by Atane Ofiaja
Calamity befalling Nigeria is now the norm. Who could have envisioned regular bombings in Abuja, the nation’s capital? This is where we are, my Nigeria almost seems unrecognizable. New York City has been where I’ve lived for my entire adult life, but Nigeria is still home. Fond memories as a child in Port Harcourt still bring a smile to my face. Driving through Aba to my mother’s small village in Abia State was always fun. You’d be hard pressed to find clearer nighttime skies than in my father’s small village in Rivers State called Ngo. It was perfect for stargazing. Like most Nigerians in the diaspora, we cling to and yearn for home. We visit when we can afford to.
But the Nigeria we remember didn’t include bombs on city streets. As the attacks from the scourge known as Boko Haram continues to get bloodier and more brazen, we are left in a state of disbelief. How can their attacks go unabated? Nigerians are stupefied as to how parts of their country have descended into chaos. Nigeria is no stranger to mayhem, but this is different. Nigerians never thought Nigeria would be one of those countries we read about in the western media with warnings about terrorism. The feeling is surreal. A friend told me it’s similar to the feeling New Yorkers had after Hurricane Sandy. Homes being blown away into the ocean and streets becoming rivers were scenes New Yorkers saw on the news. Those things happened in faraway places like Florida and Louisiana, not in New York City. Was the Coast Guard really piling sandbags on Wall Street in anticipation of Hurricane Sandy? That seemed a bit much. Maybe New Yorkers should have had the foresight to realize that when banks and other financial institutions were being heavily protected something serious was coming. Alas, hindsight is 20/20.
Many New Yorkers didn’t take the warnings seriously. Evacuate your home if you live in the low-lying areas designated as Zone A like the mayor advised? “Fuggedaboutit” was the common retort. Not until the waters rose and the wind blew with a fury that most New Yorkers had never experienced did the panic set in. When the storm made landfall, it was too late to run. Homes were floating in the Atlantic. Trees lay atop vehicles. Cars and mailboxes were strewn like toys. This storm was the real deal. Entire communities were wiped off the map. Our beloved New York was now one of those faraway places we saw on the news. In the aftermath of the storm, lines for gas stretched for miles. I turned on the television and saw scenes that were reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, except they were happening right outside my window. This was really happening in New York City. “Fuggedaboutit” as a retort to storm warnings has officially been retired. Everyone in the dreaded Zone A is buying flood insurance now. This is the new reality for New York.
Of course terrorism and bad weather aren’t analogous. The point is that for Nigeria, terrorism is the new reality. Just the other day, the US gave an advisory for US nationals to avoid travel to Nigeria. Nigeria has joined the ranks of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia in the press. Nigeria is indeed one of those countries now.
Now that Nigeria is one of those countries, Nigerians have to hear the constantly flapping jowls of pundits and analysts who prior to the kidnapping of the school girls in Chibok probably wouldn’t have been able to locate Nigeria on a map, much less know where Borno state is. The barrage of ignorant commentary has been nonstop. Nigerians have to witness and endure commentary from talking heads with virtually no understanding of the landscape of Nigeria, the people in Nigeria, the politics of Nigeria and the history of Nigeria. We’ve had to endure a characterization of Nigeria that is not only foreign to us as Nigerians; it’s a characterization that doesn’t exist. I was repulsed when someone described Nigeria as a place where school girls were frequently abducted and sold off. This person described this as “Nigerian culture” and that this was normal for us.
The usual suspects have seized this opportunity to promulgate their agendas, from Islamophobia to militarism. Surprisingly, it’s even coming from some left-leaning “activists” who routinely decry the US military industrial complex and its pitiful relationship and history to black and brown people across the world. In this situation, all skepticism has been tossed aside. They believe that things are being done out of benevolence. Have we been here before? If you are ahistorical, then the answer is no. It never pays to be ahistorical.
Some commentary from conservatives as usual is full to the brim with warmongering, but that’s their answer to everything, especially when Islam is involved, so I take whatever they have to say with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, it is distressing. I’m still perplexed as to how someone can offer a solution to a problem that they clearly don’t understand. CNN recently had Jason Russell, the filmmaker and “mastermind” behind the Kony 2012 campaign weigh in on Nigeria, because he’s somehow become an expert on Nigeria and we’re supposed to listen to him for pithy advice. That’s the broad brush that is routinely used with commentary on conflicts in Africa. Anyone can swoop in (being white and male helps) and start opining, including a man who was last seen running around naked, fiddling with his privates and screaming obscenities about the devil on the streets. That’s the expert being paraded in front of us.
President Goodluck Jonathan accepted an offer of help from the US Secretary of State John Kerry, and the US will send a team of experts, soldiers and hostage negotiators to Nigeria. At the moment, it’s simply a waiting game, and I sincerely hope that the girls are quickly rescued. That is the best case scenario. However, what becomes of the future after the best case scenario? What will prevent this from happening again? What lies for the future of Nigeria? Will Nigeria have US military presence on the ground going forward? If so, do we fully understand the repercussions of that? Let’s not forget that Obama sent about one hundred US soldiers to neighboring Niger to set up a drone base last year, as Teju Cole tweeted.
To say that makes me uneasy would be an understatement. All of this gives me great pause because Nigeria is an OPEC nation and a lot of that oil is supplied to the US. Will that drone base in neighboring Niger be utilized in the near future in Nigeria? What will the US expect in return from Nigeria for all their assistance? Nothing is truly for free.
Now that some of the kidnapped girls are rumored to be in Chad and Cameroon, this is an international problem. It’s a problem that the Nigerian government should be working on fixing in tandem with the government of Chad and Cameroon. The leader of Boko Haram (Abubakar Shekau) is Nigerien, or at least has close ties to Niger. The ideal situation should have Nigeria working with Niger in addition to Chad and Cameroon. The Nigerian government claims to be doing just that. What the progress is on that front is a mystery, as Nigerian politics are a game of lip service.
The protests and social media outcry for international intervention also highlights that when people call for international intervention, they really mean US intervention. They don’t actually mean the international community outside of the US, and maybe the UK. Nigeria can work with peacekeeping troops from other African nations if need be. We shouldn’t forget that Nigeria and other African nations regularly sent peacekeepers to former warzones in Sierra Leone and Liberia, so Africans helping Africans is nothing new. These should always be the first go to options in my opinion. Nevertheless, now that John Kerry has promised US involvement, I sincerely hope that the involvement does not go beyond intelligence, surveillance and the acquiring of proper weapons for the Nigerian military who are ill-equipped to fight Boko Haram. The last thing I want is US boots on the ground in Nigeria. That could potentially create a host of problems; the primary one being that if Boko Haram and their splinter groups like Ansaru aren’t swiftly eradicated, western military presence in Nigeria will galvanize and strengthen them further. The “western devil” on their land will be like a dream come true for their cause. I do know this, whatever measure is taken in the fight to eradicate Boko Haram, that measure must be swift and forceful.
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Atane Ofiaja is a Nigerian writer and photographer based in New York City. He writes about African sociopolitical issues, with an emphasis on human rights abuses, colonialism, imperialism, religion, and war. His photography is centered around live music, with a focus on African musicians and the music of the African Diaspora. .ataneofiaja Find him on Twitter @atane