Abubakar Kurfi & Seye Abimbola (EVs 2013 & 2010/12)
The history of Nigeria can be reduced to a long narrative on the theme of theft. The latest being the 15 April stealing of more than 200 girls from their dormitory in a secondary school in Borno state in northeast Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram. In February, Boko Haram had stolen the lives of 59 boys in their school dormitory in neighbouring Yobe state also in northeast Nigeria. Ten days after the girls were abducted, Boko Haram killed 336 people in a village in Borno state, near the northeast Nigerian border with Cameroon.
On 14 April 2014, the day before the girls were kidnapped, two bombs exploded at a crowded bus station in a suburb of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, killing at least 88 people and injuring at least 200. Less than three weeks after, in the same suburb, a car bomb attack killed at least 19 people and injured 60 more. This year alone, Boko Haram has killed about 3,000 people, and since 2012, they have attacked about 300 schools. Their name Boko Haram translates loosely as “western education is forbidden.” Health workers have fled much of the worst affected Borno and Yobe states. In 2013, there were 53 recorded cases of polio in Nigeria, more than half of them were in Borno and Yobe.
While we commend the convergence of global voices against the evil of Boko Haram, the world needs to know that the single act of kidnapping the girls was the tipping point in a long series of atrocities committed by this group. This tipping point needs to be put within the context of ongoing killing, stealing and destruction that people in northern Nigeria have lived with for several years. Rather than reduce the narrative to saving Nigerian girls from Islamists gone wild, there is a need to appreciate the more complex narrative of the failure of the Nigerian state.
For that is what this really is: the failure of the Nigerian state to care for and protect its citizens. The Nigerian government had specific prior warning but did not take pre-emptive actions to protect school children who were taking a risk to sit their final high school exams. Boko Haram released a video few weeks before stealing the girls in which they indicated their intention to raid schools, advised students to leave their schools and threatened to abduct school girls who they would sell. The failure of the police and military to maintain order and security and protect Nigerians from Boko Haram is at least partly a result of corruption in the administration of funds meant for the Nigerian police and the military. In an area prone to attack, they were left without adequate security. In a territory that was supposed to be under emergency rule, they were transported for presumably hundreds of kilometres and they were not rescued.
The existence of Boko Haram itself is a result of a complex mix of factors which include many years of neglect of northern Nigeria where more than three quarters of people in several states live in extreme poverty. There is also a feudal culture which was preserved and reinforced by British indirect colonial rule: poor people survive on the crumbs that fall of the table of the rich, and many of the rich actually got wealthy by stealing funds meant for infrastructure, education and health services in their communities.
While these factors are common to northern Nigeria, they are worst in the northeast. Having a country with a place like northeast Nigeria is like sitting on the proverbial keg of gunpowder. In a setting where about 75% of the population is below the age of 35, majority of whom have no education, no jobs, no opportunities, no hope, and have never experienced a government that works, the emergence of a phenomenon such as Boko Haram seems inevitable. In such places, young people are a potential army of insurgents, a ready cannon fodder in the hands of fundamentalists.
Nigeria does not have a culture of protests. The ongoing protests to Bring Back Our Girls, represent the second time in recent times when Nigerians will come out en masse to make concerted and persistent demands of their government. The first was two years ago, when Nigerians took to the streets to protest the removal of fuel subsidy, the only way in which ordinary Nigerians benefit from living in a country which is the eighth largest exporter of crude oil in the world. The president reversed the removal of subsidy by 50%. It was a good exercise of democratic muscles.
The lesson of the Bring Back Our Girls protests is that Nigerians can kick a sleeping government and an indifferent world to action. This is another opportunity for Nigerians to exercise their democratic muscles, add strength, gain experience and gather confidence. That is the way of democracy. It happens through a long process of civic engagement, empowered by little successes here and there in holding leaders at every level accountable. There is a difference between such indigenous democratic process and the wave of global sentimentality which arose in response, which, good as it is, we know will not last. Enter the next headline elsewhere in the world and Boko Haram joins the ever growing list of forgotten global causes.
Boko Haram thrives on the breeding grounds of inequalities in northern Nigeria. These breeding grounds were fertilised over many years by entrenched greed and corruption. This anomaly cannot be righted by foreign intervention. We are even afraid that foreign intervention may worsen the situation because we know that foreigners fighting insurgents often leads to undesirable outcomes. But the Nigerian government has long pretended to the outside world that it is capable of containing the menace of Boko Haram, while in reality it has not been able to do much, if anything. We wished for foreign support, we are happy it came and we hope that it helps bring back the girls alive.
Perhaps the worst thing the foreign intervention can do is take away from the success of ordinary Nigerians who came together to make an ignored evil into a global issue, people who succeeded at embarrassing their political leaders’ complacent inaction. The Nigerian government must sit up and read the handwriting on the wall. While we anxiously await the return of these girls to the comfort of their families, we urge you all to support this movement in any way you can. Mobilise support for the #BringBackOurGirls movement on social media, participate in the demonstrations in your various countries. What we must not cease to do is shine a light on the collective action of ordinary Nigerians, amplify it, and hope for more in the future. A new Nigeria might just emerge as a result.
Abubakar Kurfi is a public health physician who works with the National Health Insurance Scheme in Kaduna, Nigeria.
Seye Abimbola is a researcher at the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Abuja, Nigeria and a PhD candidate at the School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia