Friday, May 30, 2014 4:30 pm
By Lola Shoneyin
I had not heard the phrase Boko Haram when I first moved to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, in 2009 to take up a job at an international secondary school. But just about everything felt new in Abuja, with its broad, tarred roads, the shiny experimental structures, modern hospitals and pastel-coloured housing developments.
It can feel soulless, as if the only thing that grows there is money and there was lots of it changing hands in large, chequered bags. The Federal House of Representatives was domiciled in Abuja, so politicians and those who benefited from the endemic corruption peppered the landscape with sprawling, grotesque homes.
Further North, there is little evidence of prosperity – the landscape is arid and unforgiving. Even after the oil boom, when northern leaders enthusiastically dipped into the national purse, they neglected to educate the people from this part of the country.
If you are looking for a country of extremes, look no further than Nigeria. Following recent data, it has emerged as the country with the highest GDP in Africa, beating South Africa. But equally, the World Bank lists Nigeria as one of the poorest countries in terms of its revenue per capita. Even to the least fervent observer, the disparity in the distribution of wealth is palpable. Unemployment figures are appallingly high among the under thirty-fives who form 70 per cent of the population.
According to a recent UNESCO report, Nigeria has the highest number of children out of school in the world. Many of these are from northern Nigeria, where the Muslim majority has learnt to accept poverty as their fate or, even more sinisterly, as Allah’s will.
The issue of education in northern Nigeria ate at me. I was privy to statistics from some northern states, learning, for example, that in Zamfara State, only 5 per cent of the girls between five and 16 could read and write. This is the state governed for eight years by Ahmed Yerima, a member of the All Nigeria People’s Party, after which he became a senator. As a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Yerima replaced his fourth wife (herself a teenager) with a 13-year-old Egyptian child. The ceremony was held at the central mosque in Abuja, attended by several of his senate colleagues.
It is interesting to note that Zamfara was the first state in Nigeria to reintroduce sharia law, allegedly with financial incentive from generous Middle Eastern clerics. Women’s groups in Nigeria were furious about this marriage but the matter was hurriedly extinguished, and Yerima declared that he was bound by Islamic law, rather than the laws of the nation. When it was clear that then attorney-general, Bello Adoke, was not going to prosecute, civil society had no choice but to walk away. It was a merciless blow to the campaign against child marriage.
All this serves as background to the tragic abduction of over 200 girls. They were in the process of gaining an education, in a region that is under threat by Boko Haram, which I now know – as, sadly, does everyone else – loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden”.
Nigerians, and the rest of the world, can only imagine what their fate will be. The signs are not in their favour. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the terrorist group, has declared that he will sell the girls “by Allah”. Many Muslim clerics have come out to decry these words, but northern Nigerian leaders have been criticised for not having the courage to condemn the activities of Boko Haram in strong terms. It is widely believed that they are themselves afraid for their lives, especially when well-known Muslim clerics who believe in education have been assassinated.
A majority of Nigerians are driven by faith. When they are ill, they claim they are strong and when things are dire, they respond to questions: “It is well.” This tendency to deny reality has become cultural, pathological in some cases. Perhaps this is what is responsible for the lacklustre attitude with which the government responded to the kidnapping. The First Lady’s melodramatic performance on national TV did little to bring comfort.
Speculations abound. Many consider Boko Haram to be a problem created in northern Nigeria by northern Nigerians, and as a result believe that the responsibility of the excruciating consequences should be borne by northern Nigerians. The President is from the oil-producing South. Then there is the barrage of bad news. Just a few weeks ago, 57 male students were slaughtered in their dormitories in the night. The constant onslaught of violence and murder from the North may bring about numbness in some quarters but a president simply does not have that privilege.
After working in schools for most of my adult life, the gory images of charred teenagers I glimpsed on social media were so harrowing that I couldn’t sleep for two nights. I was traumatised by the scenes from the recent Nyanya bomb blast, where the emergency services piled bodies on top of each other on the back of a pick-up truck. But there was also an eerie sense of deja vu.
For many years, my husband worked at the World Health Organisation, which had its offices in the UN building in Abuja. Bombs went off in the building in August 2011, killing several people. As soon as I heard the news, I drove to the general hospital to see how I could help. It was heart-wrenching to see the family members of UN workers huddled together in silence, uncertain if the news would bring grief or relief. After this tragedy, my kids refused to go to the cinema or the ice cream parlour. When your children become aware of the climate of fear, you start to ask if you are being a responsible parent. We are now in Lagos.
Since then, there have been many more attacks, but the Boko Haram capture of the schoolgirls three weeks ago has seized the world’s attention. More than 300 people were massacred in a further raid about 10 days later. On 4 May, eight more girls were abducted from the village of Warabe, in Borno. Last Thursday evening, the bridge on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon was blown up, killing 30 people.
And so the brutality continues, taking the death toll this year alone to over 3,000. No one can make sense of Boko Haram’s craving for the blood of the innocent. The wanton killings and their goal to show Islam as the best option for Nigeria just don’t add up. People are wondering if these indiscriminate massacres are the future.
As a mother, my heart aches for the stolen girls. I can only imagine the anguish that their families must be experiencing. As a teacher and writer, I think it is telling that Boko Haram despises education, the one thing that can free these young women from the shackles of ignorance. When girls are educated, they are better positioned to look after themselves, their families and to contribute positively to their communities. Abubakar Shekau would rather deny them this opportunity, and sadly he is not alone. Nigeria is wounded and the scars will take years to heal. But the most effective way to defeat him and everything he believes in is to ensure children, especially girls in northern Nigeria, receive a good education. This is what the country owes them.
— Lola Shoneyin is a Nigerian novelist and poet.