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The Small Things That Spell Big Failures

Two Wednesday’s ago, I got a phone call from a reporter at one of Italy’s major newspapers, la Repubblica. It was the second anniversary of the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno State. In a macabre move, the terrorist group that abducted the girls, Boko Haram, had released a video featuring some of their victims. The Italian reporter sought my response to the traumatic event.



I told her that the abductions reminded me, above all, of a country incapable of focusing on getting the small things right. And I insisted that this failure at small tasks accounted, in the main, for the broader tragedy in Nigeria.

To illustrate, I reminded the reporter that the girls were captured during a period of emergency rule in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa—the three states most besieged by Boko Haram insurgents. Emergency regulations entailed the restriction of vehicular movements in the three states. So how were the abductors able to travel close to midnight in several trucks to the Girls Secondary School, Chibok, where the girls were seized?

It’s a question that no Nigerian government official has answered, even though then President Goodluck Jonathan had set up a presidential committee to investigate what happened in Chibok on April 14, 2014. In announcing the imposition of the state of emergency, Mr. Jonathan had declared, “Some northern parts of Borno state have been taken over by those whose allegiances are to a different flag than Nigeria.” Then he disclosed that security agencies “have orders to take all necessary action, within the ambit of their rules of engagement, to put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists.”

If recent revelations hold up in court, it appears Nigeria’s top security chiefs, charged with leading the war against Boko Haram, preoccupied themselves with dividing billions of dollars of the defense budget among themselves and political cronies. These men allegedly splurged on personal mansions and fattened their bank accounts. If they spent at all on weaponry, it was on substandard fare. It was as if the security honchos had attended some warped military academy that incorporated mindless corruption and depraved acquisitions in its training manuals.

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari. AFP PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari. AFP PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

According to reports by human rights organizations, Nigeria’s security agencies often used the emergency regulations as cover to terrorize innocents. In fact, scholars date the organized violent phase of Boko Haram to the July 2009 extrajudicial execution of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf.

At the time he was murdered, the founder of Boko Haram was unarmed, his hands tied behind his back. The police had every right to prosecute Mr. Yusuf, but zero right to kill him. Five police officers were charged in his illicit killing, but the case, like many a crime by the Nigerian state, has been quietly shelved. That kind of homicidal highhandedness is on display in the southeast, where heavily armed security agents routinely murder agitators for hoisting pro-Biafra placards.

As a presidential candidate and, later, president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari pledged to find and rescue the Chibok girls. We’re closing in on the first anniversary of his tenure, but Mr. Buhari has not found a single one of the abducted girls. A day after the abductions, separated by a few hours from suicide bombings that left scores dead and many wounded in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, Mr. Jonathan was waltzing to music at a political rally in Kano. It was as perverse a political moment as could be found in any time or place.

On the second anniversary of the girls’ abduction, President Buhari’s wife, Aisha Buhari, chose to stage her own insensitivity, even if in minor key. She made the bizarre decision to launch her book on beauty therapy on the anniversary of this most unfortunate event.

Aisha Buhari, the first lady of Nigeria, during Buhari's inauguration in Abuja, Nigeria 29 May 2015. EPA/DEJI YAKE

Aisha Buhari, the first lady of Nigeria, during Buhari’s inauguration in Abuja, Nigeria 29 May 2015. EPA/DEJI YAKE

I told the Italian reporter I did not see the Chibok abductions in isolation. For me, the Nigerian state’s failure to forestall the abductions spoke to a broader indifference. Nigeria is organized to serve the interests of a narrow, idle class whose appetite for lucre outstrips its capacity for common sense, including the imperatives of enlightened self-interest and the common good.

Nigeria is particularly at war with children, the young, the aged, women and the poor. If the Chibok girls’ parents belonged to the group characterized in Nigeria as “political stakeholders” the Nigerian state would have done everything to find and rescue the victims of abduction. The children of the poor are absolutely dispensable. I made clear to my Italian interviewer that, despite the official sentiment of commitment to the goal of salvaging the missing girls, the mission was not promising.

If Nigeria were competent at doing the small things right, the girls would not have been abducted to start with. During a state of emergency, security blocks are supposed to be mounted in strategic places. Insurgents bent on seizing girls gathered at a hostel to take exams should not have been able to drive for more than a mile or two before they were stopped. Since security agents knew full well that the insurgents used Sambisa Forest as a fortress, all the major approaches to the forest should have been cut off. Instead, Nigeria’s ill-equipped, poorly motivated security agents seemed to slumber as the men they were meant to fight off roamed the highways of Chibok and stole hundreds of girls.


Despite the obvious ineffectiveness of the emergency regulations, the government was unable to imagine a different policy. In a detailed report in November 2014, Deutsche Welle, Germany’s broadcaster, reported on the debate to extend the state of emergency. It reported that many people, including members of the House of Representatives, “think that the emergency rule imposed 18 months ago, in northeastern Nigeria has only worsened the situation rather than improving it.”

In an even more pointed rebuke, Farooq A. Kperogi, a US-based scholar and perceptive commentator on Nigerian affairs, wrote: “I learned early this week that President Goodluck Jonathan has written to the National Assembly to request the approval of a third (!) extension of the emergency rule in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. I won’t mince words: this is straight-out insane.” He added: “Emergency rule in these three northeastern states has done nothing to contain or countermine the sanguinary fury of Boko Haram. In fact, it seems to have escalated it. No one contests that fact. It is utter insanity to repeat the same thing that has proved to be ineffectual three times in a row.”

When a government fails at its most basic of tasks, the citizenry feels bereft, abandoned to its own devices. Last week, a cherished friend and relative sent me a text of a message he had sent to his beloved. It read: “The story of the Chibok girls is refreshing the issue of personal insecurity in Nigeria. The impunity of the Fulani herdsmen is adding to fear. Terror convention is changing and you get to know only when terror has occurred. The first principle for safety is curtailment of adventure. Second is isolation from gatherings where you can easily be anonymous. Therefore I need to know beforehand any travel plan by any member of my family. I need to clear such plan in my private thoughts, irrespective of purpose. Let everybody be extremely vigilant.”

In a climate where the institutions of the state have become chronically ineffectual, such private anxiety is bound to be (sadly) ascendant.

This article was first published by Sahara Reporters and is republished here with their permission.