The girl said ‘no’

The Guardian (Nigeria) - - THE GRAND MASTERS -

LAST week, on April 14, Nige­ria marked the fourth an­niver­sary of the cap­ture and ab­duc­tion of 276 young girls, all of them stu­dents, by Boko Haram from their school in Chi­bok, Borno State. The gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari has had 163 of them re­turned in tranches to Nige­ria and their par­ents. All of them have been re­ha­bil­i­tated by the gov­ern­ment and the dis­tor­tion in their young lives is, in the process of a happy re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. That is the happy part of this un­happy story. The un­happy part is that 113 of the girls are still in the cus­tody of the Boko Haram ter­ror­ists and there is no cer­tainty about their safety or when they might be brought back home for a happy re­union with their loved ones. How­ever, we have Buhari’s as­sur­ance that they are not for­got­ten and that his gov­ern­ment will do what it needs to do to bring this un­happy in­ci­dent to a close. This as­sur­ance may be cold com­fort to the par­ents of these kids who have waited for four years with­out hav­ing these young­sters in their em­brace. But the im­por­tant thing is for us all to en­cour­age the gov­ern­ment to keep the is­sue on the front burner de­spite com­pet­ing na­tional is­sues. In fact, se­cu­rity gen­er­ally is cen­tral to our sur­vival as a na­tion. The Dapchi ab­duc­tion of an­other batch of young girls most of whom have now been re­trieved un­der­lines the fact that the ter­ror­ists see the suc­cess of their ex­ploits largely in terms of grab­bing our young school girls. Ab­duct­ing young school girls means a lot to the ter­ror­ists’ cam­paign mantra against west­ern ed­u­ca­tion gen­er­ally and fe­male ed­u­ca­tion specif­i­cally. And be­cause they are young and in school their ab­duc­tion is likely to com­mand global pub­lic­ity and at­ten­tion. This draws un­mer­ited at­ten­tion to the weird cause of the ter­ror­ists. For them this is the oxy­gen for their evil cam­paign.

As we urge the gov­ern­ment to work on the re­lease of the re­main­ing Chi­bok girls, we also wish to draw its at­ten­tion to the plight of the re­main­ing Dapchi girls in­clud­ing the most fa­mous name in the Dapchi episode, Leah Sharibu. Of the one hun­dred and some­thing girls of the Gov­ern­ment Sci­ence and Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, Dapchi, Yobe State, taken away by the ter­ror­ists a few weeks ago all of them have been re­turned ex­cept five who died. The only other stu­dent who still re­mains in cap­tiv­ity till to­day is a 15-year old girl who is a Chris­tian by faith. The girl, Leah Sharibu, the only non-mus­lim in the group was asked to con­vert to Is­lam if she wanted to be freed along with the oth­ers. This se­nior sec­ondary school pupil said she knew noth­ing about Is­lam and would there­fore not con­vert to a re­li­gion that was alien to her. As her school mates were fil­ing into ve­hi­cles at the ter­ror­ists’ camp that were to bring them back to free­dom with­out Leah she sent a mes­sage to her mother to pray that the “will of God be done in her life.”

It is tempt­ing to com­pare Leah’s show of con­vic­tion to that of the Pak­istani teenager, Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Tal­ibans a few years ago. Malala was a campaigner for girl-child ed­u­ca­tion in Pak­istan while the Tal­iban, the bearded pur­vey­ors of a prim­i­tive and deca­dent ide­ol­ogy think girls should nei­ther go to school nor work. They should sim­ply get mar­ried, stay home and breed chil­dren like rabbits. Malala sur­vived the shoot­ing, was flown abroad, healed and hailed for her ex­cep­tional courage. She is now a proud re­cip­i­ent of a No­bel Peace Award. The world has made her the poster girl for peace, girl-child ed­u­ca­tion and the war­rior for a good cause.

The ques­tion put to Leah was “would you con­vert to Is­lam and be freed?” The ques­tion seemed sim­ple, al­most in­nocu­ous, the an­swer seemed even pre­dictable in a sit­u­a­tion in which the young girl was sur­rounded by guns and those who use them to do their un­holy duty un­think­ingly. But to Leah the ques­tion was not just a ques­tion. It was a stab in the heart, her heart, the heart of her faith, the heart of Chris­tian­ity, the heart of what­ever she held dear. It wasn’t just a ques­tion, it was an in­quiry into her faith, into the strength of her con­vic­tion, into the strength of her char­ac­ter. Her mind must have bulged with unasked ques­tions but she had to take a de­ci­sion quickly on the spur of the mo­ment. There was no time for med­i­ta­tion, ru­mi­na­tion or for the ex­am­i­na­tion of the pros and cons of the of­fer be­cause ter­ror­ists have no time or pa­tience for such niceties. In­stinc­tively the girl sim­ply said, No. It came from the heart spon­ta­neously; she had no need to de­bate with her­self to es­tab­lish whether what she did was right or wrong. This was an act of re­bel­lion against ni­hilism, a vul­ner­a­ble dis­play of in­tegrity and con­vic­tion. She per­son­i­fied the dig­nity of some­one who would not sell her prin­ci­ple for a pot of honey, for de­sir­able free­dom. She could eas­ily have done it and walked into free­dom. She re­fused to ex­change her faith for free­dom. She is by her dan­ger­ous de­ci­sion the watch tower of fidelity to her faith. You may wonder how many of Nige­ria’s men of God, if con­fronted with the chal­lenge that Leah faced would have cho­sen the road that Leah took. Pretty few if any.

