I used to be one of those who felt that the Jonathan administration failed in its efforts to locate and retrieve the Chibok girls. But before you reach any conclusion based on this statement, let me clarify right away that, with the change in government, my previous certainty has simply given way to confusion on the issue. I don’t believe this confusion applies to me only. I think a lot of Nigerians are wondering whether someone has played a trick on our collective intelligence—and what exactly that trick is.
Was there really an identifiable set of abducted “Chibok Girls” which the current government is unable to locate but unwilling to admit its inability, or is the “Chibok Girls” a symbolic idea for all the abducted females, a number of whom have been rescued by the military—remember the news of the military rescuing over 200 women and children in May 2015? Someone in authority needs to give Nigerians some answers.
I sympathize with those who meet every evening in Abuja to discuss and strategize on the rescue of the girls—more power to their elbow. However, the best they can do is keep up the public consciousness that some 219 girls are missing. These people have, happily, become an organized force with the name BringBackOurGirls or BBOG. They have a live hashtag, an e-mail address, a website, dedicated advocates and everything a basic organization should have. They have put up memos, articles, billboards, placards, visited people and places, aligned and re-aligned; in a bid to have their advocacy heard and/or get the girls’ rescued. This is excellent and kudos to them. It shows that there is still hope in the future of present day Nigerian youths.
Yet, when the APC was campaigning, one of its core promises was the rescue of the Chibok Girls. And, truly, some seven months into the Buhari administration, the new government implemented enough actions and initiated processes that seemed geared towards fulfilling this promise. These include recapturing Boko Haram occupied territories, stifling their means of funding, increased protection of the country’s borders, engagement with the local chiefs, engaging international partners, procurement of weapons, enhancing intelligence gathering and training of its soldiers. The command centre was even relocated to Maiduguri. In short, the Buhari administration seems to have done everything except actually rescuing the girls.
Now, the government has cried for internal and external help on national TV. During his last media chat, the President implored anyone with credible intelligence on the missing girls to step forward. One thing now begs an inquiry: well, where in Nigeria are these 219 girls? Let me put this number in perspective: that is the number of girls that it will take to fill 4 “BRT” buses, or 7 “Coaster” buses. In a typical government secondary school, this comes to about three classrooms of pupils. You only need 50 people inside a bank for the customers to start complaining of poor service, talk less of 219 individuals “girls”. Mostly teenagers as the various pictures serialised on the internet show..
Let us examine the geographical issues: if Boko Haram territories have been recaptured–as we are constantly informed–then where are the girls? Sambisa Forest? But has Sambisa Forest not been recaptured? Have the girls been transported or sold abroad and beyond any unitary rescue? Yet, with the level of intelligence available to the government, it is difficult to conclude that the girls’ whereabouts are unknown to everyone.
At the early stages, the previous administration vehemently opposed the idea that 276 girls were kidnapped from Chibok. But this official view changed when some escapees came forward, and the parents started asking for audience from government. It is fair to say the previous administration’s reaction to the issue contributed to the PDP’s electoral loss. In any case—and from Wole Soyinka’s discussion with him—it was clear that President Jonathan had unusually little knowledge of the happenings in his own administration. Maybe his aides shielded information from him or maybe he was personally indifferent. What is worrisome, however, is that it seems this attitude in the last administration has started manifesting itself in the current one.
The current government promised to rescue the girls. But if they have just set up a committee to investigate the disappearance of the girls, then this is a great problem. It meant that the presidential campaign simply latched on to the issue of the missing girls without any ground work or verification. Yet, the current government met with the BBOG group on the 8th of July in 2015. It was an amiable meeting. They met again on the 14th of January 2016 and it was not as warm as the earlier meeting.
At the July 8 meeting, the President didn’t have ministers, only his personal advisers. The participants in the theatre of war reported to him directly. He still empathized with the parents of the children and seemed amiable on the issue. He, probably, had not yet found out about Dasuki, NIMASA, Customs, and other similar issues.
When we fast forward to January 14, there is a different structure in place. The President had made about 76 appointments in the elapsed period. He made some progress and coordination in setting up his government. But, still, there were—still are—challenges and mixed fortunes. Boko Haram has been “technically defeated” but the oil price is dipping; corruption is being dealt with but the stock market is crashing and the currency is losing its value, a budget was prepared but it went missing and then needed changes. The challenges are enormous. And it is understandable if it seems that the government was not prepared for the existing state of affairs.
And so, BBOG decided to stage a peaceful demonstration to the Presidency in a bid to remind the government of the missing girls. The Minister of Women Affairs, the National Security Adviser, the Chief of Defence Staff and the Minister of Defence represented the government. That was a bold statement of interest. It meant government meant business and didn’t take BBOG for granted. When BBOG reinforced their intention to meet with the President directly, the President heeded their call and, took time out of his schedule for the day to meet with them. At the meeting, it was reported that he was visibly angry “about something”. Nevertheless, he accommodated the group and reiterated that if they had any credible intelligence on the Chibok Girls, it should be brought forward.
Meanwhile, the Op Ed, “A Ray of Light on Chibok Girls” was published by the President’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity. He mentioned the progress of the military and efforts of the government. Yet, these efforts have not yielded any positive or palliative effects on the rescue of the girls. It seems to me that, other than the BBOG group, Nigerians are gradually losing interest in the struggle to rescue the girls: we don’t ensure the effectiveness of the government’s effort by creating awareness of the issue.
For example, have we bothered to ask Mama Taraba why the President’s directive to set up a Chibok Girl’s Office in the Ministry of Women Affairs has not been made functional? Will the operations of this office be determined by the Ministry or the BBOG group? What are the terms of reference? Are these terms of reference publicly available? Are there data-driven arguments for any plan of action? Is there even a plan of action?
In the end, this is a failure of we, the people: both as a democracy and as a country. It is unbelievable that we cannot locate 219 girls. Even people who get kidnapped usually turn up: dead or alive. Yet we don’t seem to have credible intelligence on a mass abduction. Or, like the early days of the abduction, have we begun to believe that, maybe, there are no girls, so we can sweep the issue away instead of admitting our failure? Then we are either being lied to or we are lying to ourselves. In any case, we need to check this confusion and BringBackOurSanity.
Abdulwahab is a legal practitioner based in Lagos. Engage with him on twitter via @oseni_debola.