Now that the United States, Britain, and some
European countries may be stepping in to help rescue
the Chibok girls, I hope that Nigerians won’t fold up,
reach for their beers and pepper soup—and go into
I doubt that Boko Haram intended it, but the extreme
Islamist sect has brought out something close to
revolutionary in Nigerians. In abducting close to three
hundred teenage schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State,
the group helped to dramatize Nigerian officials’
indifference to the plight of—quote and unquote—
everyday Nigerians. In a way, the Chibok girls
represent that “everyday” Nigerian. And once it
dawned on Nigerians that the abducted girls didn’t
count in the estimation of their “leaders,” they
decided to do something about it.
They marched to the National Assembly in Abuja and
let its officers know that they won’t stand any longer
for inaction and indifference. They organized marches
in many Nigerian cities, demanding that their
government take action to bring back the girls.
Nigerians resident abroad picketed their country’s
embassies in different parts of the world to make the
same point. They helped make #BringBackOurGirls one
of the most resonant hash tags of the last month.
Nothing of this sort had happened since 2012 when
Nigerians stood up to oppose President Goodluck
Jonathan’s ill explained decision to increase the price
of fuel. Then, as now, Nigerians proved that, acting
together, they have the power to compel their
government officials to pay (some) attention.
Left to their own devices, these officials would
proceed with their leadership-as-merriment style,
blind to the groans of the people they presume to lead,
oblivious to the agonies and cries of the downtrodden,
the wretched, the smacked up and down. That
attitude explained President Goodluck Jonathan’s two-
week silence, as if the Chibok abductions were a
fairytale. That also explained the president’s tame
response to the April 14 slaughter of “everyday” at
Nyanya bus stop.
By contrast, when Vice President Namadi Sambo lost
his brother in an automobile accident, the president
elevated the event to a national tragedy. In sympathy
with his bereaved deputy, Mr. Jonathan canceled a
meeting of the Federal Executive Council. The signal
was clear: the country’s business may be put on hold
whenever a “stakeholder” is pinched by grief. But let
tens of “stakeless” young Nigerian students be
slaughtered in their sleep, 300 girls be abducted, or
hundreds perish in a series of bomb explosions—and
you won’t hear pim from the powers-that-be. Not in
Abuja and not in any of the thirty-six states.
Mr. Jonathan did not invent this aloof, out-of-touch
stance. Far from it. In fact, Nigeria’s military
regimes thrived on it, what with their mindless
decrees and edicts that gutted the middle class,
pulverized the poor, and drove many Nigerians into
exile. In January 2002, an unsympathetic President
Olusegun Obasanjo arrived at the horrific scene where
more than a thousand Nigerians, fleeing from
explosions in a cantonment, had drowned in a swamp.
Heckled by the victims who had lost loved ones, Mr.
Obasanjo used the occasion to lecture them on manners
and status. As a president, he sternly told the rowdy
crowd, he didn’t have to be present among them at all.
The implication was that a Nigerian president’s place
is always among the privileged few who answer to the
name of “chieftains/thieftains” or “stakeholders/
steakholders.” As for the late President Umaru
Yar’Adua, he was too sick to care about the misery
prowling the poorest of Nigerian streets.
Indifference is the default mode of Nigerian
officials. That’s why, despite their lavish allowances,
few members of the National Assembly maintain any
constituency offices. And those who do have such
offices are hardly ever there to meet with their
constituents, to take the pulse of the people they
supposedly represent. That’s why, whenever they
commingle with the public, Nigerian officials ensure
that no real meeting takes place. So they arrive with a
retinue of sweaty, unsmiling, gun-wielding security
agents who cordon them off from any form of
exchange with the “ordinary” people, enforcing a
buffer between them and the crowd.
Lost in all this arrangement is any sense that political
power ought to be rooted in the people, that the
proper end of any political office is to advance the
interests of the public. That sense is lost, unless the
people insist on renewing it.
That’s why the surge of energy and outrage over the
missing Chibok girls was good for the people, but bad
news for do-nothing leaders and Boko Haram’s
reprehensible murderers. Nigerians stood up to serve
notice to their “leaders” that they, the people, count.
And that they, the people, are sick and tired of being
ignored, jettisoned, consigned to the margins,
mortgaged and murdered.
It was that collective passion—as well as global media
scrutiny—that finally forced Mr. Jonathan’s hand. It
nudged him to promise to search for and rescue the
girls. And—since Nigeria does not have the
wherewithal to undertake the task—the president
consented to accept help from foreign powers.
There’s promise and there’s peril in the arrangement.
In the end, Boko Haram is a Nigerian problem, and it is
Nigerians who must solve it. If we ever abandon the
task to a foreign power, then we better brace to
become a full-time colony all over again, in deed if not
With the US and other foreign nations pledging to lend
a hand in the war against Boko Haram, some Nigerians
appear set to pack up, pack in, and tune in to the next
English Premier league football match. But there’s a
real danger in taking our eyes off the (real) ball:
demanding real leadership and accountability from our
officials, from the president down to local government
councilors. The lesson should be obvious to us:
custodians of the public trust focus on doing the
people’s work only when they know that the people are
ever alert, that the people have great expectations—
and won’t settle for mediocrity or nonchalance.
Even if the Chibok girls are rescued tomorrow, Nigeria
will still be in a state of war. The carnage wrought by
twin explosions that rocked Jos, Plateau State, is a
reminder that the agents of death are very much on
the prowl. Enlightened Nigerians must zero in on the
urgent, long term mission of creating a country where
impunity does not reign, where those who steal public
funds are jailed rather than venerated, where no
group may get away with killing or abducting others in
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