By MARYAM UWAIS
WHEN, on the morning of April 15, 2014, an obviously very distressed guard from Chibok approached me to inform of the abduction of almost 300 girls from the Government Secondary School in his hometown. I looked at him in disbelief. How do almost 300 girls get carted into trucks and taken away, in one fell swoop?
Over the next few days, however, my dread and apprehension slowly manifested into inescapable reality. To this date, our girls still remain in captivity, almost two months after that awful morning.
In the period, the BringBackOurGirls Coalition, beginning with one tweet and several protest marches in many State capitals of Nigeria, has succeeded in drawing the attention of the entire world to the plight of these 273 Nigerian girls, who were driven away into the Sambisa forest, without a trace. As a consequence, several countries have offered to support Nigeria in its efforts at rescuing them, while protests continue and prayers are being offered, all over the world, for their safety and swift return.
Terror knows no boundaries; everyone is affected by the bombings and killings, without exception. For once, Nigerians from all walks of life, irrespective of ethnicity or faith, are united on this singular effort and message.
Our citizens have risen in an unprecedented show of unity, to demand that the girls be rescued, while the international community has been galvanized, in an awesome demonstration of human solidarity, to join Nigerians in this quest.
For me, as each day passes, and especially when the sun begins to fade, sobriety overwhelms me. I try to imagine what it must be like for those little girls in the Sambisa forest. I think of the descending dark enveloping them;slithering poisonous snakes;wonder how they can keep clean, eat and drink clean water. I imagine them holding onto each other, crying and struggling earnestly to give each other courage.
Then I remember those evil men, and my mind draws a blank. I cannot think any further. This must be every mother’s worst nightmare; that her child is kidnapped by armed men, to a place beyond her reach, for days unending. I shudder with the thoughts of how the parents and that community must feel; the suspense and the anguish they must be going through.
I resolve again and again that I must do all that I can to keep the issue on the front burner of the Nigerian discourse. I cannot sit at home and lament about the situation so helplessly; I must remain engaged and involved. I must find creative ways of collectively and constructively engaging our citizens on security concerns, and our leaders on how we can support them, to make our country a safer and more peaceful place to live in. We cannot allow that the girls be forgotten or sidelined by other ‘breaking news’, for that would amount to abandoning them(and their families) to a fate worse than death.
So I have committed to the BringBackOurGirls campaign. The BringBackOurGirls Coalition has become, for me, a place of solace and hope; where Nigerians from all walks of life and irrespective of religion and ethnicity, come together as one, completely shutting out the divisive cacophony of voices in our public sphere, whocontinue to use these superficial dissimilarities to garner selective advantage.
We, as a Coalition, have tried to engage our leaders, elected and appointed, who swore on the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, to protect and secure our lives and our welfare. These include the leadership of the National Assembly, the Office of the National Security Advisor, the Minister of Defence, the Chief of Defence Staff, the Governor of Borno State and finally, the President and Commander in Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Constructive and reassuring
Our meetings with the National Assembly and the Office of the National Security Adviser were constructive and reassuring, but the response from the President, as read out by the Minister of State of the Federal Capital Territory, was disappointing, as it displayed a defensiveness that was unfounded and totally unnecessary.
Paradoxically, though the content of his letter warned against politicizing the Chibok incident, the message from the Executive continues to attribute politics to the discourse, in a matter that is so plainly about safeguarding the lives of vulnerable Nigerian citizens.
The narrative that has since emerged from our engagement with the President’s representatives suggests that Nigerians should direct their message to Boko Haram, to ‘release the girls’, as the message, ‘bring back our girls’, appears to place the blame on government for the incident.
Custody of the girls
As far as the Federal Government is concerned, since it is not in custody of the girls, the demand should be directed at Boko Haram. Ever since then, our peaceful protests (as a Coalition) have been characterized by intimidation. Government buses, loaded with women, have been brought to the precise location where we meet, to sing and dance around the Coalition, in an effort to drown out our voices.
Thugs have been unleashed on one of our meetings, to disrupt our peaceful discussions, snatch bags, phones and break chairs, without provocation. A Government Minister has accused us of being partisan, inferring that we are opposition. We are locked out of parks when we relocate to other public spaces.
Determined to remain focused on our singular campaign to bring back our girls, however, we have not reacted or allowed ourselves to be provoked into violence. We have continued to meet wherever we can, notwithstanding these distractions. Precisely because our girls are still out there, somewhere unknown and in danger, and our purpose for meeting remains unfinished.
We are accused of being opposition, merely because we have dared to ask our elected leaders to be accountable to the people that voted them in. I, personally, have never subscribed to any political party and have striven, all my working life, to assist, wherever I can, to making my country a better place. Our 1999 Constitution guarantees me the freedom to assemble, associate and express myself.
I ask myself why Government should be so nervous and react so negatively to the demand that it lives up to its responsibilities; why should they insist that I direct my questions to Boko Haram? I do not know what the membership of Boko Haram consists of, where they are or how they operate. But I do know my leaders and firmly believe they are in office to serve Nigerians and Nigeria.
A responsible leadership should take steps to assuage and allay its citizen’s fears by being receptive and approachable. This is what we see obtains all over the world; should I not remind our own leaders that they are in office for the purpose of service? Most importantly, Government should not alienate its own people by intimidating and labeling us enemies of State, especially when all we seek to do is to peacefully exercise our constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms.
Demand for answers
Moreover, every Nigerian has the right to demand for answers from their leadership, even if politics is ourparticular vocation in life. Indeed, as Nigerians, we are each, individually bigger than the components (of the identities) of the faiths we profess; greater than our vocations (as politicians), roles or professions; larger than our sundry ethnic groups. We are human beings.
Is it so difficult to comprehend that when we confront our leaders with our security concerns, we do not recall what ethnic group or culture they belong to, what language they speak or faith they subscribe to? We do not remember what party platform they utilized to attain office. Can our leaders just please trust that all we want are results and an outcome that is reassuring to us, as citizens?
Yesterday evening, in an inexplicable admission of his incapacity (or unwillingness) to ‘protect citizens from terror’ (his ostensible justification) within the FCT jurisdiction, the FCT Commissioner of Police ‘banned’ the BringBackOurGirls Coalition from holding protests in public places. In a democratic dispensation!
We, as law-abiding citizens, have decided to challenge this violation of our constitutionally guaranteed rights, in a court of law. Perhaps we have been under Military rule for too long, and this is why the leadership should feel a sense of outrage, that citizens should dare to remind them that they have responsibilities towards them.
I had hoped and prayed that when the girls are finally rescued, all Nigerians, including our President and members of the Coalition would be able to stand together, on the same platform, to welcome them, rejoicing joyfully. Sadly, members of the Executive in our Government, by their recent tactics,demonstrate a paranoia that renders this scenario mere wishful thinking, on my part.
All we want and continue to demand for is that our girls to be brought back, safe and alive. This singular message has been consistent, loud and clear and cannot be different from what the Government would want to happen. Government just needs to accept that not everyone is the enemy.
Not everyone is interested in politics or holding public office. Not everyone is out to disparage, blame or denigrate the other. On the contrary, most Nigerians are more interested in living in peace and harmony. We yearn to be assured of security and protection. We crave a leadership that is responsive, accountable, empathetic and result-oriented.