This paper’s feature last Sunday on the angst of the parents of the 39 students abducted from Federal College of Forestry Mechanisation Afaka, now known as Afaka39, was a dreadful read. One can only imagine the experience of the parents that recounted how concern for their children pervades every fibre of their being. They can’t eat. They can’t sleep. They can’t concentrate. One father couldn’t even live, tragically dying of a heart attack, while others develop signs of serious trauma, necessitating hospital visits.
The last these parents heard of their children was in footages released by their abductors: many of the victims barely dressed, some being held at gunpoint and whipped, while others wailing and begging for life. For these helpless Nigerians, priorities have suddenly changed. Life has abruptly turned upside down, inside out. They say both the federal and state governments have refused to brief them, while the school authorities say they don’t know any more than the parents. More worrying, the kidnappers have warned the parents not to contact them: Insisting that they would only talk with the government; they told parents that they will kill the child of anyone who tries to establish contact with them.
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The federal government owes every Nigerian protection. But the Afaka victims are supposed to enjoy an enhanced level of protection. In the legal principle of occupiers’ liability, owners of the premises owe their visitors – and even trespassers – a special duty of care to keep the premises free from harm. That doesn’t only cover intentional or reckless harms, but any harm caused by their failure to keep the property safe. As this crime occurred at a federal government building, the government is not only guilty of failing to discharge its constitutional duty, but also of neglecting its duty of care as the property owner towards the Afaka victims.
Given his recent practice of deflecting responsibility for freeing abductees to state governors, I didn’t expect the president to get even remotely involved with this case. But I was surprised to see that there wasn’t even a short visit by the ubiquitous Lai-led ministerial delegation that sheds crocodile tears and makes empty promises. This is new low even for the disgraceful standard of this government.
Knowing Buhari will deflect responsibility, Governor el-Rufa’i was quick to declare that he won’t negotiate with criminals. I was one of the first people to support el-Rufa’i’s no-ransom policy. This is a painful but necessary position I have advocated for a long time, including on these pages, because kidnapping won’t stop until it stops paying. In particular, governments must stop funding criminality and terrorism by paying off criminals and terrorists. Someone must lead the way and el-Rufa’i is right to do that. But it now appears that, by that declaration, el-Rufa’i meant that, like the President, he disclaims all responsibility for the abductees. Why else would he refuse to brief the parents on the situation? Would el-Rufa’i have behaved the same way if (God forbid) his own child were to be abducted?
Buhari likewise might have taken this a bit more seriously if his daughter was the victim. Recall when Yusuf Buhari sustained injuries in a motorcycle crash in December 2017? He was flown to Germany on a taxpayers funded flight even when he was reportedly responding to treatment in a private hospital in Abuja. When he returned, he was received from the airport in a grand style by our health minister as though he was the president. The fact that Yusuf defied his father’s express orders and his security officers’ concerns in his street races did not cause his father to “abandon” him in one of the most expensive hospitals in Abuja.
Conversely to Yusuf, the Afaka victims were seized while they were heeding their parents’ advice to work hard to pass their examinations. They were studying agriculture, some probably because of the president’s consistent encouragement that Nigerians should get into agriculture to contribute to the country’s self-sufficiency in food production. Is this the reward they deserve? Are the families of incumbent politicians more precious than ordinary Nigerians? Are their children more human than these poor students? Are they more Nigerian than the rest of us just because their parents have got access to our collective resources?
Buhari and el-Rufa’i may have decided to forsake these powerless Nigerian, but the rest of us can’t afford to follow their lead. Given the frequency of tragedies like Afaka in our country, we may find ourselves normalising them. Because it has affected thousands even in the last six months, we might be tempted to shrug off the plight of the victims and the agony of affected families. But regularity is neither a painkiller nor a source of assurance for distraught families. Every single one of these incidents remains a personal tragedy of unimaginable proportions.
Pause for a moment and put yourself in the shoes of these unfortunate families: paint a mental picture of your grown-up daughter, sister or niece being manhandled in the heart of the forest by horrible armed killers, kidnappers, robbers and rapists. There she is on social media barely dressed, barefooted, wailing and screaming for help. She is frightened, hungry and exhausted, spending endless nights and days at the mercy of merciless beasts. Imagine going to bed with this image in your head. Imagine eating or drinking. Imagine working or studying or driving with this in your mind.
Could you close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you are the victim? Yes, you. How would it feel to spend 20 full days and nights without anything close to a meal? 480 hours without proper rest. Imagine how it would feel to spend three weeks without taking a bath, changing your clothes or even brushing your teeth. How about the worry about your family back home? You fear that your old parents might die of the shock; the thought you might never again see your sister suffering of sickle cell or your diabetic brother.
How would you have wanted Nigerians to respond were you the victim? You would have wanted every single one of us to do whatever they can to help you, right? That’s exactly what you must do now! If you are someone in authority, please do anything and everything you can to get these victims back to their family. If you know someone in power, ring them now. The least you can do is to pick up your device and tweet or post something about saving #Afaka39. Let’s make #SaveAfaka39 trend now. Let’s keep it trending every single day until our brothers and sisters reunite with their family. And don’t forget to pray for them. I hope and pray we won’t have to do this for long.
PS: While you are still here, I need to put the record straight. Last week, I mistakenly named Godswill Akpabio as the ex-governor who supported Jonah Jang’s call for Dariye and Nyame to be pardoned. That was incorrect: a mistake for which I am solely responsible, and for which I sincerely apologise. It was Gabriel Suswam, not Godswill Akpabio. This was immediately corrected on the online version when I noticed, but it is only just to Mr Akpabio that I mention it here for those who might have read the print version.