Dan Simpson: Kidnapped in Nigeria

The U.S. can help, but Nigeria's history of reconciliation also must come into play

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The horrible drama of the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, a violent Islamist group in northern Nigeria, hits me particularly hard because I lived in rural Nigeria for two years, as a just-out-of-college schoolteacher in the early 1960s, right after Nigerian independence from the United Kingdom.

It was a different place. I drove all over the country in a Volkswagen beetle, finding a place to stay in each town where I stopped, with no advance reservations. There were always young British or American teachers in the schools. The reason was the precipitous departure of the British colonial officers at independence, leaving the Nigerians with insufficient teachers of their own, needing to fill the positions temporarily with foreigners.

There were a few schools like Chibok, where the girls were abducted, although at that point, particularly in the north of Nigeria, predominantly Muslim, there were many more boys’ schools than girls’ schools, reflecting the Nigerians’ priorities.

There were no military roadblocks. One saw no serious weapons at all, although men did hunt game with muskets, what people called “bush rifles.” For those who know Nigeria only more recently the idea of circulating freely and never feeling threatened is unknown.

But, to put the current situation into context, it is necessary to review some of Nigeria’s more violent history, before and after the time I was there.

First of all, get rid of any gooey ideas about the “civilizing” role of British colonial rule. It lasted from 1900 to 1960. To secure control over Nigeria, the British had to fight, particularly in the north, the military forces of what was left of a number of kingdoms. They were not that easy to defeat, although, in the end, local forces were no match for European troops and weaponry.

In the place where I taught, Benin City, the British had not been able to assert control until 1897,within the living memory of some of the Edo (Bini) people who lived and had ruled there, the remnants of the Benin Kingdom. British forces arrived in Benin to find human sacrifices hung on crosses along the road, to deter their entry. My household staff and the non-Edo-speaking students at the school were firmly persuaded that the Binis were night-raiding homicidal cannibals; they would not venture off campus at night.

The Bini king (the oba), Akenzua II, was an apparently mild-mannered man who wanted to review his sons’ report cards with me over a game of pool, although I also attended a tribute ceremony over which he presided during which various sub-chiefs brought him living animal sacrifices whose throats were cut on the spot and whose blood was then smeared on his forehead in a cross.

In the category of other intra-Nigerian violence, five years after independence came a military coup d’etat, and then, in 1967, a three-year civil war, the Biafra war of attempted secession, which claimed as many as 3 million victims. It was based not only on tribe, the Igbos against the rest, but also to some degree on religion. The Igbos were mostly Catholic, those opposing them were Protestant or Muslim for the most part. Forced conversion, as with the Chibok girls, is not new.

The Biafra war was ferocious, including blockades, attempts at starvation and scorched-earth practices. In the end, the Biafran secessionists, despite help from surprising sources, including the Catholic Church, lost. At that point, the Lagos-based victors got smart. They sought reconciliation with the former Biafrans, not revenge.

That particular action can serve as the best hope that Nigeria can somehow get past this awful Chibok kidnapping without dividing the country into unbridgeable north-south, Christian-Muslim schisms.

What happened to Nigeria between 1960 and 2014 to make the current situation possible? It could be equally fair to ask what has happened to the world in the past 50 years to make possible the Abu Ghraibs, Syrias, Ukraines, Sandy Hooks, Somalias and South Sudans?

One answer is the proliferation of guns. People now kill each other daily with weapons that were not generally available 50 years ago. The parents of my students in Benin in 1961 were farmers and fishermen, scraping together enough shillings to pay their sons’ school fees each term only with difficulty. Now, given the fact that the region is the oil-rich Niger River delta, many of them no doubt own automatic weapons. They steal oil from pipelines, at great danger to themselves. The fish have been killed by petroleum runoff. Nobody is going to try to make a living there these days through small farming.

A second answer, particularly relevant to Nigeria, is that respect for the authority of central and state governments has dropped steadily to near-zero. People still seek public offices because they provide golden opportunities to steal, but everyone knows that and respect for the offices and office-holders no longer exists. In other words, goodbye to self-imposed law and order.

On the one hand, ordinary Nigerians, particularly women, are incensed to the level of fury at the central government’s inaction in the face of the Chibok kidnappings. They find the flaccidity of President Goodluck Jonathan, a Southeastern Christian, enraging. They know the story of the Nigerian military, whose leaders pocket their $5 billion-per-year budget and which itself is divided between Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Southerners, but they don’t forgive them for the loss of their daughters.

The United States should help if it can. At the same time, there is among Nigerians a tendency to try to pass off problems to foreigners if they can, thus avoiding taking responsibility for solutions themselves. As much as we want to help — and we cannot do otherwise as human beings — Nigerians must accept responsibility for what is happening and take appropriate action, as they did during and after the Biafran war, for the Chibok girls’ fate. Abubakar Shekau, the Boko Haram leader, is a Nigerian, just as Goodluck Jonathan is.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).


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