Thursday the 27th of August 2015 marks 500 days since the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the Government Secondary School at Chibok in Borno State.
Among those whose main reactions to the tragedy has been to calculate the political impact on them, or those whom they support, there has been bewilderment and bafflement, anger and scepticism over the fact that Nigerians and others have continued to register their determination that these girls will not join the ranks of the unnamed, unnumbered or unremembered. Every day since April 30th 2014 a group of Nigerians have staged a sit out in Abuja or taken other actions in support of the demand to BRING BACK OUR GIRLS! In Lagos, the demand has been re-echoed every week at Speak Out Saturday. Indeed, all over the country and outside it, Nigerians and other concerned people have registered the same demand. In the US Congress, some lawmakers wear red every Wednesday to ensure that our Chibok girls do not fade from memory.
The reasons for this determination are not really that complicated. A month before the abduction of the Chibok girls, schoolboys had been slaughtered in their school dormitory at the Federal Government College, Bunu Yadi in Yobe State. Some reports gave the number killed as 29, others put it at 59: the names of 43 boys were released. The nation was horrified, the survivors told their harrowing tales and President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the terrorist killings. There was even a demonstration by the Unity Schools Old Students’ Association. But – as with so many other atrocities – the nation eventually moved on. Promises made to victims of this outrage, or of bomb attacks, or of other acts of terrorism, faded – at least from the minds of the government officials who had made them.
True, despite the confusion, the Bunu Yadi schoolboys were neither unnumbered nor unnamed. Yet we had already started un-remembering them when news came of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the Government Secondary School at Chibok. Coinciding with the April 14th 2014 terrorist bomb atrocity at Nyanya in Abuja, which left “more than 70 dead”; the nation was relieved when the Nigerian Army claimed to have rescued the girls. But as the facts emerged – that there had been no rescue, nor even any attempt to pursue the abductors (who had taken their own sweet time in the leisurely conveyance of their captives to the Sambisa Forest) Nigerians began to ask themselves: are we going to just move on from this too? Are we going to un-remember these victims, the way we un-remembered the Bunu Yadi boys? The way we have un-remembered the Nyanya bombing victims? Surely not! At least here we had names, numbers – pictures even – of the missing girls.
Yet as demands for action to rescue the abducted girls and bring them back grew, the response of those in power seemed to be – not concern – but: What’s so special about these girls? Why can’t you un-remember them, the way we are already un-remembering the unnumbered and unnamed Nyanya bombing victims?
It was really only after February 2015, when the Jonathan administration finally launched an offensive against the Boko Haram insurgents who had by then established themselves in several local governments in the north east, that it became clearer why there was such irritation at the sustained campaign about these girls. Because that was when the trickle of those who had been able to escape or make their way out of Boko Haram-controlled areas became a stream. And it became obvious that there was indeed nothing special about what had happened to the Chibok girls. Except for this: they were not unnamed, they were not unnumbered. And Bring Back Our Girls was there to ensure that they did not become unremembered.
Yet for the others – abducted by Boko Haram, kept in bondage, raped, abused, forced to take up arms on their behalf – there had been no outcry, no alarm, no real awareness in the nation at large about just how many of our fellow citizens had disappeared. We had not bothered to number them and we had not bothered to name them. So how could we be expected to remember them?
Indeed, the list of things that we – the Nigerian people – have not done about the human toll of the carnage in parts of our country could go on. “Unmourned” is another word we might use. We see pre-pubescent girls of nine, ten or eleven, strapped up with explosives and sent into the middle of crowds. We don’t know whether they are told to perform the action that detonates the explosives, or whether it is done by remote control. If the child is the agent of detonation, we don’t know whether she understands that this act will kill her; we don’t know whether she dies willingly in the belief that she is going direct to heaven, or whether she carries out the detonation in innocent ignorance of what she is about to do to herself and to others.
We can’t be sure – but what is sure is that we give her barely a thought. We don’t know when she went missing, whether she was abducted or whether she was handed over by misguided parents. Certainly we don’t shed any tears over her, do we? We don’t know her name, and we don’t care to know.
But when we stand in the breach for the Chibok girls – as we do on Thursday to mark their 500th day of captivity – we stand in the breach for her, and for all those other victims. The ones we didn’t count. Whom we didn’t name. The ones who must be included in our small acts of remembering.
Ayo Obe participates through Lagos BBOG