As we watched the campaign to #BringBackOurGirls take a life of its own on a global scale, we breathed a sigh of relief.
At last the tragedy that had befallen Nigerians and over 276 families living in Chibok town, Borno State was being acknowledged by a force greater than the Nigerian government. After about two weeks of being shell shocked over the Chibok tragedy, many Nigerians all over the world began expressing outrage over the lack of information about what efforts were under way to secure the girls’ release.
Our fury on the abduction of the girls was amplified by the perception we had that the authorities were not doing enough concerning the process of bringing back the girls safely to their families. So out of frustration we united as one in a vociferous outcry, stood up in great numbers, took to the streets via protest marches in different parts of the country and abroad and used social media to get our story out. And we managed to tap into a huge reservoir of public attention. As the story went viral, reactions to it dribbled over from Twitter, Facebook and blogs to the classic media, with basically all major global TV stations picking it up. Finally, the world was aware of our missing girls!
And as we continue the campaign, until there is a resolution or some breakthrough, henceforth my weekly articles will be dedicated to the movement to see our girls safely back home and I will focus my writing solely on this issue in order to continue in the struggle to #BringBackOurGirls.
Now that the effort of Nigerian civilians and youth has ignited awareness and a global call for action, the question is, ‘what next?’ How can our government and we, as a people, capitalize on the momentum and the awareness generated by this campaign to #BringBackOurGirls so that, like the Kony 2012 campaign, the impetus does not fizzle out?
Nigeria is literally melting down. The government’s attempt so far to stop the spread of terror, especially in the North Eastern part of the country has, not only exposed the defects within our security structure, it has allowed thousands of innocent civilians to be butchered, massacred and executed by this band of marauding criminals resolute in shedding the blood of innocent people. With all the turmoil we have seen and the innocent blood that has been shed, this violation, where almost 300 young school girls were taken from their hostels by such depraved gorillas, has pushed us to the very brink and we have completely reached the end of our tether. This has got to be the point in which we say “enough is enough.” This has got to be the beginning of the end of the insanity and nightmare that we have been living with since 2009.
From the onset, the official response to this latest transgression appears to have been weak, to say the least. Right from the start, the authorities have downplayed the scale of the abduction in a manner that has been understandably interpreted as a failure of the government to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.
Even now that the whole world is demanding for the release of our girls, we are not yet home and dry. There is no doubt that, before any foreign assistance is called upon, the Nigerian government has primary responsibility of bringing our girls back. More than any other time, this administration has no choice but to pursue a measured and assertive course in ending this terrible terror in Nigeria. Because the longer this threat lasts, the greater the threat it poses beyond Nigeria and beyond Africa.
As a starting point, the government must stop this combined bobbing of heads in the sand, take full responsibility and stop shifting blame by implying that the parents of the girls are somehow culpable, in that they have not been open in giving the identities of their missing children. Analysts and commentators on Nigerian television programmes as well as the hosts of the shows themselves should be more solicitous and sympathetic before making public suppositions on the liability of the parents for not being open and confident on giving out information publicly about their missing daughters.
I have spoken to the parents of two of the girls that are alleged to have been taken and I asked why they were not willing to cooperate with the government on giving out information about their daughters. What they told me was what they had stated publicly before; that they had been warned by the deadly group that if they pursued the girls or gave information about their children and the abductors came to know of this, their children would be immediately killed. One can understand how, as parents, they would be sceptical of cooperating with a government that they believe does not have the will or capability of rescuing their children and protecting them from these demented lunatics. In light of this, it is alarming that quite a lot of our most revered Nigerians are hopping on the bandwagon to satisfy their curiosity on the identity of the girls by calling for the public display of their pictures despite the fact this action may put the girls directly in the line of danger.
