The ‘forgotten’ girls of Chibok, By Dele Agekameh
‘It’s appropriate for government to explore dialogue, whether put together by Obasanjo or any other person, to get the Chibok schoolgirls out’.
On Saturday, May 10, 2014, Wole Soyinka, professor and Nobel Laureate, appeared on the British Broadcasting Corporation’s programme, Hardtalk and added his voice to the growing international discourse on Nigeria, especially the issue of the disappearance, on April 15, 2014, of more than 250 schoolgirls from the Government Girls’ Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State. Among other things, Soyinka said: “The Nigerian nation-space is poised on a knife’s point; it is failing, but not beyond redemption. The rescue of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls and the outcome of the National Conference would help define the country’s future.” Today, more than one month after, the opinion canvassed by the Nobel laureate remains fresh in our national psyche as the issue of the abducted Chibok girls remains unresolved.
The country has been thrown into one huge, dramatic macabre dance since that midnight hostage-taking by the Boko Haram terrorists. The incident has drawn both the anger and dagger of civilised humanity all over the world who have continued, in no unmistaken terms, to condemn it as sordid and barbaric. Regrettably, two months down the line, what we have been witnessing are empty talks and promises of a phantom rescue operation to free the girls from their captors who are in no way ready to relax their stranglehold on them. With various pressure groups mushrooming daily all over the place, the whole thing has now ascended a crescendo of pulsating emotional gyration, ventilation of anger and global condemnation. Perhaps, for the first time in the history of Nigeria, the entire global community is united in solidarity with the country.
Many foreign countries have offered and are still offering assistance in several ways to help the country in its bid to rescue the abducted girls as well as defeat the terrorists who are now holding on to the country’s jugular. Everybody seems to be eager to get the girls out of the gulag. Unfortunately, days have turned into weeks and months, and nothing tangible or cheering has been on the horizon about the girls’ return to reunite with their loved ones. For the parents and relatives of the unfortunate girls, hope has turned into despair, and a big nightmare with no end in sight.
While all these are going on, the military, saddled with engineering the release of the girls, appears to be stuck. On May 26, 2014, Alex Badeh, Air Marshal and Chief of Defence Staff, told a curious nation that the army have located the abducted Chibok girls. He said this while addressing members of the Citizen Initiative for Security Awareness (CISA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), who were on a solidarity campaign to the Defence Headquarters. He assured them that everything was being done to ensure the girls’ safe rescue but he quickly chipped in that the military would not use force in the rescue operation. His words: “We want our girls back, I can tell you our military can do it, but where they are held, do we go with force? Nobody should say Nigerian military does not know what it is doing. We can’t kill our girls in the name of trying to get them back. So we are working. The President has empowered us to do the work and no one should castigate the military”.
Good talk. Except that many weeks after this promise, there is hardly anything to show that those girls are getting nearer to their freedom. In the first instance, many people opine that what Badeh said was very unprofessional in that it was tantamount to playing to the hands of the enemy. Or else how does one view such a statement which is like giving away what could have been a closely guarded secret while the army strategises to free the girls? Why announce to the whole world that the army was aware of the location of the girls? The terrorists’ response will be to simply relocate the girls further into the wilderness to avoid any surprise from the army. This is why people believe the statement was either totally uncalled for or grossly lacking in military diplomacy.
Just like Badeh has said, the issue of using force to free the girls may not be feasible. But what are the options available now to achieve that aim? Many people, including Shehu Sani, the human rights activist believed to have a channel through which the leadership of Boko Haram could be reached and engaged, have advocated dialogue as a way of breaking the logjam. Sani, it was, who facilitated the interface between former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the family of Mohammed Yusuf, the slain leader of the sect and other surviving leaders of the sect in Maiduguri in September, 2011. Although that visit generated a lot of controversies and even led to the death of some of the leaders of the sect who met with Obasanjo during the visit, it has, so far, remained the only serious interface anybody, either within the government or outside of it, has had with the sect.
Now, the former President has come up with yet another suggestion that he could reach out to Boko Haram on the fate of the school girls, but regretted that the Federal Government has not given him the green light to act. In an interview on the Hausa service of the British Broadcasting Corporation last week, Obasanjo said: “I have ways of reaching them (Boko Haram) but I have not been given the go ahead”. The former President expressed fear that some of the schoolgirls may never return home but added that the terrorists might free those found to be pregnant or have given birth. He also expressed worry that the girls might have been separated and kept in different locations.
As if giving government’s reaction to Obasanjo’s statement, Mike Omeri, coordinator of the National Information Centre, recently created to brief the public on the war against the terrorists, said the former President did not need any clearance from President Goodluck Jonathan before engaging in dialogue with the Boko Haram sect. He wondered why Obasanjo would be waiting for any formal clearance from President Goodluck Jonathan when he had unfettered access to him (Jonathan). He expressed surprise at the development and said: “The government has not stopped any individual who has access to the sect not to come forward and intervene in this matter.” This is playing politics with lives.
Earlier last week, some newspapers reported that the parents of the abducted girls had become disillusioned about government’s efforts to free the girls. In fact, some of the parents are said to have died heartbroken, while others have relapsed into all forms of depression as a result of the continuous absence of their loved ones. As they say, he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches. But for how long would these parents remain traumatized? This is why the government should consider the proposal for dialogue as a way of putting an end to the nightmare created by these girls’ kidnap. After all, the US government recently exchanged one prisoner, who was even a deserter, for very senior five al-Qaeda leaders who had been in Guantanamo prison for years. For the exchange to have taken place, they must have been talking.
What this implies is that there is need for dialogue. It does not appear that the country can free these girls by using force. There is nowhere in the world where that has worked. We have wasted precious time after the abduction before embarking on a rescue mission while the terrorists have fully settled down with the girls in their dungeon. As things stand now, it will be most appropriate for the government to explore dialogue, whether put together by Obasanjo or any other person, to get the girls out before it is too late. It is really getting late. Like Obasanjo said, right from day one, I have always had this feeling that not all the girls may come back alive. That is the bitter truth. We must move quickly to forestall a high casualty rate among the girls as well as avoid turning them into the forgotten girls of Chibok.