There’s nothing more informative about one of Africa’s most troubled states in the past half dozen years than Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria. The slim little book (part of Columbia’s Global Reports) was written by the award-winning Nigerian novelist who was born in the area and—although he lives in the United States—returned to the war-torn northeastern area of his country, where he conducted interviews (including with three of the escaped abducted girls) and, then, placed his conclusions within the context of Nigeria’s post-Independence history. The result is a damning picture of Nigeria’s failed leadership, ethnic tensions, and squandered oil wealth, one of the saddest stories of post-colonialism and—in a disturbing way—a warning for other nations (including the United States) to get their act together.
Habila makes it clear that when the 276 girls were abducted, April 14, 2014, the Nigerian government, under President Goodluck Jonathan, was not concerned. I happened to be in Lagos that week and although there was TV coverage of the abductions, no response was forthcoming from the government. It took another month, of external pressure, before there was acknowledgement of the tragedy, after initially denying that the kidnappings had happened. That lackadaisical concern from the government speaks volumes and pretty much sums up Jonathan’s response to everything. If it couldn’t be converted into profit for his cronies, forget it. Obviously, the month lost before there was a response was crucial, rendering their rescue almost impossible. This is all doubly ironic because the girls were at a government school, i.e., presumably “under the care of the government.”
That care was worthless as the incivility of the Nigerian police and army had demonstrated for years. Citizens have learned that in responding to a crime or violent act, you never call the military or the police, because they will make things worse, typically by destroying or taking all of your property. Here is Habila’s bleak observation: “The ones at the top keep the door shut because they don’t want to share the spoils of office. Actual violence, or the threat of it, helps to keep the populace in check, just as poverty does. Keep the people scared and hungry, encourage them to occasionally purge their anger on each other through religiously sanctioned violence, and you can go on looting the treasury without interference.” This is what I have been told repeatedly by Nigerians during my most recent visits to their country. The statement also becomes an explanation for the government’s tepid response to earlier violence by Boko Haram. When Habila asked locals if they thought the girls would ever be returned, the response was that “We put our trust in God.”
The entrenchment of trickle-down violence and corruption has grown out of decades of failed governments, political coups, economic breakdown, a civil war because of ethnic tensions, and the rise of earlier fanatical groups. Here’s an insight I have never previously encountered: “If one were to point to a single event in Nigeria’s history that marked the rise of this age of intolerance, it would be the Maitatsine uprising of the 1980s. Named for its sect founder Muhammadu Marwa, who was popularly known as Maitatsine, meaning ‘one who curses’ because of his penchant for shouting curses at ‘nonbelievers’ while preaching. Marwa was originally from Cameroon, but had lived in the city of Kano on and off for decades and had amassed a large following among the poor, the many unemployed immigrants from Niger, Chad, and Cameroon, and the almajirai [Koranic students]. Marwa was not only controversial but truly radical, as he denounced part of the Koran, criticized the Prophet Muhammad, and even claimed to be a prophet himself.” Boko Haram is an offshoot of this earlier fundamentalist group. We have seen similar hijackings of Islam in other parts of the world. As the Chief Imam of Chibok told Habila (who is not a Muslim), “They now even kill other Muslims, they throw bombs in mosques while people are praying. Islam doesn’t sanction that. This is just a sect with its own doctrine and its own way of thinking, but it is not Islam.”
When Habila visited the area, in the spring of this year, what he encountered was burned-out schools and ghost towns. There are also hundreds of refugee camps “all over the northeast, Yola, Bauchi, Gombe, Damaturu, Kano, and of course Maiduguri. And now that the war had spread into neighboring countries, there were camps in Chad, Nigeria, and Cameroon.” Refugees in these camps who live under Boko Haram’s rule are typically traumatized; they often cannot return to “their families, the perception being that they and the children they were forced to bear through rape [are] still brainwashed, and likely to become terrorists in the future.” One can only wonder how all of this will end for the victims themselves and their families, in spite of a recent decrease of Boko Haram violence because of the more effective policies of Nigeria’s current leader, Mahammadu Buhari.
Not all of the Chibok girls remain in captivity. About a fifth of the original number managed to escape during the abductions (jumping from trucks, fleeing into the bush.) Others escaped later and have managed to return to school; a few have even been brought to the United States for education. Yet the ramifications of the Chibok abductions have extended far beyond the girls themselves. “Since the kidnapping in 2014, at least eighteen parents had died of stress-related illnesses like heart failure, stomach ulcers, and hypertension. Boko Haram had killed a few others.” As I write this in late-October, 21 of the kidnapped girls have been released, but it is doubtful if many of the others will ever be returned.
Helon Habila is unflinching in his view of cause and effect. Poor leadership in Nigeria has resulted in horrifying consequences for the people least likely able to take care of themselves, those at the bottom of the society. Boko Haram sprung from poverty, from poor education, from limited opportunities for young people, and religious fanatics seizing an opportunity to enhance their own power and authority.
It’s hard to see how Nigeria can ameliorate decade-long abuses of power at the top, curtail corruption, and redirect its income from oil so that its riches (especially its people themselves, their ingenuity and diversity) can become the dynamic powerhouse that for too long has been more vision than reality.
Helon Habila: The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria
Columbia Global Reports, 121 pp., $12.99