Nigeria has had many battles on its hands this year but only one resounding victory: against Ebola. By Monday, six weeks had passed without a new case and the World Health Organisation declared the country officially Ebola free.
Amid near hysteria globally, and desperate scenes in the three west African states struggling against an exponential rise in infection, Nigeria’s success in limiting and then quashing an outbreak is one heartening piece of news.
It is also news that raises an awkward question for Nigerians: why have they been able to mobilise against this fatal virus with such courage and efficiency, while on other pressing, national issues, disharmony and bad faith often reign?
Flipped on its head, the question is more alluring. Nigeria has made huge leaps over the past decade and a half to become Africa’s biggest economy. It has done this amid chronic power deficits, rampant corruption and a brutal Islamist insurgency ravaging the north.
What might Nigeria achieve, if federal, state and private institutions pulled together with the same collective will as they did against Ebola? For example, to rein in crude oil theft and multibillion dollar fuel subsidy rackets; repair structural flaws impeding the supply of cheap gas to power electricity and industry; and tackle the country’s chronic security problems?
The entrepreneurial energy of Africa’s most populous nation was momentarily focused on Ebola. The results were correspondingly fast. By contrast six months have elapsed since Boko Haram extremists shocked the world by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls and threatening to sell them as sex slaves.
Protests against the Goodluck Jonathan administration’s bungled handling of that tragic saga continue. The girls remain in captivity although government negotiators claim this week to be close to securing their release.
One answer to these anomalies is in the nature of the threat. Nobody had anything to gain from Ebola, an invisible killer, posing a common risk for rich and poor. Behind many of the other problems preventing Nigeria from fully exploiting its potential, is a cartel of vested interests, extracting financial or political gain.
Some of these have gradually been cracked. Not so long ago only one in 300 Nigerians had access to a phone: now there are 114m mobile phones for a population of 170m. On the power deficit, the single biggest brake on the country’s transformation, the battle continues. In the oil sector, which for all its corrupt and murky underpinnings remains central to Nigeria’s economic health, the fight has barely begun.
Ebola struck the country at its commercial heart. The Boko Haram insurgency was for a long time contained in the remote northeast, occasionally straying to the centre with bomb attacks but never successfully targeting Lagos in the south.
“The total unpredictability of Ebola helped galvanise action. Then again that’s to a large extent because it hit Lagos first, the heartland of the champagne elite,” says Tolu Ogunlesi, a rising star among political bloggers. “If Boko Haram hit Lagos things would change big time.”
This also speaks to the uneven way that Nigeria is developing. The Liberian who imported Ebola collapsed at Lagos airport and was taken to a top, private clinic. If he had entered under the radar and gone to a remote public health outpost the story might have been different.
Lagos, a city of 16m and once a byword for urban decay, has been administered far more efficiently than much of the rest of the country. Nigeria as a nation is drifting precariously close to the edge, riven by ethnic, religious and regional tension. Lagos has the buzz of a city taking off.
Nigeria’s core challenge, says Dr Benjamin Ohaeri, at whose clinic Ebola first turned up, is to spread opportunity more evenly for millions of young Nigerians without a job.
“It’s great to say no to these insurgents but you also have to give them something to say yes to. They need to feel they are vested in the enterprise.
Meanwhile, the insurgents have tormented Nigerians greatly the sect’s attacks since early 2014 have been brutal and have targeted the most vulnerable. Remote villages, markets, hospitals, schools and children have borne the brunt of the attacks.
In the early hours of February 24, Boko Haram abducted an unknown number of female students in Buni Yadi village, Yobe state, and killed 43 boys.
Also in February, in Konduga, a village 35km from Maiduguri, the so-called birthplace of Boko Haram, gunmen abducted 20 female students from the Government Girls Science College and killed more than 53 people. Following that attack, the federal government closed five federal colleges in three states under a state of emergency order.
Joy, 17, was a student at the college in Konduga. She stays at home now, assisting her mother on the farm during the day instead of going to school.
“They killed a lot of people and burned down my school. Some of my friends were raped. I escaped,” she said asking that her real name not be used for safety reasons.
Joy’s daily journey to school used to involve trekking for two-and-a-half kilometres across difficult terrain. “In order to get to school on time, I would have to be on the road by 6:30am,” she said. “My village was at the top of the hill, but I didn’t care because I wanted to go to school. Education is the root of every aspect of human development.”
Joy wants to continue studying and become a nurse. “I am inspired by the work I saw the doctors and nurses do when my school was attacked,” she said. “I hope to assist my parents who are poor, and also my fellow human beings – especially the widows and the orphans in my town, who are victims of Boko Haram attacks.”
According to an Amnesty International report released last October, titled Nigeria: Keep away from schools or we’ll kill you, the right to education is under attack in Nigeria. Between the beginning of 2012 until October 2013, at least 70 teachers and more than 100 students have been killed or wounded in northern Nigeria and thousands of children forced out of schools.
In Borno state, more than 800 classrooms have been burned down. In Yobe state, which has been in a state of emergency for nearly a year, 209 schools have been destroyed.
I will never forget my friends and teachers who were killed. I miss them deeply.
Those who can, have moved away to the relative safety of surrounding northern towns to continue their studies and live with extended family.
Fatima, 14, who gave only one name to protect herself from reprisals, moved in with extended family in Kaduna, a city not far from the capital Abuja, after a Boko Haram attack on her school. She said she now feels safe.
“I enjoy my new school because there is peace here, no gunshot sounds, no explosives sounds,” she said.
“There is no threat experienced by me here in my new school. But it is still painful for me and all of the other students and teachers who have been scattered because we were like a family, and now we have been forced to go our separate ways. I will never forget my friends and teachers who were killed. I miss them deeply.”
She is still tormented by the events of her past. “From time to time, I think about what happened at my last school and when I see people that I don’t know, especially men, I get scared and think about the terrible experience.”
(Source: The Financial Times)