloping the country.
The Cuban government stoutly came in defence of one citizen of the small country, Elian, whose father fought bravely for his custody in a powerful country. If you like, it was also by implication a defence of Cuba’s national pride. Elian was a five- year old child in 1999. In 2021 Nigeria, more than 100 children kidnapped over 40 days ago in an Islamic school in Tegina, Rafi Local Government Area of Niger State, are still held by their captors. The ages of the children range between three and 11. Yet you can’t see any sense of emergency on the part of the government and the people about this humanitarian disaster. It is all taken as a normal statistical news of abductions. It appears no news of insecurity shocks Nigerians anymore.
By the way, no officer in the police or the State Security Services is known to be answering questions on how scores of children could be taken away on motor cycles just like that… And this reportedly happened in day light! Whatever happened to policing and intelligence gathering in Niger state on that tragic day?
The other day one of the teachers in the school broke down during an interview on ARISE TV. Vividly in anguish, the teacher spoke of the helplessness of the parents. In tears he asked repeatedly if the children were not Nigerians from Niger state anymore as there was no humane response from government at any level. His tears on the Morning Show of ARISE TV that day must have also provoked more tears from some of the viewers of the programme.
In a different context of insecurity, the might of the American state was brought to bear to save the life of Phillip Watson.
Compare also the legitimately triumphant statement (quoted above) of the then American assistant to the secretary of defence, Jonathan Hoffman, after the rescue of Watson with the one made recently by the Nigerian Defence Minister General Bashir Magashi. The minister said the victims of banditry should “defend themselves.” Imagine a retired general asking defenceless citizens to confront bandits wielding AK-47 and other weapons! Meanwhile, the same general is the one in charge of the defence ministry for which billions of naira have been budgeted for security.
The import of these comparisons is that beyond the display of grim figures of killings and abductions, there should be a greater focus on the human angle of the tragedy.
The blood and anguish of victims of violent crimes should not be reduced to mere statistics. The agonies of widows and parents of schoolchildren in captivity cannot be expressed only in numbers. The Nigerian state should demonstrate clearly to the public that it places a premium on the humanity of the victims, in the first place.
Another dimension of the tragedy is that the statistics are not even accurately presented to the public with a sense of sobriety, respect and accountability. For instance, two days ago, the Nigerian media was awash with report that an average of 13 persons were abducted daily in Nigeria in the first six months of this year. According to the SBM Intelligence report, 2, 371 persons were kidnapped between January and June and about N10billion was paid as ransom. To gauge the volume of the transactions, just remember that the least favoured state in Nigeria might not receive N10 billion in three months from the Federation Account even when the economy was in a better shape.
Such is the nature of the sanguinary economics of kidnapping. Other bodies have also come with different tallies of abductions. The headlines in the media give different figures of abductions as the crimes are reported. So, accountability demands that every life must count not just as a figure, but also as a real human being. The police should be briefing the public regularly with accurate figures of those killed, injured or abducted as they give progress report on security. When those in captivity regain their freedom by whatever means the police should tell the public how many people have been so lucky. It doesn’t show adequate respect for human life in Nigeria that what is now considered by the media as the authentic compilation of the numbers of the victims is even being done by foreign organisations.
The point at issue is that the handling of the crisis should be better humanised by the Nigerian state. The victims should not be treated just as numbers. A name and a face should be put to each number.
The memories of soldiers, policemen and other security agents killed in the course of duty should be treated with honour and the due compensation be paid to their survivors promptly and with dignity. In his book entitled Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War, former American Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, reported that a hand-written letter from him went to the next of kin of every American soldier killed in the Iraq war. This is beside the honour done the memory of the soldier in a decent funeral, and of course, the payment of entitlements to the survivors. A governor should ensure that relations of those abducted in his state are regularly comforted and briefed about the efforts being made to secure the freedom of the victims. There is no sufficient empathy on display by officialdom.
Officials handling the crisis from the political and security angles should be imbued with adequate emotional intelligence. What the relations of victims need are soothing words and genuine assurance of official efforts to solve the problem and not provocative declarations and rhetorical violence of politicians.
The humanitarian cost of the crisis should be more rigorously addressed. To be fair to the defence ministry, the information on soldiers killed or injured is relatively more regular. And the authorities have dismissed allegations about the delay in payment of the entitlements of fallen soldiers. Yes, that is very important. But the nation owes those injured and maimed a greater care and succour than what is being given at present going by the reports about their condition. The same thing should be said of policemen and agents of other security agencies. The welfare of this category of victims should be of a qualitative concern to the government and the public at large.
Apart from the inaccurate figures of the displaced, the material condition of those in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps is a reflection of our collective humanity in Nigeria. In many parts of the country, north and south, east and west, persons have been displaced from homes by violent activities of criminals of different hues.
In most cases there are no properly organised camps for the victims of displacement. The humanitarian cost of the reported violence and destruction in the southeast in recent times and the killings in Ibarapa area of Oyo State is no more in the news. What has happened to those socially dislocated by the crisis?
Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom said recently over a million persons have been displaced in that state as a consequence of violent activities of criminals.
Before the epicentre of banditry shifted to the northwest, the northeast had the largest number of displaced persons which some estimates put at about three million. This number probably excludes Nigerian refugees in neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and the Cameroun. Only a few days ago, Governor Babagana Zulum of Borno State was in Aso Rock to seek the support of President Muhammadu Buhari in the resettlement of these externally displaced Nigerians.
Obviously, the federal government would be responsible for the security and diplomatic aspects of the resettlement of these displaced persons. But the state government has to provide suitable answers to the welfare and other material and moral questions that would arise in the process. Here, you have a governor who pays attention to the human angle of the crisis.
The example of Zulum becomes more conspicuous by the day. The crisis is not yet over in Borno State. Terrorism has taken its greatest toll on the beleaguered state. But Zulum is not living in denial as the chief security officer of the state. He accepts the full responsibility of his office. Zulum shows empathy with people. Imbued with enormous emotional intelligence, he stands by them in the rural communities where terrorists are fighting for turf and hoisting flags. He has done this on some occasions at the grave risk to his life. Despite the difficult situation in the last two years his government has built schools, healthcare facilities while embarking on social housing. These are the basic needs of those who would be reintegrated into normal, decent life.
Yet some of the stories from the IDP camps are far from being edifying. The conditions are sordid in some of the camps. The situation in the camps needs improvement; there should be honesty of purpose and humaneness on the part of those managing the affairs of the displaced persons.
Finally, the long-term social consequence of the activities of the criminals in the education sector especially in the north cannot be adequately reflected in the headline figures now. The crisis is sowing the seeds of further social inequality. In March, THISDAY did an investigative story on the impact of abductions and killings on schools. As at time over 600 schools had been closed due to insecurity. The number has, of course, increased with recent abductions. The social damage being done to a generation in this regard will endure more than the physical aspects of the crisis.
This is real tragedy behind the figures of abductions.
As the Nigerian state scales up its technical competence to tackle insecurity, it should also humanise the response to the crisis.