Whether the abduction of over 200 girls from Chibok is a tipping point remains to be seen. It took the self-immolation of a Tunisian street trader to spark off the Arab Spring. The Chibok debacle may yet unleash seismic repercussions. There have, of course, been other abductions by Boko Haram and over the years, several soul-destroying abominations across the land that have gone unremarked. The case of the Chibok girls is remarkable because of the impunity of its perpetrators, the scale of the crime, the number of victims and the mindboggling ineptitude of those in authority.
At first, the government responded with typical indifference. Scenes of President Goodluck Jonathan cavorting at a political rally a day after the April 14, Abuja bombing and the abduction of the girls incensed many. However, there was a deeper institutional psychology at work. The dreary inescapable truth is that defending the sanctity of human life is not a core value of the Nigerian state. The state is an entity that elites compete to capture and privatize for personal gain rather than for public interest. It is government of some people, by some people and for some people.
Consequently, politicians tend to emphasize the chasm between the state and the society. Witness the semiotic violence of officialdom. Reckless motorcades piloted by snarling speed demons and whip-wielding goons are known to run citizens off the road. The unmistakable message is that the powerful are a different breed from “the masses”. This medieval model of governance renders it both alien and alienating. Most Nigerians do not actually expect the government to serve their interests. This is why state governors are serenaded for their rare provision of basic amenities which is seen as the beneficence rather than the obligation, of elected officials. The tribulations of the powerless are hardly the priority of the powerful.
In the three weeks it took Jonathan to speak on the missing girls, foreign leaders had pronounced on the issue with the sort of resolve that Nigerian officialdom is incapable of mustering when Nigerian lives are at stake. Leadership is not only about providing those basics which Nigerian politicians like to preen and brag about. It is about defining the ethical boundaries that separate us from the animal kingdom. Like previous outrages, this debacle was another spurned opportunity for leaders to make emotionally-intelligent and unequivocal moral statements. These silences betray an empathy deficit and belie our claim to belong in the precincts of modern civilization.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) was supposed to be the administration’s triumphal exhibition on global primetime. Instead it was rightly overshadowed by the missing girls. Having rebased Nigeria’s GDP, we must now revalue Nigerian life. Assuredly, were it not for the rising protests, international pressure and the increasingly global ubiquity of the #bringbackourgirls# campaign, the administration would have ignored the missing girls and steamed ahead.
Yet, it is instructive that the official interventions on the matter have been characterized by defensiveness, dissembling and evasiveness. The subtext of the first lady’s cringe-worthy melodramatic intervention was the accusation that the Chibok community was to blame for the abduction of its daughters. The administration and its sympathizers have shamelessly sought to portray the abductions and the ensuing protests as a plot to embarrass the president. Some promoted a sterile debate about whether the abductions actually happened. It has always been demonstrably difficult for officialdom to empathize with “lesser” compatriots.
This low valuation of life is why the criminally negligent Interior Minister remains in office despite overseeing a fraudulent recruitment exercise in which several young Nigerians died. It is why on May 1, the police was more exercised about dispersing protesters in Lagos than pre-empting the deadly bombing that later shook Abuja’s outskirts; and why communities like Chibok can only dream of seeing the sort of resources expended to fortify Abuja during the WEF. Undoubtedly, if Boko Haram was targeting VIPs, the official response would have possessed more urgency and intensity. Ordinary Nigerians, the denizens of Chibok, Nyanya and other such places, are only marginally less expendable to politicians than they are to terrorists. Politicians, at least, require their votes.
Government functionaries have displayed a puzzled irritation verging on a persecution complex at the scrutiny provoked by the Chibok girls’ inconvenient disappearance. But the real problem is that Nigerians are starting to demand more from their government and that the world is taking keen interest in a heinous atrocity that would have been let slide.
Chibok, a remote nondescript community, represents the sort of plebeian anonymity that is easily forgotten but the travails of its daughters have captured local and international attention. It has survived our weekly news cycle’s payload of body counts. Even in their harrowing captivity, the stolen girls have refused to go away. Their ordeal has rekindled a protest movement that can only deepen our democracy. It has also thrust their captors into international infamy. The video of a gloating and evidently drug-addled Abu Shekau threatening to sell the girls raised hackles worldwide and may have sealed the fate of his anarchist enterprise. Boko Haram will be terminally damned by the girls it has stolen.
Beyond bringing back our girls, our challenge is to humanize and domesticate the state and convert it to the service of the common good. It is to instill a culture of accountability and responsiveness to public opinion and make officialdom more accessible to the people. It is to affirm the sanctity of life above all other considerations.
(All images are sourced online)
Thisday, May 11, 2014