A peculiarly Nigerian type of frenzy happened last week. The event was triggered by a report that a young woman named Amina Ali Nkeki, one of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls abducted the night of April 14, 2014, had been rescued. The initial reports disclosed that a vigilante group rescued Amina last Tuesday as she wandered along the edges of Sambisa Forest in the company of a man who claimed to be her husband, but was suspected to be a Boko Haram insurgent, and a four-month baby in her arms.
From there, it was brouhaha all the way. Governor Kashim Shettima of Borno State feted the 19-year-old mother. Then, a day later, President Muhammadu Buhari welcomed Amina and her baby to Aso Rock, his official residence. The misfortunate woman was cast in a dizzying drama that featured photo-ops, speeches, and global media coverage. The president cradled Amina’s baby in his arms as he and others beamed for the cameras. Speaking on behalf of the Nigerian state, the president promised that Amina would receive the best physical, psychological and emotional healthcare Nigeria can provide.
You’d think, watching all the excitement, that all 219 schoolgirls, not just one, had been spirited from their abductors. But that was the one narrative, thumbed with the imprimatur of the Nigerian state. There was an album of counter-narratives, running the gamut from those who insisted that the whole thing was an abject hoax, a stage-managed political theater, to those who believe that the abduction saga never happened in the first place.
Last Thursday, two days after Amina’s rescue, the Nigerian military announced a second rescue, of a youngster named Serah Luka. For a moment, it appeared there was some momentum, Nigeria on the cusp of finding and liberating the 200 odd victims who remain unaccounted for.
But the second success story turned out a dud. Chibok parents as well as activists who pressed former President Goodluck Jonathan—and are pressing Mr. Buhari—to bring back the schoolgirls questioned the military’s claim that Serah was one of the schoolgirls. Neither her name nor image was on the roster of the missing schoolgirls.
Whether it was an honest mistake or a calculated fib, the misidentification of Serah as one of the Chibok schoolgirls further fueled conspiracy theories. Some critics saw the first and second rescues as politically orchestrated maneuvers, a plot by the Buhari administration and its champions to deflect attention from biting economic crises and deepening social misery.
Other doubters wondered why Amina, who was supposed to be sitting certificate exams at the time of her abduction, was incapable of expressing herself in English. Her apparent incapacity fed speculations that she was chosen and cast in a contrived melodrama.
This theory’s currency and traction demonstrate the depth of Nigeria’s fragmentation. I doubt that a plot as audacious as the feigned abduction of 200 plus schoolgirls could have been pulled off and sustained for more than two years. One inclines to a different theory. It is possible that Amina is a victim of an educational system that delivers little or no curricular content. As a Fulbright lecturer in Nigeria in 2002, I encountered English students whose proficiency in the language was simply awful. When I asked a student why she had not switched off her phone, she answered, “I thought I off it.” I asked her to correct herself, and she answered, “I thought I offed it.” Many a student could not make a complete sentence without mixing in pidgin.
Nigerian education, like other vital sectors of the country’s life, has been devastated by decades of neglect, poor funding, and a certain cultural disdain for learning and enlightenment. Most Nigerians have no praying chance of receiving good healthcare—unless they have the funds to fly away to destinations like India, the UK, South Africa, Dubai or the US.
In a perverse sort of way, then, Amina is “lucky” that abduction catapulted her to celebrity status. Most women of her social station have no access to physical or psychological care, regardless of the seriousness of their trauma. What should be widely available to Nigerians—decent healthcare—has become a rare and extraordinary treasure bestowed by presidential fiat on the odd beneficiary.
For me, the question isn’t whether Amina represents some political ruse but why the military establishment of Africa’s most populous country hasn’t been able to comb Sambisa Forest to rescue the other schoolgirls abducted more than two years ago. I am amazed that the military and the political authorities would make such fuss over the accidental—not planned—rescue of a solitary captive. One found the air of celebration around Amina altogether embarrassing. It’s absurd that the rescue of one out of 219 missing girls was turned into an occasion to blow the trumpet.
I’m not surprised about the din of contrarian responses to the official narrative. The contending responses point to a festering wound at the heart of the uneasy collectivity called Nigeria. Amina, Serah, and Sambisa Forest are metaphors of a country whose malaise is deep-rooted, increasingly troubling, and potentially tragic.
The malaise plays out on social media, an arena where Nigerians position themselves on different sides of the partisan, ethnic and religious divides and take delight in savaging one another, often hurling javelins of toxic epithets at real or imagined adversaries. To peek into some social media forums is to become aware of the Rwandaization of Nigeria. Where there should be conversations or robust debates, too many Nigerians are content to reach for animal imagery in debasing the “Other,” whoever he or she may be. Some “educated” Nigerians exhibit little or no restraint in speech. They gleefully portray members of other ethnic groups or faiths as personifications of evils. Give them a sentence that begins, “Members of this or that ethnic group are…” or “Adherents of this or that faith are…”—and many a social media slugger would not waste a breath before describing his/her target in the most villainous, cruel terms.
A friend of mine visiting last week from Nigeria captured the sheer horror of it all. In a telephone conversation from New York, he voiced his growing apprehension about the state of affairs in the country. “We have been to the brink before, but always managed to pull back. My fear is that we might find ourselves at the brink one time too many—and be unable to find our way out.”
The bloody path to the 1994 Rwandan genocide—in which more than 500,000 people, most of them Tutsi, were massacred in less than four months—was prepared by Hutu demagogues who invented the name “cockroaches” for their would-be Tutsi victims. It was no wonder that so many people were enthusiastic participants in the orgy of killing. Once you imbibe the depraved baptism that fellow human beings are cockroaches, it becomes relatively—perhaps extremely—easy to kill them.
But Nigerians don’t need to travel all the way to Rwanda to gain a chastening sense of history. Long before Rwanda, there was the Biafran War. More than two million people perished in a war whose raison d'être was to keep Nigeria, a bequest of colonial Britain, one.
Mr. Buhari’s burden is to view and treat every Nigerian with the same concern and solicitude he showed to Amina. All Nigerians, not just Amina, deserve access to sound healthcare, good education, and the opportunity to realize their potential.
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