However, like it or not, even with the threat that goes with the exposure of information that we are desperately clamouring for in this case, the government has got to shed the cloak of secrecy that it has so far draped on this crisis to a certain degree. By being overly secretive, all the government has done so far is alienate itself and created an information vacuum, leaving many casting doubts on what, if anything, has been done to rescue and #BringBackOurGirls. The silence has also created an avenue for confusion to reign; where dissimilar accounts and conspiracy theories have popped up all over the place.
A round the clock information source should be set up immediately to give out adequate information to the public, which would not compromise the security operation that is being carried out to rescue and #BringBackOurGirls and which doesn’t put them directly in the line of danger. The whole world is increasingly becoming emotional over the abductions and people are desperate to know the true situation, efforts and measures that have been taken in ensuring that our girls are brought back home safely. And it is only through the responsible and steady flow of reasonable information from government that public anxiety will be reduced.
Though it has come under a lot of criticism, in my opinion, the recent pronouncement by the President, setting up a committee to #BringBackOurGirls is a step in the right direction. Now, that committee must get to work immediately by getting as much information as possible from the parents of the girls, teachers in the school, residents in the village, witnesses to the incident and anybody that is directly connected to the incident. The committee can humanize the victims of the Chibok tragedy by compiling the identities of the girls and ascertaining how many girls exactly were taken and how many have returned so far. Let us know the exact amount of girls that were abducted, the amount that escaped and those that can be accounted for and the amount of the yet to be rescued girls, in addition to statements of what and where they were taken by the girls who managed to escape. However, if the action of releasing the identities and pictures of the girls will endanger them further, by no means should their pictures be released to the public. Everything must be done to try and preserve the lives of our girls in the hope that they will be rescued.
Even though the alarming reaction of the first lady mortified and flabbergasted Nigerians near, far and wide, on second thoughts one can see that there was a method to her madness. ‘But for’ her disguised insinuations and inept approach, what she did by confronting and hounding some people from Chibok was her attempt at what should have been done by the authorities two weeks prior. Up until she publicly summoned the parents, teachers and security on duty at the time of the abductions, no one in authority (as far as we know) had attempted to take this very necessary and preliminary step.
With accounts that the girls may have been taken out of the country, any rescue operation may have to take extra measures. Given that the group which took responsibility for the abductions has been declared a terrorist organisation, legal steps should be taken by the government in obtaining adequate warrants that would satisfy cross border detention of anyone culpable of these criminalities. This may mean that the proper authority in Nigeria would have to reach out to the world’s largest international police organization (INTERPOL) to work together to #BringBackOurGirls. INTERPOL may issue notices to all member countries that the girls are missing and it may ask the police in those countries to look for the abductors and search for our girls.
Amidst all this chaos, the silence from the Chad, Cameroun and Niger governments is so deafening one would not have thought that we have representatives and ambassadors in each other’s countries. Let’s not forget that Chad, Cameroun and Niger share a border with Nigeria around the area where these atrocities are taking place. In fact several times in the past accounts of bands of terrorists relocating to the neighboring countries to remobilize and rearm has been reported. In order to rise to the challenge of our porous borders and cross border insurgency, a Multinational Joint Task Force, composed of soldiers from Chad, Niger and Nigeria, was put in place.
If the account that some of our girls have been taken over the border are true and if the pathetic state that our borders are in is enhancing the flight of the insurgents, then this is no longer an immediate Nigerian problem; this is an immediate problem of every country that exists within the region of West Africa. There is an urgent need for the respective governments, together with the Multinational Joint Task Force, to issue a statement, the challenges they face and steps needed in order to quell this monstrosity. Chad, Cameroun and Niger cannot divorce or distance themselves from this menace plaguing us because with the position of their borders and the Multinational Joint Task Force in place, they are not only as much at risk as Nigeria, they are also responsible for the protection of civilians and restoring peace in that area.
