Now that the United States, Britain, and some European countries may be stepping in to help rescue the Chibok girls, I hope that Nigerians won’t fold up, reach for their beers and pepper soup—and go into snooze mode.
I doubt that Boko Haram intended it, but the extreme Islamist sect has brought out something close to revolutionary in Nigerians. In abducting close to three hundred teenage schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State, the group helped to dramatize Nigerian officials’ indifference to the plight of—quote and unquote—everyday Nigerians. In a way, the Chibok girls represent that “everyday” Nigerian. And once it dawned on Nigerians that the abducted girls didn’t count in the estimation of their “leaders,” they decided to do something about it.
They marched to the National Assembly in Abuja and let its officers know that they won’t stand any longer for inaction and indifference. They organized marches in many Nigerian cities, demanding that their government take action to bring back the girls. Nigerians resident abroad picketed their country’s embassies in different parts of the world to make the same point. They helped make #BringBackOurGirls one of the most resonant hash tags of the last month.
Nothing of this sort had happened since 2012 when Nigerians stood up to oppose President Goodluck Jonathan’s ill explained decision to increase the price of fuel. Then, as now, Nigerians proved that, acting together, they have the power to compel their government officials to pay (some) attention.
Left to their own devices, these officials would proceed with their leadership-as-merriment style, blind to the groans of the people they presume to lead, oblivious to the agonies and cries of the downtrodden, the wretched, the smacked up and down. That attitude explained President Goodluck Jonathan’s two-week silence, as if the Chibok abductions were a fairytale. That also explained the president’s tame response to the April 14 slaughter of “everyday” at Nyanya bus stop.
By contrast, when Vice President Namadi Sambo lost his brother in an automobile accident, the president elevated the event to a national tragedy. In sympathy with his bereaved deputy, Mr. Jonathan canceled a meeting of the Federal Executive Council. The signal was clear: the country’s business may be put on hold whenever a “stakeholder” is pinched by grief. But let tens of “stakeless” young Nigerian students be slaughtered in their sleep, 300 girls be abducted, or hundreds perish in a series of bomb explosions—and you won’t hear pim from the powers-that-be. Not in Abuja and not in any of the thirty-six states.
Mr. Jonathan did not invent this aloof, out-of-touch stance. Far from it. In fact, Nigeria’s military regimes thrived on it, what with their mindless decrees and edicts that gutted the middle class, pulverized the poor, and drove many Nigerians into exile. In January 2002, an unsympathetic President Olusegun Obasanjo arrived at the horrific scene where more than a thousand Nigerians, fleeing from explosions in a cantonment, had drowned in a swamp. Heckled by the victims who had lost loved ones, Mr. Obasanjo used the occasion to lecture them on manners and status. As a president, he sternly told the rowdy crowd, he didn’t have to be present among them at all.
The implication was that a Nigerian president’s place is always among the privileged few who answer to the name of “chieftains/thieftains” or “stakeholders/steakholders.” As for the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, he was too sick to care about the misery prowling the poorest of Nigerian streets.
Indifference is the default mode of Nigerian officials. That’s why, despite their lavish allowances, few members of the National Assembly maintain any constituency offices. And those who do have such offices are hardly ever there to meet with their constituents, to take the pulse of the people they supposedly represent. That’s why, whenever they commingle with the public, Nigerian officials ensure that no real meeting takes place. So they arrive with a retinue of sweaty, unsmiling, gun-wielding security agents who cordon them off from any form of exchange with the “ordinary” people, enforcing a buffer between them and the crowd.
Lost in all this arrangement is any sense that political power ought to be rooted in the people, that the proper end of any political office is to advance the interests of the public. That sense is lost, unless the people insist on renewing it.
That’s why the surge of energy and outrage over the missing Chibok girls was good for the people, but bad news for do-nothing leaders and Boko Haram’s reprehensible murderers. Nigerians stood up to serve notice to their “leaders” that they, the people, count. And that they, the people, are sick and tired of being ignored, jettisoned, consigned to the margins, mortgaged and murdered.
It was that collective passion—as well as global media scrutiny—that finally forced Mr. Jonathan’s hand. It nudged him to promise to search for and rescue the girls. And—since Nigeria does not have the wherewithal to undertake the task—the president consented to accept help from foreign powers.
There’s promise and there’s peril in the arrangement. In the end, Boko Haram is a Nigerian problem, and it is Nigerians who must solve it. If we ever abandon the task to a foreign power, then we better brace to become a full-time colony all over again, in deed if not in name.
With the US and other foreign nations pledging to lend a hand in the war against Boko Haram, some Nigerians appear set to pack up, pack in, and tune in to the next English Premier league football match. But there’s a real danger in taking our eyes off the (real) ball: demanding real leadership and accountability from our officials, from the president down to local government councilors. The lesson should be obvious to us: custodians of the public trust focus on doing the people’s work only when they know that the people are ever alert, that the people have great expectations—and won’t settle for mediocrity or nonchalance.
Even if the Chibok girls are rescued tomorrow, Nigeria will still be in a state of war. The carnage wrought by twin explosions that rocked Jos, Plateau State, is a reminder that the agents of death are very much on the prowl. Enlightened Nigerians must zero in on the urgent, long term mission of creating a country where impunity does not reign, where those who steal public funds are jailed rather than venerated, where no group may get away with killing or abducting others in God’s name.
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