Nigeria is a difficult place. It is not a country for the faint of heart. On a good day, when our larger cities such as Abuja, Lagos and Kano are filled with the teeming masses going in so many different directions, flogged by the heat and sun, bumping down uneven roads all in the name of “the hustle,” it can appear chaotic. On a bad day — and there have been some bad days since the terrorist group Boko Haram began its latest rampage with an April 14 bombing just outside Abuja, the capital, that killed more than 70 people and followed it three weeks later with a bombing that killed almost 30 more just a few paces from the first attack — Nigeria can seem like hell. The darkest moment now upon us arrived after the group broke into a school in the remote town of Chibok and absconded with more than 200 young women who are said to have been handed over to Boko Haram fighters as sex slaves or sold in neighboring countries as wives.
As individuals and as a country, we are angry and we are pained. We have protested and we have wept. A friend here said to me: “I can’t believe this is happening in our lifetime,” echoing what many feel. In the hallways at the World Economic Forum on Africa, taking place here this week, the agenda focuses on the real positives of an “Africa Rising,” but mixed in are moments of silence to remember the victims of these latest tragedies. We are fully aware of the difficulty of these times amid already difficult times. But Nigeria is not a country on the brink of collapse. More importantly, we are not a country where life is cheap. We are a nascent democracy with many challenges, learning how to develop an internal dialogue in a world so full of noise that shock and awe are the preferred tools of some ruthlessly unscrupulous people who want to make themselves heard.
A mass kidnapping is in many ways a more terrifying statement than the mass murder of innocent civilians by bombs, because however horrible, an explosion is a finite event. There is a before and an after, during which those who remain are permitted to literally pick up the pieces and reconstruct a new understanding of the world. Kidnapping causes a long-term rupture in the psyche of those kidnapped and of those who wait for their return. It doesn’t end. A person who has been taken is not there, but there is no body to inter for closure, no body on which to build memory. The kidnapped person is so tantalizingly close, kept alive by a devastating hope. Kidnapping or hostage-taking is perhaps the most disturbing form of terror because it turns this hope into a liability that can paralyze.
In mid-December 2012, my grandmother was kidnapped from her village in southern Nigeria by people trying to make a political point. There is no more devastating feeling than to sit and wonder what is happening to the disappeared and then to try to plan a path through your day. How can you think? How can you work? How can you even breathe when your imagination conjures how a group of madmen might harm your grandmother? Luckily, the hard work of the police and security services brought her back to us safely. In no way do I mean to equate the kidnapping of one with the kidnapping of hundreds, but in my mind the intent is similar and clear. The kidnapping of these girls is the crudest attempt to destabilize our country. It is a cowardly act by lazy minds who lack the ability or desire to address a pluralistic nation as the democratic process demands, through the spoken or written word.
The world — indeed, Nigerians too — often forgets that we are a young democracy, essentially only 15 years old, which has experienced only two successful successive transfers of power. Nigeria shed the last of a succession of brutal military dictatorships in 1997 and adopted a democratic form of government only in 1999. Our elections of 2003, 2007 and 2011 were complicated and fraught with tension, but each one has shown remarkable progress. We are also a young nation, less than 60 years old, comprising almost 180 million people of multiple ethnicities and cultures, still trying to parse the overarching story of our nationhood. The actions of Boko Haram expose a painful truth now alien to those who live in some of the older, more stable democracies of this world: that the journey toward a peaceful political discourse often requires a society to wrestle with its more violent forms of dialogue, and that those least connected to the fight are often the ones who suffer the most.
I have no desire to explain away the brutality that Boko Haram has unleashed upon my fellow citizens. We need to get our kidnapped girls back, and we need to honor the memory of those who died in the attacks. But we need to do so through vigorous support of our growing democracy and renewed commitment to the lives of the most vulnerable within it. This has started with pleas from the families of the missing girls, social media movements, live protests, and the Nigerian soldiers and security services who are putting themselves at risk for our safety. Hashtags are important. We must #bringbackourgirls. But the Internet is not and will never be an answer to a group committed to blowing up their own bodies in the quest for their tainted vision of governance. As Nigerians, we must hold ourselves accountable to forming an idea of who we are and how we address those who use violence as expression. The international community must stand with Nigerians through this struggle and not turn its head away as we deal with the troubles we will certainly encounter as we march toward this vision.
Together — that is how we will bring our girls back, and ultimately how our girls will bring us back to ourselves.
Uzodinma Iweala is the author of “Beasts of No Nation” and “Our Kind of People: A Continent’s Challenge, A Country’s Hope.” He is the editor in chief of Ventures Africa magazine.