Abuja Diary

Boko Loco: A View From Nigeria

05.09.14 4:20 PM ET

ABUJA, Nigeria — On April 14th, more than 250 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their dormitories at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, a sleepy rural town in the Northern state of Borno.  Boko Haram, an extremist Muslim group which has terrorized Nigeria since the mid-2000s, has claimed responsibility for the abductions.  As of now, they have no plans to return the girls.  In fact, in a video obtained by Agence France-Presse, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said that the victims will be sold.  “By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace,” Shekau declared.  “Allah says I should sell.  He commands me to sell.” Rumor has that some of the girls have already been sold into “marriage” to men in neighboring countries for as little as $12.

In recent weeks, American news outlets had been so preoccupied with a missing plane, a racist basketball team owner and a crack-smoking Canadian mayor that little—if anything—was reported about these missing girls.  But thankfully, spurred in large part by social media, the world is finally addressing this atrocity.  The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been trending globally, with everyone from Angelina Jolie to First Lady Michelle Obama using Twitter to urge for the students’ safe return.  Secretary of State John Kerry told The New York Times that the U.S. is pushing Nigerian authorities to do more.  He called the abductions “not just an act of terrorism.  It’s a massive human-trafficking moment and grotesque.” Protests have taken place in Abuja, London, Washington D.C. and Manhattan.  More are scheduled to be held in the coming weeks.  And today it was announced that the U.S. will send a team of military experts to Nigeria to help search for the missing girls.

Born and raised in the U.S., a country where a story about an abducted blonde can be guaranteed to lead a nightly news telecast, it’s still hard for me to understand how the disappearance of more than 200 schoolgirls was ignored.  It’s even harder to fathom why there have been no concrete leads. While in Lagos late last week for a women’s empowerment conference, I asked for answers.  Why wasn’t the government doing more?  Why weren’t more people up in arms?  Why were there no pictures of the kidnapped?  “The Nigerian government doesn’t feel that it owes its citizens an explanation," I was told by one conference attendee, a cosmetics entrepreneur who had just marched in a BringOurGirlsBack rally in Lagos. “The organized protests and important public figures lending their voices is what is finally forcing the government out of purdah.”

International pressure has indeed forced Nigerian leaders to respond…sort of. The names of the missing girls were released earlier this week by the Christian Association of Nigeria. Twenty days after their kidnapping, the nation’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, promised to find the girls and return them home safely. “Wherever these girls are, we’ll get them out,” he said during a press conference. On Sunday, while speaking at a forum about the abducted girls, Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan burst into tears and openly wept. Whether she was crying for the missing or her husband’s crumbling administration has been a source of vigorous debate. The video of her breakdown has since gone viral, inspired a handful of Nigerian parodies and has caused some to question the authenticity of Mrs. Jonathan’s tears. “My initial reaction upon first seeing the video was laughter,” said a manager at a leading international development organization. “In fact, I couldn’t stop laughing. Two weeks after this tragedy and now she decides to put on this performance? She was totally playing to the camera. It was like a bad Nollywood drama. Nobody takes these people seriously.”

Several people that I spoke with believe the government would’ve been quicker to react if the students were abducted from a school catering to the Lagos elite. “If this had happened to rich kids in Lagos, the country would have been shut down until they were found,” said the development manager.  “But then again, what truly rich kid goes to school in Nigeria after the age of 10?  From 10 on, they’re schooled abroad in London.  And that’s the problem.  The divide between the haves and the have-nots is so great that the elite never feel these things directly.  And until the elite feel it directly, it’s going to be really difficult to motivate these people to action.”  

According to Amnesty International, more than 1500 people have been killed this year in clashes between Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces.  On Monday, at least 200 more perished during a terrorist attack on Gamboru Ngala, a northeastern town on the Cameroon border. This comes just one week after 75 people were killed in a bomb blast just outside of Abuja, the nation’s capital. Three months ago, Boko Haram attacked another boarding school in the North and killed more than 50 boys. The girls were spared.  The boys were shot and several had their throats slit.  Where were the 140-character calls for action then?

“Swaths of the north are no-go areas,” said an executive at a leading oil company. “It might as well be the Swat valley of Pakistan. And if people think it’s not going to spread, they’re crazy.”

Nigerians have become desensitized to suffering, I was repeatedly told during my time in Lagos. The daily hardships demand an impermeable skin for survival.  Citizens who remember the bad old days of the country, under the rule of brutal dictator Sani Abacha, may also be afraid to speak truth to power for fear of reprisal.  “People don’t fear violent reprisal from the government these days,” said the oil executive.  “It’s more political and economic reprisal that we worry about.”

With the Nigerian elections fast approaching in 2015, some I spoke with voiced suspicion about the BringBackOurGirls protests that have occurred in Nigeria.  Are they being funded and coordinated by President Johnathan’s opponents? Are the marchers truly interested in finding the girls or finding President Jonathan out of office?  “You expect that the anger would be directed at Boko Haram, or the governor who ensured that the girls would be safe at the school, or the military that failed spectacularly in tracking down the girls.  All the protests are about the President,” a former banker turned think-tank head shared with me over tea Sunday afternoon.  “I’m disturbed by this.  This is not to say that the president has done well managing this, but I find it pretty strange that most of the anger has been solely directed at him.”

“I agree with that completely,” said the development manager, “but it doesn’t change the fact that we have ridiculous instability in Nigeria today and nobody is checking it.  The country is being destabilized and it doesn’t matter if it’s by politicians or ideologists. The security in the country rests in the hands of the heads of state.  Secure the country first, find these girls and then we can fish out who is behind this.”

One thing is for certain, the events of the past few weeks have done irreparable damage to the image of Nigeria.  President Jonathan has been desperate to rebrand Nigeria as a country not burdened by corruption and get-rich-quick scams, but brimming with opportunity, growing prosperity and political freedom.  Bombings, kidnappings and ineffectual government?  Not exactly the best way to launch the roll out of Nigeria 3.0.  The World Economic Forum began in Abuja this week and it should have been a publicity boon for Nigeria, which was recently named Africa’s biggest economy. That fact has been completely overshadowed, said the think-tank head.  “Nigeria is now the lawless place that’s dangerous for schoolgirls.  And that’s certainly not the case throughout most of Nigeria.  Nigeria has 36 states.  This [Boko Haram] problem is restricted to three out of 36 states in the country.  But now it’s being painted as a national problem and it’s not true.  It’s like saying what happened in Waco, Texas was reflective of the entire United States.” 

Nigerians and the world at large can’t afford to ignore the escalating violence.  With each successful strike, Boko Haram only grows bolder and its tentacles only grow longer.  Today the violence may be confined to the North, but can terror ever truly be contained?  And can a nation truly prosper when its citizens are not safe; when receiving an education is punishable by kidnapping or death?