A hard headed prag­ma­tist would have opted for free­dom with the ap­par­ently “harm­less” con­di­tion at­tached. She had a chance to ac­cept it and re­nounce it later on the ba­sis that it was done by com­pul­sion, that it was not from the bot­tom of her heart, it was ex­e­cuted under duress and there­fore she had a right to re­nounce it and go back to her orig­i­nal faith. Weighed in the bright light of rea­son her de­ci­sion would have been thor­oughly ex­cus­able, and wisely prag­matic. But this strong willed teenager chose the path that many peo­ple in the world, old and young, men and women, would not have cho­sen given the same set of cir­cum­stances.

For Leah’s par­ents who were sad­dened by the fact that the other girls had re­turned with­out their dear daugh­ter, Leah’s story of hero­ism may just be cold com­fort es­pe­cially in a coun­try with a low sense of moral­ity and a high level of in­tegrity deficit. The Leah story may seem like the low­est point in her life but it is the high­est point in the es­ti­ma­tion of the world. As Henry Ward Beecher said in his Proverbs from Ply­mouth Pul­pit (1887) “ex­pe­di­ents are for the hour but prin­ci­ples are for the ages”.

What makes Leah’s hero­ism par­tic­u­larly out­stand­ing is her young age. The sec­ond is the dan­ger she faced. When you jux­ta­pose her prin­ci­pled stand against the he­do­nism and vul­gar­ism of many of to­day’s youths, her ex­em­plary con­duct be­comes a gleam­ing bea­con. The preva­lence of hard drugs and cultism and rape and vi­o­lence among to­day’s youths is a cause for se­ri­ous worry about Nige­ria’s fu­ture. Also, a lot of the elec­toral of­fences that have been com­mit­ted over the years, such as snatch­ing of bal­lot boxes, il­le­gal thumb print­ing, fal­si­fi­ca­tion of elec­tion re­sults and gun fights have been traced largely to our youths. In 1962, it was our youths from the Univer­sity of Ibadan who trooped down to La­gos to protest the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion to sign an An­glo-de­fence Pact with Britain. With their in­tense pres­sure that de­fence pact was aborted by Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa’s gov­ern­ment. It is un­cer­tain what the ob­jec­tive of to­day’s Nige­rian stu­dents is. The only thing that is cer­tain is that stu­dent union lead­ers to­day pa­rade our univer­sity cam­puses in huge SUV’S which ob­vi­ously are prod­ucts of cor­rup­tion. They are the thugs and guerilla war­riors for des­per­ate politi­cians. I have seen noth­ing in the be­hav­iour of their unions that tells me that they are de­ter­mined to fight for a bet­ter so­ci­ety. If the coun­try is good they have a longer time to ben­e­fit from it than the older gen­er­a­tion of Nige­ri­ans. If the coun­try is bad they have a longer pe­riod of holo­caust years to go through. These two sce­nar­ios ought to be an in­duce­ment for them to work for a bet­ter coun­try.

As we speak, ed­u­ca­tion is go­ing to the dogs na­tion­wide. And in the north east there is a huge war to be fought not just to dis­lodge the Boko Haram Sect but to res­cue ed­u­ca­tion from the jaws of an­ni­hi­la­tion. And of course women ed­u­ca­tion which, be­fore now, had not been taken se­ri­ously is in deep dan­ger of be­ing drowned by the fall­outs of the in­se­cu­rity im­broglio. I have not heard a res­o­nant voice from the youths on this im­por­tant is­sue which has the po­ten­tial of com­pro­mis­ing their fu­ture. If they have faith in ed­u­ca­tion as the trans­former of hu­man destiny, as the cat­a­lyst for de­vel­op­ment and as a lib­er­a­tion ide­ol­ogy I ex­pect them to rise in de­fence of ed­u­ca­tion, not only in the trau­ma­tized north east but all over the coun­try.

Leah is in no po­si­tion to help her­self now as she is a cap­tured ex­em­plar of in­tegrity. The peo­ple who are keep­ing her have no in­ter­est in her hero­ism and the dis­play of in­tegrity and con­vic­tion. So it is up to Pres­i­dent Buhari to use all means pos­si­ble to bring this heroine back. He can flaunt her to the global com­mu­nity that Nige­ria still has a residue of virtue that the world can point to. But it is not about Leah only. The re­main­ing Chi­bok girls are still in our mem­ory de­spite the ef­flux­ion of time and no ef­fort should be spared to bring them home soon. What makes the Chi­bok and Dapchi ab­duc­tions so im­por­tant to the world – and to Nige­ri­ans – are their sex and age. These two fac­tors un­der­score their vul­ner­a­bil­ity but do not di­min­ish the need for the re­cov­ery of all other cap­tives who do not fall into these two cat­e­gories. Ev­ery life counts and their re­turn will speak vol­umes for the quan­tum of value we place on se­cu­rity and hu­man life.


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