Nigeria has much to be proud of lately. With the conduction of last month’s peaceful elections, the world seems to be looking at the country with renewed eyes, as if Nigeria is finally showing signs of a nation where democratic processes are finally taking root. Finally, it seems, an African country is getting the hang of how democracy works.
But then, I remember the girls. 219 girls still missing, stolen from their beds at school one year ago in Chibok. And my spirit deflates.
The initial barbarity of the theft, has now compounded with 365 days of accrued uncertainty, outrage at Boko Haram, anger at then-president’s Goodluck Jonathan’s failure to bring them back, leaving Nigerians and many around the world with a lump sum of heartbreak.
The tragic saga of the Chibok girls brings, as Nobel winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka described it, “a cloud of heavy embarrassment, and shame” for Nigeria. He continued, “We cannot allow ourselves to forget.”
Indeed in the year since the kidnapping, now-former president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration managed to bungle the public relations aspect in this, from the arrest of protest leaders, to accusing the girls families and #BringBackOurGirls supporters of “psychological terrorism” to the false claim that the government had brokered a ceasefire with Boko Haram. Nigerians wisely voted him out of power last month.
Unfortunately hope is dwindling for the girls’ safe return. In marches in Abuja on Tuesday, the slogan #BringBackOurGirls was accompanied by #NeverToBeForgotten. President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, who has vowed to fight Boko Haram admitted, “We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued. Their whereabouts are unknown. As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them.”
Most of us cannot even begin to grasp what life this past year must have been like for the girls who have managed to escape from their attackers, or for their families that have had to go one year without their daughters. But I do know what it is like to grow up with a mother whose life as a child was torn upside down by violence in Nigeria. The country’s civil war in the 1960s forced my mother and her family to escape the country. When she chooses to talk about the experience, (which is rarely, even almost 50 years later) she always remembers her schoolmates being killed in bombing raids. To this day, my mother has never returned to Nigeria. She has never forgiven Nigeria. The trauma is still there.
As a lover of learning, one of the things that my mother found most upsetting about the experience was that she couldn’t go to school for two years as a result of the horrific violence. Today, 17 of the girls who escaped from Chibok are enrolled at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, bravely continuing their education in Nigeria, getting a chance that my mother did not have. Their education for the past year was funded by private donations from around the world.
A few of them have written about their hopes and dreams for the future. (Their last names are not used out of security concerns)
Grace, 17, said, “We are determined to use this good education we are getting and then go home and improve Chibok. When the insurgency struck, I was devastated, but little did I know it was going to be a blessing in disguise. I want more now. I have great plans for myself, my family, Chibok town, and my country and I will not give up on those dreams.”
Martha, 17 said, “Through education, we have the opportunity to change our country from the inside. I forgive Boko Haram for what they have done and I pray God forgives them too.” Mary, also 17, added, “We forgive Boko Haram, because they don’t know what they are doing.”
In the midst of horror, not only have the girls managed to get education, but they have managed to find forgiveness for their attackers.
May the world never forget them, their 219 schoolmates, nor the hundreds of thousands of children who continue to be affected by Boko Haram’s terrorism in West Africa.
As for President-elect Buhari, when he assumes power on May 29, he has a job to do: Safeguard Nigeria’s children.