In his well-received memoirs, Dreams From my Father, Barak Obama depicts an evocative search for cultural affirmation in his ancestral Kenya. In one moving passage from the book, he sits underneath a mango tree watching his grandmother braid his sister’s hair and listening to her recite the genealogy of the Obama clan. As he listens, he observes that the family pedigree, carefully preserved through oral tradition, recounts a masculinist narrative of proud male ancestors and their begotten sons. But what about the female forbears, the women who bore these accomplished men? He is told, with a tinge of poignancy, that their ‘names [have been] forgotten’. This disclosure is unsettling, of course. Yet, it need not surprise us if we recognise the inherently political character of commemoration. In spaces where multitudinous narratives must contest for recognition, subaltern voices are almost invariably suppressed. Peripheral narratives, as it were, must constantly confront the peril of extinction; of being perfunctorily cast aside, unacknowledged and unsung.
Coming towards the end of 2015 we must ask will the abducted Chibok girls be forgotten? Will History invisibilize them? Will the memories we have of them continue to recede into a hazy past with each passing day? Will they be consigned to the status of erstwhile subjects of international outrage? Are they to remain mere topics for frenzied, but fugacious, advocacy campaigns? Or will renewed efforts to memorialise them reify their predicament and galvanise concerted action to secure their release? Surely, the latter alternative is the better one.
Over 600 days have now passed since 14 April 2014 when a gang of Boko Haram members invaded a secondary school in Chibok, north-eastern Nigeria, seized 276 school girls, and carried them off into captivity. This tragic episode was, at the time, veritable fodder for a typical international media sensation. A terrorist organisation renowned for both its savagery and avowed opposition to ‘Western education’ had abducted a cohort of female students before issuing – to widespread consternation – a televised threat to sell off the girls in a slave market. An avalanche of global outrage ensued – culminating in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign – denouncing the abduction and heaping well-deserved opprobrium on the Nigerian government for its notoriously lethargic response to what was, and still remains, a human rights violation of the most heinous kind. And whilst a handful of the Chibok girls have reportedly escaped from their captors since this incident, the great majority of them – the figure has been put at 219 – remain in captivity, and are constantly exposed to torture; sexual violence; compulsory ‘marriages’; and forced conversions amongst several other unimaginable horrors. Particularly distressing are reports, albeit unconfirmed, that some of the girls may have now been radicalised and co-opted as Boko Haram recruits. And although abductions generally cause anguish to the loved ones of the abducted, the duration and circumstances of this particular case, far from offering cathartic resolution, have plunged the families and friends of the missing girls into a vicious cycle of hope and despair. Indeed, the girls were last publicly sighted over a year ago when they featured as visibly traumatised images in a chilling video released by Boko Haram shortly after their abduction.
An influential discursive community committed to humanistic values should empathise with those victims of violent extremism who have been pushed to the peripheries of the world’s political spaces. Whilst the abducted Chibok girls are but a handful of these victims, they are a potent reminder of the plight of thousands of people caught up in the crossfire of Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram. More pertinently, the Chibok girls are a cohort whose marginality was ironically accentuated by regrettable disputations about the actual number of missing girls. This casualty-rate controversy was somewhat tempered only when the Nigerian government released official figures pursuant to the report of a fact-finding committee issued two months after the abduction.
In many ways, the Chibok abduction, like the Baga bloodbath, elucidates the normalisation of violence against black bodies. Because the cyclical violence unleashed upon these bodies reproduces grim tedium, we often do not know the casualty-rates; we lose count of the body-count because we stop counting. Tellingly, many of the abducted girls belong to politically marginal communities in Nigeria, a factor that may, arguably, explain the initially tepid response within the country to their plight. The marginality discourse, however, must not be mistaken for a denial of the agency of these girls, nor does it invariably reinforce the notion of a fixed hierarchical relationship between perceived “central” and “peripheral” groups. On the contrary, it seeks to problematize the peculiar position – within broader political processes – of those groups that disproportionately experience the threat and incidence of extremist violence. Agency was manifestly demonstrated, after all, when a number of the abducted girls escaped from captivity of their own volition and without the official assistance of the Nigerian government. And in view of the vicious methods that Boko Haram has adopted to demonstrate its eponymous antagonism towards so-called “Western education”, the mere pursuit of an education in those areas besieged by the sect is both a subversion of its extremist ideology as well as a valiant act of defiance. Thus, by preserving the Chibok narrative, we express our empathy for the abducted girls and their families. By memorialising them, we affirm our commitment to justice for victims of human rights abuses and uphold our belief in the value of commemoration as a crucial aspect of democratisation. And by galvanising support for victims and survivors of violence, we empower those who are most easily forgotten.
