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April 15

April 15 BACKPAGE COLUMN PAGE 56 Chibok Girls “If you cannot hold a child in your arms, hold it in your heart” – Ethiopian Proverb.…

April 15

BACKPAGE COLUMN PAGE 56

Chibok Girls

“If you cannot hold a child in your arms, hold it in your heart” – Ethiopian Proverb.

By Hakeem Baba Ahmed

The gaping hole in the nation’s heart left by the audacious abduction of about 250 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno State two years ago is being revisited with a flurry of activities. Some hope is being rekindled that all or most of the abducted girls are alive and well by a video making the rounds, showing some of the girls in apparently healthy state. This week has been covered in red, the colour of the movement spawned by the fate of the girls. The nation will be reminded that it will have no rest until the girls taken away by Boko Haram and pushed beyond reach by incredible ineptitude and complacency by a leadership that could have snatched them back. This week, parents and the communities of these girls who had thought that the nation and the world had moved away from their plight will be reminded, to borrow language from Dame Patience Jonathan, that no be only dem waka go.

The abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok secondary school will rank in magnitude of impact with the bombing of the UN Building and Police Headquarters in Abuja by Boko Haram. The UN Building bombing alerted the world to the existence of a group, until then seen as a local band of aggrieved persons, now developing into a lethal force with frightening capabilities. The Police Headquarters and other bombings which took hundreds of lives registered Boko Haram as an organization with the confidence and competence to use terror with maximum effect. While these events could have been explained in terms that suggest intelligence failure and relative novelty of terror as a security threat in Nigeria, the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls was clearly evidence of monumental failure of the Nigerian state to effectively challenge and defeat Boko Haram after three years of a vicious war.

The abductions exposed a leadership lacking in the most elementary capacities to protect citizens. It soon became public that the abductions could have been prevented by an alert military with capabilities to stop it. After it occurred, there were still opportunities to retrieve the girls in the first few days and weeks of their ordeal. There are likely to be world records in the scale of insensitivity and incompetence to be found in a President taking weeks to acknowledge and admit that the abductions did take place, and the tragic comedy of his wife holding court, invoking God and accusing everyone of cooking up the abductions to smear her husband. The outrage against the abductions then spawned a national movement with massive support, and triggered a global indignation no one could ignore.

The #BringBackOurGirls movement grew out of the spontaneous, if naive, expectations that the Jonathan administration could be pressured to free the girls. It soon became evident to parents, activists and the community that Jonathan lacked the decisiveness and commitment necessary to bring the girls back. The world began to move on to the next drama, and the national movement dug in as a major irritant of an administration that needed a constant reminder on its conscience. Jonathan was sunk by an unprecedented array of grievances across the nation, but the sustained efforts of the few women and men who maintained an unbroken vigil over the girls, mobilized and politicised parents and the communities while retaining global attention will be accorded a pride of place in ridding the nation of a leadership that had locked itself up, gobbling the resources of the nation as thousands of women, children and young men were taken away by Boko Haram.

To be sure, the abduction of schoolgirls from Chibok was only one in a long tradition of abductions of women and young men by Boko Haram. Not a few Nigerian communities who had borne the brunt of the atrocities of Boko Haram were suprised by the speed and magnitude of the response by Nigerians and the global community to the Chibok abductions. Parents of schoolchildren murdered while they slept in dormitories in Yobe State, or in classrooms in Mubi and other places wondered why their cries failed to register in Washington, Kiev and Pretoria. But then these villagers had not known the powers of social media, the tool that raised the Chibok abductions to the status of an atrocity the world was bound to notice.

One year after the abductions, Nigerians showed President Jonathan the door. He left, leaving President Buhari with a terrible legacy of thousands of abducted people, including the Chibok girls, in the custody of Boko Haram. A year since he became President, the girls are still with terrorists, and Buhari has to deal with a very sensitive and complex problem which time and circumstances have made a lot more difficult. In spite of successes in freeing many communities from the grips of the insurgency and limiting its fighting capacities in many respects, there are still people who will measure the scale of his success in terms of the freedom of the Chibok girls. They too will be right, because this conflict has many angles and casualties.

President Buhari will now be dealing with a highly mobilized Chibok community with a painfully-developed capacity for cynicism over governments and leaders. He will contend with a powerful movement that sprung up around the abductions and the plight of the girls, and now operates as a highly visible vigilante in a war in which no side is clean. He will find in this movement a resistance and hostility founded by experience, and a clout fed by the purity of its mission. He will encounter a movement with a mantle of protector of rights and welfare of civilian victims in a conflict that has had very little room for transparency.

The intense outcry over the abductions from Chibok would have alerted Boko Haram that it has in its custody a major asset, raising the stakes for their freedom, and leaving President Buhari with the task of crippling the insurgency and freeing girls who acquire more value by the day. The endemic quarrels between parents and the community on the one hand, and government on the other, have prevented the utilization of opportunities and avenues for raising and dealing with important, if uncomfortable matters. These include the need to influence perceptions, and cultivate an understanding that hardly any of the Chibok girls will come back as abducted. Some may not return at all and those who may not all return together. Most who return will require, along with parents and the community, prolonged and sensitive management and handling for their future. There will be massive adjustments of expectations, much of which needs to be undertaken in rancour-free and supportive enviroment.

It is reasonable to assume that President Buhari is actively seeking all avenues for the release of the girls from Chibok and others in captivity. There must be many issues to consider, such as genuine channels for negotiations, the price of freeing the girls, the state of the current campaigns and how it will be affected by the freedom of the girls by all sides and other strategic considerations. While all these should be accorded serious consideration, it is also important that improvements are made in government-Chibok community relations, and the movement which campaigns for their release. Rebuilding the school in Chibok should also be accorded a priority. For two years, young females who could have been our very own daughters have been held by terrorists. Many more whose capture and fate have been less heralded are also wondering if fellow Nigerians still care about them. This is the time to remind ourselves that we will never abandon them.

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