But if one thought that the silence from the three neighboring African countries on this atrocity was deafening, then the response or lack of it from the Muslim world is not only deafening, its blinding and maiming as well. It is really disheartrending that, although the world is bellowing in outrage and nations after nations are expressing solidarity and offering to assist Nigeria, most of the large Muslim countries have remained mum. Countries like Saudi Arabia, who have a loud reaction towards the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, seem to have now lost their voice. While we all watch misguided hoodlums using a warped understanding of Islam to justify their atrocities, the Muslim nations who know more than any other the true message of peace that Islam delivers, have not found it necessary to issue public statements, show sympathy or a willingness to assist with the plight that Nigeria is going through; even if that assistance comes via statements urging extremists in Nigeria to shun violence and embrace the peace that Islam teaches. If they don’t have a desire to show solidarity with Nigeria or our girls, they have a responsibility to speak up as Muslims and correct this current falsehood the group is acting on.
The fact that, despite the outrage at these abductions and despite the fact that security has allegedly been stepped up in the areas of concern, more girls were abducted and hundreds are being killed daily solidifies the need for the government to relocate all the families living in the danger zones with immediate effect. For a start, the Minister of interior needs to issue an immediate directive calling every single National Youth Service Corper (NYSC) that is stationed in the dangerous areas back for reassignment to a safer place. There is absolutely no excuse to subject our youth corpers to more danger than they have already been subjected to. Then the danger that the innocent people living in these areas are exposed to has got to be comprehensively addressed. Most of the families that are left in the most dangerous areas are poor and don’t have the option of relocating or the means to do so. The families of our missing girls may need to be relocated at the expense of the government until there is a response to making their homes and villages safe to live in again.
To completely stop the growing insurgency in the affected area, the government may have no choice but to go above and beyond by relocating innocent civilians living within the vicinity of danger to safer locations in order to allow the authorities free hand to tackle the insurgency once and for all. Truth-be-told, from the beginning of the military operation to quell the insurgency, to the state of emergency, right down to the point we are now, the authorities have been faced with a herculean task. To conduct such an extensive and dangerous military operation in crowded towns populated with both civilians and insurgents and where they had to separate one from the other was not an easy mission. It is not like the insurgents have a mark on their faces or wear T-Shirts saying, “Boohoo there…, I’m an insurgent, come and get me.” The insurgents are people that have probably lived and interacted with those in the community all their lives, so during the military operation they could continue with their interaction as before without anyone knowing their link with the deadly organisation. Unless those who knew an insurgents’ identity were willing and not scared to expose them or the authorities had reason to believe they were insurgents, separating who was who was never going to be a walk in the park for the authorities.
Evacuation of citizens is the primary protective action utilized by many governments around the world in response to hazards and threats. Protecting human lives by withdrawing populations during times of threat remains a major emergency strategy. Although quite extreme, the government may have to set up evacuation shelters in the red zones, issue evacuation orders to the locals, giving those who are not part of the insurgency but have no means to leave a limited but realistic timeframe in which to proceed to the evacuation centres. At the evacuation centres they would be screened and relocated to a safer location, all at the government’s expense. After the authorities are satisfied that they have cleared the danger zones of harmless civilians, the military would be free to surround and go into the area, perform their operation and secure it. This would be a temporary measure to ensure safety of innocent civilians and full ability for the military to conduct their operations without putting the innocent population at risk or missing insurgents that may have blended into the crowd. The benefit of screening at the shelters, especially if used with an intelligence agent such as biometrics, would be to keep track of the evacuees for when they would be returned back to their safe homes and monitor or recognize any insurgent who may have quietly slipped in with the evacuees.
There is also a need for a public inquiry to be set up with immediate effect so that Nigerians can get answers to the very basic questions. We need to know how almost 300 students could so brazenly be taken from a hostel in a state that is already under martial law. We need to know who was responsible for allowing the children back in school in Chibok when there was a warning by the authorities that the students needed to be moved because the school was no longer safe. We need to be told whether it is true that the authorities never responded when they were informed about the abductions and attack on the school.