Although time and space constraints will not permit a lengthy exegesis of the plethora of human rights violations perpetrated in this case, it must be remarked that the circumstances of the abduction indicate a brazen violation of the principle of human dignity which exists as both a non-derogable human right and fundamental social objective within Nigeria’s constitutional framework. Equally negated is the commitment of the Nigerian State, as stated in its own Constitution, to protect children, young persons, and other vulnerable groups, from exploitation and neglect. More so, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, ratified by Nigeria in 1991 and 2001 respectively, provide for the protection of children during situations of armed conflict, tension, and strife. And whatever may be the normative content of the right to education, this right must be presumed to be violated when students attending educational institutions, as in this case, lack any reasonable guarantee of personal safety.
If the opportunity to pursue an education is partly constitutive of “a good human life” as Martha Nussbaum argues, one doubts that such an opportunity was extended to the Chibok girls in any meaningful sense. It is particularly disheartening to note that no reasonable security measures were put in place at Government Girls’ Secondary School Chibok, from whence the girls were seized, especially considering that Borno State – where the school is located – has been a major scene of Boko Haram raids over the last few years. Yet, in order to appreciate the invaluable contributions that girl-child education can make to both the public good and the attainment of human capabilities, Nigeria need look no farther than its own experience. Empowered by the opportunities provided by a solid education, inter alia, Nigerian women, have been able, for instance, to rise to great heights in public life – holding the highest portfolios in the federal cabinet; sitting as President of the United Nations Security Council; and heading the judiciary, to cite but a few examples.
Ultimately, there is an urgent need to affirm the dignity and vindicate the human rights of those individuals who are caught up in the areas affected by the Boko Haram insurgency. One might object, however, that this language of human rights, particularly expressed as positive obligations on the part of the Nigerian State, overlooks the extent to which apparent incapacity in the face of terrorist violence intersects with the developmental challenges of many postcolonial States. Yet, the avowed ineffectuality of so-called fragile States is by no means a static and invariable condition. Certainly, Nigeria’s effective containment of a potential Ebola epidemic in 2014 suggests that even such States can provide meaningful protection to their citizens given purposive leadership and the political will to make judicious use of available resources.
On a less sombre note, the case of the Chibok girls should inspire renewed demands for crucial legal and policy reforms. Already, a policy initiative introduced by the Nigerian government in collaboration with international partners seeks to transfer school-children from conflict-prone areas to places where they can pursue their education unencumbered by the threat of extremist violence. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign demonstrates the revival of civil society activism in Nigeria by providing a platform for citizens to press for the girls’ release and demand greater accountability in public life. Additionally, the campaign provides a sharp retort to certain cynical elements in Nigeria who dismissed the abduction as a mere political gimmick designed by detractors of the Jonathan administration to scuttle the re-election bid of that government. This scepticism was of course misplaced given that an official enquiry on the matter – commissioned by the Jonathan administration itself – revealed that the abduction had in fact occurred. And considering the cataclysmic incidence of sexual violence in the areas besieged by Boko Haram – about 2 000 rapes are estimated to have occurred – leftists groups have renewed calls for reforms in the legal framework on sexual health rights in Nigeria where abortion is still generally criminalised. Should the proposed reforms sail through, medical personnel and many victims of sexual violence may pursue the option of termination within the context of a legal framework that shields them from the prospects of criminal prosecution. More so, the proposed reforms can provide a solid basis to challenge the integument of patriarchy that informs the rigid legal regime on abortion, as well as to reimagine a more liberal and democratic society.
Given that the Goodluck Jonathan administration which held office at the time of the abduction was defeated in general elections held earlier this year, the newly-elected government in Nigeria is, presumably, acutely aware of the need to achieve a successful onslaught against Boko Haram in the nearest future. In a recent interview, Nigeria’s President affirmed his preparedness to negotiate with Boko Haram for the girls’ release and even hinted at a possible prisoner-exchange deal. Whilst this news should be received with due caution, we must be careful not to overlook the precarity of those individuals and communities, besides the Chibok girls, who are also implicated in this situation of armed conflict. Whatever the case, the international community should continue to demonstrate its firm solidarity beyond the fleeting expression of obligatory discomfort that greeted the news of the abduction. As testament to the transnational nature of terrorism, Boko Haram has already extended its raids to the neighbouring West African countries of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. In this regard, strategic international collaboration is key to defeating the menace.
We continue to keep vigil for the missing girls, long after the quincentenary of their abduction. Our eyes are fixed on the pathways, along with their loved ones, longing for their return. Although our eyes ache from watching, although our eyelids threaten to sag from the weight of our tears, our gaze is steady.
Whatever happens, we will never forget our Chibok girls.
We will hold them in our memory: Lugwa; Maryamu; Hanatu; Rifkatu.
We have not forgotten their names.
We know all their names.
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Ugochukwu Ezeh is a graduate student in the Faculty of Law of the University of Oxford. His research interests focus on the normative content of State obligations to protect against violent extremism. Deeply interested in leadership, youth participation, and democratisation processes in Africa, he co-founded the Young African Research Arena (YARA) in 2012, was a youth facilitator at the 2014 World Economic Forum on Africa, and is currently the Deputy-Chair of Oxford Pro Bono Publico an organisation which promotes public interest law. Ugochukwu is a Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholar. He tweets at @theugoe
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