It’s like a tale from fish-wifery told by moonlight: how Boko Haram entered a Nigerian town as villains, kidnapped dozens of schoolgirls, and 32 days later returned them to the same town as heroes with flags waving and crowds cheering and not a single Nigerian soldier in sight.
Amend the last part. The soldiers who were in sight were present to stop journalists but to ensure the safe passage of Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi’s men. If it were a movie, it would have been titled: “From Shekau to Al-Barnawi: The Making of another Monster”. Are these fellows still wanted? I’m bereft.
One month ago, we woke up to the news that Boko Haram had kidnapped 110 girls from their dormitory in the Government Girls Science Technical College, Dapchi. From all accounts, the incident happened under very bizarre circumstances. Even though the region remains the epicentre of Boko Haram activities, the army was withdrawn from the town and two weeks later, the terrorists struck.
To say they struck, is to dramatise the incident. They came in Nigerian Army uniforms as if they had come to their playground. They came in nine trucks over miles of open, largely flat ground, released a few random shots in the air and within an hour rounded up 110 girls, while a few managed to escape.
The cries for help fell on deaf ears. The police station in Dapchi was conveniently empty and multiple sources reported that the phone numbers of the Divisional Police Officer were switched off. God knows we’re glad to have the girls back, and we should do all we can to help them recover from the trauma. We’re deeply saddened about any of them who may have been lost or left behind, and we remember again the remaining Chibok girls.
But there’s a lot that the government needs to account for. We can’t say Shekau and the ascendant outlaw, Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnaw, are wanted men and yet continue to deal with them like the fellows next door. The only way for Dapchi not to happen again, for this whole thing not to become another criminal enterprise, is for the government to tell us exactly what happened and to adopt a different approach to this problem, instead of feeding the monsters.
I have a sickening feeling that we might be heading down a slippery slope with the lives of innocent children and sending a dangerous signal that parts of Nigeria are safer under the control of terrorists. When are we going to be able to tell the terrorists that our children’s lives will not be toyed with? My children grew up staying mostly with me. They did not go to boarding school; and even when they went away on holiday, I cannot recall them spending two or three weeks away at a stretch.
At about 18, when the eldest moved into the hostel after her admission to the University in Lagos, there was hardly any weekend when I did not find an excuse to visit, often under the pretext of taking some needed provision to her. I’ve found out that I’m not alone. If we can help it, we, parents, want our children to be near, until it becomes inevitable to free them from the nest.
After the kidnap of the Dapchi girls, I’ve been thinking about that day when I left my daughter all by herself in her new school outside the country. For the first time in both of our lives, she was going to be on her own, not knowing what was going to happen to her after my departure.
If I could be so deeply confused and saddened by the prospects of her safety in a largely secure place, then I wonder how the parents of the Dapchi 110 must have felt losing the apples of their eyes to murderous strangers with no idea where they were or what was happening to them. And I can imagine what joy it must be to have them back. Buhari came close to this experience in a public way, lately. In December, his son, Yusuf – his only son – was involved in a bike accident that nearly claimed his life. The country rallied round him and the First Family – which is as it should be. I still remember those pictures from the early days of the accident, when the poor chap’s life was hanging by a thread at Cedacrest Hospitals, Abuja. Buhari and his wife, Aisha, visited the hospital a couple of times. On no occasion was the red carpet laid out for them like it happened during the President’s visit to Dapchi.
When I saw photographs from that Dapchi visit that was the first thing that struck me – the red carpet and Buhari’s light blue three-piece agbada and a matching cap. I’m not saying his heart was not heavy with grief or that he should have faked his concern by appearing in rags. But for God’s sake, it was a somber visit, in some way reminiscent of his visits to Yusuf after the chap’s bike accident. It was a visit to a crime scene strewn with the broken emotions of a community that is half-dead, as one resident described it. If it didn’t occur to Buhari’s chaperons not to spread the red carpet and deck the place like a set for the Oscars, didn’t the President himself think that his appearance was insensitive?
It may seem an irrelevant point now, after the girls were rescued on Wednesday. Yet symbols, especially genuine and moderate symbols, can help any community going through difficult and distressing times. It didn’t help matters that Buhari was comparing his response with that of former President Goodluck Jonathan in Chibok. He ought to know that no two miseries are ever alike; yet each demands our fullest empathy and nothing less.
Is Dapchi the emerging template for dealing with Boko Haram? It worked for the release of over 101 Chibok girls, but even in that case, we did not see the terrorists in a triumphant procession on the streets of Chibok. Something has changed. Al-Barnawi and his men have become emboldened to the frighteningly alarming point where they can march confidently down the streets of Dapchi with crowds waving the same Boko Haram flags that gallant soldiers laid down lives to remove in many parts of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa in the last three years.
This dangerous sign can only be viewed with pleasure by Al-Barnawi, other Boko Haram franchises and their accomplices for whom we’re opening yet another door. It’s true that Buhari said almost three years ago, that he was willing to negotiate to free the Chibok girls. But now, the handshake has reached the elbow and Dapchi may have signalled the end of our sovereignty.
– Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network
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