Perhaps it was the brazenness of the act and the number of victims that warranted international attention and support, but when 276 girls were forcibly taken from their school in Chibok, there was a global outcry and campaign for recovery and justice, represented by the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The case of the missing girls also shone light on the reign of terror by religious fundamentalists, Boko Haram, who in their six year insurgency have allegedly been responsible for 15,000 deaths, about 1.5 million internally displaced or homeless people, and millions of dollars in lost property. The girls from Chibok who went missing last April are but a fraction of the estimated number of women and girls abducted by Boko Haram, which Amnesty International reports to be at least 2,000 since 2014 alone. Though no one knows for sure the fate of these captives, security specialists say that the prisoners are most likely being used as cooks, cleaners, sex slaves, fighters, and/or human shields.
Efforts to contain the insurgency previously proved unsuccessful, as Boko Haram kept expanding its territory in North-East Nigeria with increasing fatalities. However, in the weeks leading up to the Presidential elections which held in March, there was a renewed military strategy which focused on scouring the terrorist stronghold, Sambisa forest, with the aim to rescue the Chibok girls and put an end to Boko Haram’s reign of terror in the country.
Over the past week, the military has made three separate discoveries: 293 women and girls on April 28; 160 the next day; and 234 more on May 1. Of the nearly 700 people rescued from Sambisa forest in the past few days, however, it is reported that none are from Chibok. News of the first rescue was met with anticipation of the liberation of the Chibok girls, and when interviews by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) revealed otherwise, many expectant Nigerians and people around the world expressed… disappointment.
As the number of recovered persons began to increase, the initial disappointment gave way to curiosity, and a multitude of questions: Who are these people? Where did they come from? When were they taken? Was anyone previously looking for them? Where have they been? What is going on in Sambisa?
It is reported that the newly freed captives were abducted last December from their hometown of Gumsuri, a village 20km away from Chibok. They were found in different states of both physical and emotional trauma: some with gunshot wounds and other injuries; many sick and malnourished babies; and about 214 in varying stages of pregnancy, according to UNFPA Executive Director, Prof. Osotimilehin.
Though efforts are ongoing to gather and record demographic and incidence details of the rescued persons, in the minds of the public, there are only two sets in the universe of missing girls: Chibok and not Chibok. We must ask ourselves: why do we care about the girls from Chibok, and why don’t we care (as much) about people from elsewhere?
Evidently, local, international and social media have played a significant role in defining the issue and making the idea of kidnapped girls in Nigeria synonymous with the missing girls from Chibok. Public consciousness is so focused on the recovery of the Chibok girls that it fails to properly register and appropriately respond to news that nearly 700 people have been rescued from a life of misery in the clutches of terrorists and almost certain death. If reports serve us well, there are at least 1,400 of such lives yet to be liberated. Among the identified issues are the deficit of military and civilian leadership, allegations of human rights violations by the Joint Task Force (JTF), and systemic corruption. However, before we are quick to harangue the government for not doing its job, we must realize that as citizens we have also failed in doing ours; first in our thinking- giving false values or levels of importance to captives who suffered the same fate as one another and not immediately appreciating that every liberated person must be celebrated; and second, by not holding the powers accountable.
Nigeria is the largest country in Africa and the most populous Black nation in the world. It is time for us to appreciate the significance of this in non-economic terms. Our strength in numbers means we are, even if unsupported by the international community, a voice to be reckoned with. History is replete with examples of times Nigerians decided to speak out, and things changed. More recent of such events include the fuel subsidy protests which resulted in a partial revert of petrol pump price and, more importantly, the continued inquisition to and scrutiny of Nigeria’s oil sector. Events surrounding the recently concluded elections also serve as evidence that Nigerian voices matter. Undoubtedly this voice, echoed globally, has also played a significant role in the revamped effort to #BringBackOurGirls.
Citizenship should be an active role and our job as citizens of this nation, is to be vigilant and consistent. In keeping ourselves informed, we must appreciate that the media is such a powerful platform because we feed into, as well as feed off it. However, it is our duty to disallow our national agenda to be set by the media. We currently find ourselves at a peculiar point in history, as witnesses of the first democratic transition in government. Under the new dispensation, Nigerian citizens will have the opportunity to be more active in the governance process. The purpose of democracy and good governance, in my opinion, should be the extension of dignity to humankind. Extending dignity means fighting for what is lost, because we are only as mighty as the weakest of us. This includes protection of our children and women; reparation and justice for Nigerians who are maltreated, imprisoned, or otherwise in peril abroad; recovery of the land and people stolen by insurgency; prosecuting and punishing those responsible for plundering government coffers; and promotion of equal opportunities for every Nigerian.
To me, it is almost a well disguised blessing that the girls from Chibok were not among the first rescued because there’s no telling whether or not the army would’ve continued its scouring of Sambisa forest otherwise. Who knows what the story of the nearly 700 liberated people would be if the Chibok girls did not serve as a rallying point to mobilize action. Indeed, we are indebted to those who have consistently carried the message, refusing to let Nigerians or the world forget about our missing daughters and sisters. At this point, we can no longer afford to have the mark of military as the rescue of the Chibok girls; total recovery should be our only aim. Now, we know we are no longer only referring to Chibok when we say #BringBackOurGirls.
By Temilade Denton