Apparently, when the girls were taken into the jungle and the authorities failed to respond, desperate parents and village folk ran after their wards with sticks, stones and machetes into the forest and some of them allegedly saw a few of the vehicles that had broken down with some of the girls inside. Unable to approach the vehicles for fear of the well-armed insurgents, the folk sent some to go back and inform the authorities of the location of that particular group of girls. Allegedly, after several hours in which the authorities were said not to have gone to the identified location to assist the parents, rescue the girls and apprehend the abductors, the helpless folk were forced to go back to Chibok when the thugs left with the girls. If the accounts that the girls had been in that location for numerous hours and were even forced to cook for the hoodlums while the criminals fixed the vehicles are true, then it is a crying shame and Nigerians need to know about this.
So many questions, but no answers, so much pain but no relief! If Nigerians are ever going to overcome the trauma inflicted as a direct result of this terror, then it would be far better for everything to be openly on the table and for every one of us to get the full story. We need to know what exactly has gone wrong in a security operation that seems to have fuelled, not alleviated the insurgency. Nigerians need to know how the said $6bn (£3.5bn) budget for security is spent when we don’t see it translating into better equipping the military with kit and security personnel. The lid on the Nigerian security forces that were feeding the insurgency by committing atrocities of their own, including alleged extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, arbitrary detention and widespread violence that was exposed by Human Rights Watch needs to be lifted. We have to be told why a radical, blood-thirsty, raving lunatic committed to killing innocent people has still not been caught despite the fact we were told last year that he had been killed. The location or vicinity of this gang is known, the forest where the gang is said to be hiding out is reported to be fully occupied by them and alleged fully operational villages have been formed by these outlaws in that jungle, yet we still don’t know whether any of it is true or whether the army has truly gone deep into the forest to conduct their operation. Every time the group appears on tape, they seem to be more equipped and armed, yet no one is telling us how or from where this group is getting reinforcements and who is funding them. The vision of this depraved mob standing and ranting in front of army vehicles is deplorable. What explanations are we going to be given as to how they managed to get their hands on those vehicles and who is giving them the funding for reinforcements? Whether the military vehicles were seized from the possession of the Nigerian military or whether they are being bought into the country from an outside source, the truth should be revealed to Nigerians and the whole world.
When such a sadistic gang has the freedom and ability to continually post videos online, an online data footprint has automatically been formed. Almost all the clips of the group are posted on YouTube and for that to happen there must be a registered YouTube account opened with other online information belonging to someone. Whoever was posting the clips must have been given the footage by someone connected with the group and therefore had a link with them. Even if our authorities did not know where to find the main players in the group, would putting surveillance on the person posting the YouTube clips not be a good place to start?
Any reasonable minded person’s greatest fear, which has already began to be played out in Nigeria, is that the focus of this campaign will somehow be lost on the cutting room floor of the prejudices and power-hungry tendencies that consumes almost every African society. Whispers of “It is this one planning to bring this one down…, No it is those ones scheming to destroy these ones” is already polluting the air.
As is too often the case in Africa, Nigerians are notable for indulging in extreme outlooks. We exist in the shadowy world of maybe and maybe not, we thrive by cultivating a web of conspiracies not found even in the best John Grisham stories. A perfect case in point would be what we are seeing play out in this instance. From the beginning of this insurgency, all sorts of theories have made their debut. Depending on whom one asks the formation and purpose of the insurgency, wears a different garb and for now carries three glasses with three different shades.
When one puts on the first set of glasses, the tint is what is seen through some Northerners eyes. And for quite a number of Northerners, the insurgency is viewed as an orchestrated agenda manufactured by the government or by a desperate South-South clique who are hell bent on reducing the population of Northerners, creating a religious divide in the region, destroying its economy and fracturing its ability to rout the president out of office. On the other hand, once one changes the glasses and puts on the second pair, the shade is seen through the Southerners eyes. And for a number of Southerners (mainly South-South), the insurgency is a clandestine scheme devised by a Northern oligarchy who are so intoxicated with a born-to-rule mentality and an insatiable thirst to drain all the oil on the South-South, they would stop at nothing in order to undermine the president’s tenure and capture power back from the south.
