Good things happen. Bad things happen. Ugly stuff also happens. That’s life. Life inside Nigeria today has become a sour mix of the bad and ugly overshadowing the good.
The mind-boggling scale of the latest ugly incident was a daring assault on the conscience and sensibilities of Africa’s largest nation by population. It was a bold question mark on the quality of governance in Nigeria. In the dead of night, on April 14, 276 teenage girls were abducted from their boarding school, the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria.
As of going to press, well over a month after the abductions, most of the girls were yet to regain their freedom. About 40 have reportedly escaped.
The anti-establishment Islamist Boko Haram sect claimed responsibility for the dastardly act. In a video released to the media, the leader of the sect, Abubakar Shekau, vowed to sell the girls in the market and marry them off if his cohorts are not released from prison.
For days after the girls’ disappearance, Nigeria’s civil society, military and political elites were engulfed in a blame game. Propaganda was the order of the day, as it took nearly three weeks after the abductions before President Goodluck Jonathan issued a statement. The Nigerian leader’s credibility has suffered massive global and domestic erosion, says Opeyemi Agbaje, a public affairs commentator.
“His administration was left looking callous, insensitive and detached from reality.”
The outrage and protests from all corners of the world have been overwhelming for the Nigerian authorities.
“Facts are that regardless of afterthoughts that we are now being served by federal government, the institutional response to the fate of the girls was indifference,” says Oby Ezekwesili, a former vice president of the World Bank’s Africa division and former education minister in Nigeria.
Ezekwesili has been the most vocal member of the political cognoscenti leading the protests from the frontlines.
“It was only after our social media campaign migrated to street marches – Chibok women on April 29 and #BringBackOurGirls on the 30th – that we saw motion. Our pressure on the federal government to act… seems to irritate government,” Ezekwesili says.
Nigeria was the top item on global news bulletins for most of April and May – sharing the top spot with the coverage of the South Korean ferry mishap and the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms were abuzz with the #BringBackOurGirls and #ChibokGirls campaigns. The hash tags recorded over one million retweets within a couple of days in May.
On the ground, Bring Back Our Girls solidarity rallies were held in cities across the world, calling on the Nigerian authorities to fish out the girls from the Sambisa forests where they were purportedly being held captive by the militants.
A game reserve once renowned for its wildlife, the 60,000 square kilometer Sambisa forest, straddles parts of north-eastern Nigeria, bordering Chad and Niger. Sambisa village itself is flanked on the east by Gwozo town – another notorious hide out for Boko Haram insurgents – and the Mandara Mountains which form a natural barrier between Nigeria and Cameroon.
The online and offline protests galvanized international interest in Nigeria, transforming what was a local war against terror into a global crusade. Amnesty International and UNICEF backed the campaigns. Presidents, politicians, statesmen (and women) and celebrities including United States (US) first lady Michelle Obama and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while musicians Wyclef Jean and Chris Brown also added their voice to the campaign. Actors Sean Penn, Ashton Kutcher, Justin Timberlake and Bradley Cooper also threw their weight behind the campaign with the hashtag: #RealMenDontBuyGirls.
The tragedy of Chibok has been a public relations nightmare for Africa’s recently crowned largest economy. It was a bad time to be dealing with a militant gang with possible links to Al Qaeda-friendly groups in Mali, Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Abuja had been eagerly preparing to host the world’s most influential business and political leaders at the 24th World Economic Forum on Africa in May. The forum was meant to be Nigeria’s coming out party. It was however overshadowed by the global angst.
“This is not the time for us to fight or play blame games, because this is really what the terrorists want, they want us to be divided… but if we stand together and fight this together, then terror will lose… world leaders have shown through their massive attendance at this forum that they we will not allow terrorists to dictate our agenda,” finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told reporters on the sidelines of the forum.
Government instructed schools as well as public and private offices in Abuja to close shop during the forum. Foreigners attending therefore saw a different country. They saw a near empty, sober Abuja devoid of its usual political tension, cosmopolitan communities and light traffic.
“Hosting the forum was part of a campaign to open the Nigerian economy to investors… By shutting down Abuja, the president has succeeded in telling the global community that Nigeria is not a good place to do business; that government can cripple their investments at will and without any care in this world,” Kenneth Ugbechie, publisher of the Nigeria Political Economist magazine wrote.
The United Nations (UN), African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have condemned the Chibok incident, urging Nigerian authorities to rescue the girls alive. Analysts say that the government must also begin to revamp the local and national ecosystem responsible for breeding insurgency – the dire social and economic conditions prevalent in most parts of northern Nigeria. Leading nations including the US, Britain, France and China have also offered to help the Nigerian government with security intelligence and technological support.
Beyond the urge to keep impressing upon international investors to look beyond Nigeria’s economic and political pains, it is clear that insurgent activities have had a negative impact on the country’s image and reputation. Amnesty International say that Boko Haram is responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in Nigeria this year alone.
The UN estimates that 300,000 people have been displaced by the militant group’s activities since May, 2009 when the extremist beast first bared its fangs.
Politics of Doubt and Disbelief
Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo believes that ambivalence and the political shenanigans of the Nigerian state is responsible for the inability of the authorities to react with alacrity to the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. In a television appearance, he said President Goodluck Jonathan had not truly believed that the girls had been abducted, hence his hesitation to order a rescue operation.
“The president did not believe that those girls were abducted for almost 18 days,” Obasanjo said.
“If the president got the information within 12 hours of the act and he reacted immediately, I believe those girls would have been rescued within 24 hours, maximum 48 hours. The president had doubts; ‘Is this true or is it a ploy by some people who don’t want me to be president again?’ I don’t believe he has performed to the expectations of many Nigerians, not just me.”