By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
I want to thank the Nigerian women across the country who have inspired and sustained this movement, especially the mothers, families, and communities of the abducted school girls. The call to #BringBackOurGirls has gained voice as a grassroots movement across Nigeria and beyond. This is an organic and grassroots organizing effort that began from the abduction of hundreds of teenage girls whose only crime was using their holiday break to read for a high school examination. Their abduction is a war crime.
Before this, we’d been somewhat disorganized in the face of the onslaught of a mass-casualty insurgency. From it, a movement has emerged which gives us all common cause. As Nigerians, we must agree to elevate some things above partisan politics. One such thing is public safety. Another is the wellbeing of our children and our future. A third must be the defence of our hard-won democratic space.
Today in Nigeria, we have a rampaging youth bulge; a dearth of jobs and skills; poisonous political rhetoric; social media to purvey it; abysmal public ethics; incapable public institutions; and a public space dominated by corruption, impunity and perverse incentives for both. These feed a growing divide between narrow identity groups defined by faith, sect, status; between rich and poor; haves and have-nots.This difficult watershed for our country must compel us to take the wellbeing of our youths and the health of our political space seriously.
These Chibok girls are young people. As our next generation, they are the guarantors of the continuity of our race and country. They’re, therefore, not just “our” girls; they’re our future. If we cannot protect our future, then we fail ourselves and our ancestors.54 days into these crimes, there’re many things we still don’t know:How many of our girls were indeed abducted?How could the abduction of so many young women happen in an area under emergency without as much as the discharge of one bullet in their defence or honour?How could their abductors go from Chibok to their hideouts without meeting any resistance?Why did the authorities expose these girls to the hazard of undertaking these examinations under circumstances of clearly inadequate security?
To these questions we still do not have clear answers. From these questions it’s clear that there’s a lot of blame to share. Evidently, there’ve been errors at various levels, state and federal. But that’s no reason for the path of divisive and defensive rhetoric that some public officers at both federal and state levels and politicians on all sides have chosen. If anything, it should force all levels, institutions and parties of the public space to re-double efforts for joined-up leadership.
The #BringBackourGirls movement cannot answer these questions. Instead, it is the responsibility of government to answer them. With every sense of responsibility, I admit, they are right in raising these issues. I also believe that we owe the movement a duty to support it: for without it, these girls, their families and communities could easily have been forgotten.
There’re intrinsic, practical, functional, and legal reasons why I say the #BringBackourGirls movement is right and deserves our support to continue to pose these questions and make these demands in the manner that it does.
Intrinsically, only citizens who care would bother to ask these questions. Those who don’t will simply carry on with business as usual. It’s in our national interest to foster citizenship that cares.
As a practical matter, these questions go to the heart of how we conduct public business in Nigeria. It’s a matter of painful shame for us all as Nigerians that we cannot say how many of our children were abducted. If we cannot count hundreds of missing girls, how can we be trusted to count tens of millions of votes or hundreds of millions of people or thousands of billions of public money accurately?
When a country is threatened by an existential adversary such as we confront today in north-east Nigeria, it is the function of leadership to unite civic assets against a common adversary. This problem doesn’t just threaten the north-east or its peoples. When any part of Nigeria suffers, we all suffer. The #BringBackourGirls movement has brought home this message in a manner that no political leader in the country could manage.
As a matter of law, Section 14(2)(b) of our 1999 Constitution solemnly declares that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.” It is for this reason that we have security agencies and we ask all to support our security agencies because their work is difficult but necessary. Section 24 of the Constitution also requires citizens to “respect the dignity of other citizens and the rights and legitimate interests of others and live in unity and harmony and in the spirit of common brotherhood” and to “render assistance to appropriate and lawful agencies in the maintenance of law and order.” #BringBackourGirls executes this constitutional duty.
This is why I think that asking the #BringBackourGirls movement to channel its demands to Boko Haram rather than to government demeans our country and impoverishes our values. When a citizen suffers burglary, they report to the Police not the burglar. Similarly, we don’t tell a rape victim to channel their grievance to the rapist rather than the Police or the hospital.
So, we must not allow it to be heard that we’re asking our citizens to channel their demands for the wellbeing of our girls to entities clearly recognized as terrorist organizations. To do so is to deny our government and its leadership the legitimacy it deserves as the institution to which we owe obedience. This is wrong. And it’s shameful.Nigeria belongs to all who live in or come from it.
Dr. Odinkalu is Chair, Governing Council, National Human Rights Commission.