Once those set of glasses are removed and the third shades are adorned, one can view the situation from a dispassionate view which views the insurgency as ‘what it is.’ And what it is boils down to a group of illiterates who are extremists that have been so indoctrinated by radicalism, convinced by a distorted understanding of Islam and probably funded by a displaced Al-Qaeda from outside the country. But if the force that is funding or backing the group is within Nigeria, then those backing them do not represent anyone but themselves and themselves alone. If found, they have to take responsibility, they have to take accountability and whether they are in or outside the country, those backing extremism in Nigeria have got to be exposed for the whole world to see.
It is sad to see that a number of highly placed and influential Nigerians from the north right down to the south have decided to pick this time to remain schtum. When it is time to talk about the North and South divide, the religious dichotomy or the secret agendas and conspiracies, each is ready to play the ‘victim card’ louder than the other. Most of those in the North who shout the loudest to defend child marriage and most of those in the South who bellow against child trafficking have not publicly identified themselves as champions for our girls’ freedom. Religious leaders, regional leaders, community leaders and elders, “Where art thou…?” Now that their voices are really needed, no one says a peep and everyone would rather quietly call for silent prayer.
But even worse than those who refuse to speak out to condemn this atrocity are the few who are using this tragedy to perpetuate hate and the groups who are using it for political gain and the individuals that are using it to gain cheap publicity. For God’s sake we should stop making this issue a political, ethnic or religious one or one to spread hate or one for bargain-basement self-promotion all at the expense of the lives of our Chibok teenage girls. Children’s lives are at stake here and every Nigerian regardless of political affiliation, ethnic or religious differences and personal ambition should make genuine efforts in unity, in seeking for the rescue of these innocent teenage girls. We must stand as one against this tyranny; we must speak as one in order to #BringBackOurGirls.
The time for demonstrations and marches are over. We called and they responded. The world now has our attention. Now we are at a stage where we need to consider the next step in rescuing our girls and protecting other children and innocent civilians against terror in Nigeria. At every point, until our girls are found, we must remind ourselves that our focus has got to remain steadfast on the rescue of the girls. There is a time and a place for everything and this is not the time for Nigerians to politicize, tribalize, regionalise or personalise this issue. No matter ones view or theories on all the sundry concerns that surrounds the awkward and mottled tapestry of Nigeria, this one matter has got to be solely about bringing our girls back home safely in the first instance and protecting other innocent civilians and children in the next.
I, for one, am relieved at the international response and involvement in the search to #BringBackOurGirls. Time is the merciless enemy. And as the clock ticks, the plight of our girls grows ever more desperate. It is imperative for the government to step up and assert its authority against this horror. And as concerned citizens, we will continue to utilize every tool available to us, including the awesome power of the media because all that matters at this stage is for us to ensure that they #BringBackOurGirls.
And despite the fanatical rambling of a raving lunatic that has nothing to show for effort other than an out of control, trembling right hand, completely misguided ideology, unimaginable number of atrocities committed and the blood of innocents shed, the kidnap of #TheChibokGirls is not about religion. In spite of veiled implications via an astounding public meltdown of a first lady, the mass abduction of young girls is not about a conspiracy against a president. Regardless of everything, as human beings, as a people, as Nigerians, we have got to remain focused on eradicating terror from our society and doing all we can to make sure that they #BringBackOurGirls.
Ms. Musawa, an attorney, public commentator, and promoter of human freedom writes a syndicated weekly column for Premium Times. A previous post, in her name, titled “Where is the National Association of Nigerian Students?” was a wrong entry. It has now been replaced accordingly. We apologise to Ms. Musawa and the general public.