14 May 2017

Nigeria: Chibok - a Candid Tale of Society

Photo: Premium Times
82 Chibok girls who were released by the Boko Haram militants.

On April 14, 2017, the world marked the third anniversary of the kidnapping of 276 adolescent schools girls in Chibok, northern Nigeria, by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

The parents of the missing girls, since then known as the Chibok girls, held a peaceful protest march, but had serious cause for disquiet. They had been prevented from accessing the Aso Rock Presidential Villa. Angered by what they described as President Muhammadu Buhari's lukewarm attitude towards rescuing their daughters, the parents, led by the Rev Enoch Mark, said they regretted voting him in.


Rev Mark's statement registered the longstanding collective disappointment of the citizenry with the way President Buhari was seen to be dealing with the matter. A matter which many a political analyst has argued was the chief reason he managed to topple Goodluck Jonathan.

Helon Habila's latest book, The Chibok Girls, (Parresia Books, 2016), delves into this much-discussed matter. In fact, at its first reading, it brings to mind a myriad of questions.

Is it a necessary book? Aren't there enough write-ups on the Chibok girls already? With the hashtag #bringbackourgirls or BBOG supported by the likes of former US first lady Michelle Obama, did Habila really need to belabour the point? Yet a few pages into the book, it is easy to see why it had to be written.

For Habila, armed with his notebook and a guide, takes us along on a journey through a number of states in northern Nigeria and straight into the heart of the Boko Haram war.

Of the distressed parents' hope about the return of their daughters, Habila writes, "I was struck by how everyone here was careful to talk of when, not if the girls return." He then goes on to carefully show us the collective hope nursed by many of the parents he interviewed. So, what happens if and when the girls return? Is Chibok specifically, and Nigeria in general, ready to take them in?


A few hours before the march to the presidential villa -- on this year's anniversary of the kidnapping -- at the Transcorp Hilton in Abuja, the inaugural Chibok Girls Annual Lecture was scheduled to be given by the controversial Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi II.

A vocal supporter of the BBOG movement, Sanusi asked a very pertinent question in the lecture, delivered on his behalf by his daughter Shahida. "But after these girls are brought back, shall we ask ourselves as well: Where are they being brought back to? What kind of society? How much better is the 'normal' environment we all take for granted than Boko Haram camps?

In The Chibok Girls, Habila gives us a sneak peek into the society Sunusi asks about. We witness insecure zones still susceptible to attacks. We see traumatised parents, some of whom have gone mad or despaired and died.

Even inside the internally displaced camps, things are not any better. For there are orphans, wandering about after the terrorists killed their parents, and women who, having spent time as Boko Haram 'wives' suffer social stigma. We see a society reluctant to embrace its returnees and their offspring, instead casting them out because they are seen as 'potential terrorists.'

As though in response to Emir Sanusi's question of where the returned girls were being brought back to, on May 7 this year, three weeks after the Emir's lecture, 82 of the Chibok "women" -- as the girls are referred to as now -- were flown to the very presidential villa their parents were turned away from a few weeks earlier.

The girls, exchanged for five Boko Haram commanders, were flown in military helicopters from the forest straight to Abuja. It is yet to be known if they will be retained in the state capital, just like their 21 counterparts who, seven months after release, are still being kept in Abuja and haven't been reunited with their families yet.


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