Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Bringing Back Our Girls: How Nigeria is Failing its People


ABUJA, NIGERIA—Amid the clamor for the immediate return of the missing Nigerian schoolgirls, the Nigerian government has responded like an unconcerned bystander pointing fingers and insinuating political mischief by opponents instead of swinging into action to secure the release of the girls.

Such behavior underscores the lackadaisical attitude of our government towards its citizens, the misplaced priority of politics over people, and the ineptitude of government in protecting its citizens.

During the past three years in northern Nigeria, the terrorist activities of Boko Haram have heralded an era of systematic and widespread killings, bombings and sporadic attacks. Despite the fact that security spending has taken up the largest chunk of our national budget over the past three years, Boko Haram continues unchallenged to terrorize scores of innocent civilians, particularly those living in the northern half of the country.

The April 14 kidnapping of the more than 200 schoolgirls in the Chibok community in Borno State was a cruel reminder of the status quo. In fact, families whom we've been meeting at demonstrations in recent weeks told us that Boko Haram has been abducting girls in Chibok and neighboring communities for the past few years. As if to compensate the families for stealing their little girls, Boko Haram members typically toss the families the equivalent of $7 to finalize the transaction.

Local citizens feel—rightly so—that their government is failing to protect them. Therefore, families in Borno State have taken matters into their own hands by pooling together money to incentivize members of the government-run Joint Task Force (JTF) to fulfill their mandate of stamping out terrorism in the country. Some citizens have even set up their own makeshift security forces. Despite their families’ efforts, the girls were defenseless when Boko Haram decided to take them. The extra money thrown at the JTF didn't help, as the government security force was nowhere to be found during the four-hour-long abduction on April 14.

A Nigerian mother of one of the more than 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, crying among more than 1,000 supporters who participated in a demonstration on April 30.

In addition to failing to ensure the safety of its citizens, the Nigerian government also failed to provide any information for almost three weeks about the girls’ whereabouts and what it was doing to secure their release. To that point, the government waited 19 days until it set up an official fact-finding mission. Feeling abandoned by the government, parents decided to trek into the forest themselves to confront Boko Haram and rescue their girls. Ultimately, they had to terminate their mission when it became apparent that their mission would end it near certain death.

The failure of government to adequately protect its citizens and the reality of citizens taking up responsibility for ensuring their own safety is a telltale sign that the existence of a Nigerian government that provides security for its people is fast becoming a mirage. Furthermore, it is quite disheartening that for over three weeks after the abduction, the government didn't give exact information regarding the missing girls. In some circles, the figure was put at 276; others say the total number of missing is 234. Overall, citizens don’t believe that the government has been forthright with the exact state of affairs in the Chibok abduction. If the government officials were honoring their duty to us Nigerians, they would provide us accurate and substantial information about rescue efforts.

On a final note, the intervention of the United States and other countries is not an opportunity for our government to abdicate its primary role in the return and rescue of our girls. We are confident that America has the resources and means to assist our government in the rescue of our girls, but this by no means absolves the Nigerian government of its primary responsibility— which is making sure that our girls are brought back to us alive.

Beyond bringing our girls back, the Nigerian government should take steps to receive and reintegrate the girls into society in a way that guarantees their survival and personal development. To this end, the government should set up trauma counseling services for the girls upon their return. As an immediate measure, there should be ongoing trauma counseling for parents and relatives of the missing girls, as well as for some of the girls who are reported to have escaped. In addition, while the rescue mission is in progress, the government should provide to the public every bit of information on the specific steps and actions that the government is taking. The need for an informed and active civil society cannot be overemphasized.

This tragedy is no more about the return and rescue of our missing girls than it is about finally dealing with the security issues in our country and the broader problem of government failure. While we urgently need our girls back alive, we demand an immediate and long-lasting solution that will resolve our security issues and issues of poor governance. This is a defining moment for us as a country. We must end this war on terror and we must end it now.

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