By Ikechukwu Amaechi
I AM yet to meet a Nigerian who did not heave a sigh of relief when the news broke on Sunday that the boys abducted from Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, Katsina State, were on their way home after spending six days with terrorists in the wild. By Nigerian standards, it was a miracle. Six years after a similar fate befell 276 girls abducted on April 14, 2014 by Boko Haram terrorists from a secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, 112 of them are still in captivity.
Out of the 110 girls kidnapped by the same jihadists on February 19, 2018 from a secondary school in Dapchi, Yobe State, only 104 were released after the government paid huge ransom. While five of them are believed to have died in captivity, Leah Sharibu, the only Christian in the group, remains unaccounted for. On May 14, 2020, she clocked 17, marking her third consecutive birthday in captivity, with any hope of her rescue fading by the day.
The mere thought of what was happening to those hapless boys in those harrowing six days was heartbreaking. Will they ever come back to their loved ones? Will their captors turn them into child soldiers, possibly suicide bombers? How long will the nightmare last? The questions were legion and benumbing. For any parent in such a bind, what mattered was the safe return of the beleaguered kids. It did not matter how that was achieved. That should be the headache of those whose responsibility it is to protect the lives and properties of citizens – the government.
So, for the government to mistake the national euphoria over the safe return of the 344 Kankara schoolboys as a vote of confidence in its handling of insecurity is a gross misinterpretation of reality. It is infantile. What is worse, for government officials to use the occasion not only for an undeserved victory dance but to attack perceived opponents who demand that President Muhammadu Buhari – who promised Nigerians heaven on earth – should walk his talk now that he is in the saddle, speaks to the fact of a leadership cadre that revels in alternate reality.
Presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, seems to have become the chief priest on the altar of this incongruity. Shortly after the boys regained their freedom, he penned an article, “Five takeaways from the safe return of 344 Kankara schoolboys,” in which he hurled insults at Nigerians demanding accountability from their government, while pouring encomiums on his principal.
Shehu wrote: “The safe return of all 344 boys kidnapped from the Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, in Katsina State, would be celebrated in any decent part of the world where empathy overrides cheap politics. And for a good cause. The outpouring of sighs, cries of relief and joy over the return of the boys reverberated beyond their immediate families. As the news spread far and wide, the global community is cheering the boys’ reunion with their families.”
That is true. It was also celebrated in Nigeria. But the entire global community can’t still understand how 344 boys could be abducted in one fell swoop from their school in the first place. The release of the boys, could, indeed, be “a watershed for Nigeria,” as Shehu ululated, but how does it hold out “hope that Nigerian citizens can feel safe wherever they are?” How does the release of the boys prove that “the Buhari administration has the will and has demonstrated unquestionable capacity to protect Nigerians?”
To the contrary, the ease with which the boys were taken away without any challenge and kept for six days amplifies the security challenges in the country. Given what Nigerians have been through in the past five and a half years of the Buhari presidency, how prudent is it to pontificate that “those who doubt this government’s resolve are mischievous,” as Shehu claimed?
While all are glad that the Kankara schoolboys have been reunited with their families, one pertinent question is yet to be answered. Were they rescued by security personnel or released by the terrorists after the government paid ransom? These are two different things. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines rescue thus: “to help someone or something out of a dangerous, harmful, or unpleasant situation.”
Were the boys freed from their forced confinement and, therefore, saved from a potentially dangerous situation by our gallant security forces as the United States Special Forces that included Navy Seals did recently when they rescued one of their own, 27-year-old Philip Walton, who was kidnapped from his home in Niger Republic by armed men and brought to northern Nigeria? The terrorists were eliminated in the swift rescue operation and mercurial U.S. President Donald Trump did a deserved victory dance. “Big win for our very elite U.S. Special Forces today,” he wrote on Twitter.
While Nigeria’s military high command creates the impression that the schoolboys were rescued, the body language of Katsina State Governor, Aminu Bello Masari, tells us that they were released. DHQ spokesman, Major General John Enenche, insisted that the military had kept its promise of ensuring the rescue of the hostages. “Keeping to its promise to ensure the safe return of all abducted students of Government Science Secondary School Kankara, Katsina State, troops of Operation Hadarin Daji rescued all 344 abducted students on Thursday, December 17, 2020. The students were rescued on the heels of credible intelligence by our gallant troops, with high degree of professionalism to ensure they were all rescued alive,” Enenche said.
For the parents whose children were kidnapped and are safely back home, this does not matter. What is important is the fact that their sons are back. Parents of Leah Sharibu and the over 100 Chibok girls yet to be accountable for will not also bother whether their wards are rescued or released. But that cannot be said for the government. No matter how hard the spin doctors try to wheedle the unwary with inane sophistry, the question must be asked – has Buhari got a handle on the precarious insecurity in the country beyond negotiating and paying ransom to bandits in exchange for the freedom of abducted citizens?
Those of us who have had the misfortune of having our loved ones kidnapped for ransom, did the same thing for which the government thinks it deserves accolades, because we had no choice.
Instruments of coercion
But the government that has a monopoly of instruments of coercion should have a choice when dealing with non-state actors. So, what value is the government bringing to the table other than insulting Nigerians who demand accountability from those who allocate their collective values?
Shehu said the security forces often do not get the accolades they deserve. He ululated that once more, the Nigerian military has delivered on the big stage. “They had a plan, kept to it, and got the job done without firing a single shot,” he claimed. How? Masari said his administration did not offer a penny to the abductors. Simply put, no ransom was paid. So, no single shot was fired by the security forces and no ransom was paid, yet, miraculously, the terrorists had a change of mind and let the boys go. That must rank as the eighth wonder of the modern world.
So, why did the terrorists bother to kidnap the boys? What did members of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, MACBAN, who Masari said were instrumental to the release of the schoolboys, do? In any case, assuming, without conceding that no ransom was paid, the terrorists just had their own “Damascus Road experience,” and set their captives free, does that atone for their crime?
The Buhari government must hold those responsible for the abduction of the Kankara schoolboys to the full extent of the law. It even becomes more imperative if ransom was paid. Chest-thumping bravado can only make sense if the security forces can, now that the Kankara schoolboys are out of harm’s way, forcefully go after the terrorists and permanently neutralise them. And Nigerians need a proof when that is done, just as the Americans did. Only then will Buhari deserve his victory dance.