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Ayo Obe: Day 500: Unnumbered, unnamed… unremembered

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Ayo Obe: Day 500: Unnumbered, unnamed… unremembered

by Ayo Obe

Today marks 500 days since the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the Government Girls Secondary School at Chibok in Borno State. The Chibok Girls were taken from their school during the night of 14th-15th April, 2014.

Although 57 of them escaped during the process of the abduction, when two weeks passed without any sign of the remaining 219, and worse, seemingly without any attempt by the Federal Government to rescue them, mounting concern fuelled by anger at a false (though hastily retracted) claim by the Nigerian Army that it had rescued them, led to protests and demonstrations all over the country on the 30th of April and 1st of May.

However, those expressions of concern and anger did not follow the usual pattern. The protesters did not feed themselves the self-comforting mantras: “We’ve done what we could … We’ve done something anyway … We’ve made our point …” They did not just “move on”. Instead, they sustained their protest. Not only was it echoed around the world, but the #BringBackOurGirls (or #BBOG) hashtag created for Twitter became a global phenomenon.

More importantly, the protest was sustained here in Nigeria. Every day since 30th April 2014, a group of Nigerians have staged a sit out in Abuja or taken other actions in support of the demand to Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG)! In Lagos, the demand has been re-echoed every week at “Speak Out Saturday”. Indeed, all over the country and outside it, Nigerians and other concerned people have registered the same demand. In the United States’ Congress, some lawmakers wear red every Wednesday to ensure that our Chibok girls do not fade from memory.

Among those whose main reaction to the tragedy has been to calculate the political impact on them, or on those whom they support, there has been bewilderment and bafflement, skepticism – and even anger over the fact that Nigerians and others have continued to register their determination that the Chibok Girls will not join the ranks of the unnamed, unnumbered or unremembered victims of terrorist attacks and other tragedies in this country.

Yet the reasons for this determination are not really that complicated. A month before the abduction of the Chibok girls, schoolboys had been slaughtered in their dormitory at the Federal Government College, Bunu Yadi in Yobe State. Some reports gave the number killed as 29, others put it at 59: eventually the names of 43 boys were released.

The nation was horrified, the survivors told their harrowing tales and President Goodluck Jonathan condemned the terrorist killings. There was even a demonstration by the Unity Schools Old Students’ Association in Lagos. But – as with so many other atrocities – the nation eventually moved on. Promises made to victims of this outrage, or of bomb attacks, or of other acts of terrorism, faded – at least from the minds of the government officials who had made them.

True, despite the confusion, the Bunu Yadi schoolboys were neither unnumbered nor unnamed. Yet we had already started un-remembering them when news came of the abduction of the 276 Chibok schoolgirls. Coinciding with the 14th April 2014 terrorist bomb at Nyanya in Abuja, which left “more than 70 dead”; the nation was at first relieved when the Nigerian Army claimed to have rescued the girls. But as the facts emerged – that there had been neither rescue nor even any attempt to pursue the abductors (who had taken their own sweet time in the leisurely conveyance of their captives to the Sambisa Forest), Nigerians began to ask themselves: are we going to just move on from this too? Are we going to un-remember these victims, the way we un-remembered the Bunu Yadi boys? Surely not! At least here we had names, numbers – pictures even – of the missing girls.

Yet as demands for action to rescue the abducted girls and bring them back grew, the response of those in power seemed to be: What’s so special about these girls? Why can’t you un-remember them the way we are already un-remembering the unnumbered and unnamed Nyanya bombing victims?

It was really only after February 2015, when the Jonathan administration finally launched an offensive against the Boko Haram insurgents, who had by then established themselves in several local governments in the North-east, that it really sank into national consciousness why there had been such irritation at the sustained campaign about these girls. Because that was when the trickle of those who had been able to escape or make their way out of Boko Haram enclave became a stream. And it became obvious that there was indeed nothing special about what had happened to the Chibok girls. Except for this: they were neither unnamed nor unnumbered! And the BBOG coalition was there to ensure that they did not become unremembered.

Yet for the others – abducted by Boko Haram, kept in bondage, raped, abused, forced to take up arms on their behalf – there had been no outcry, no alarm, no real awareness in the nation at large about just how many of our fellow citizens had disappeared. We had not bothered to number them and we had not bothered to name them. So how could we be expected to remember them? The call by the BBOG coalition for a national register of missing persons is an attempt to shed light on this area of ignorance in our country.

That ignorance goes beyond a willful refusal to count ourselves properly, or to register our births and deaths. The title of this article came to me as I listened to news reports of fresh inquests into the deaths of the 96 people who had perished in the Hillsborough disaster at a football match in Britain on 15th April 1989. These were new inquests, but it struck me that despite the large number of fatalities, even at the time when it happened, each one of the dead was separately treated: separately numbered, separately named, and separately remembered. What a contrast, I thought, to our own reaction to such mass tragedies.

In our country, news reports about terrorist bombs, clashes in North-central, pipeline explosions and other tragedies, all seemed to end with vagueness about the numbers of those killed and near blackout about the numbers injured. Apart from the victims visited by the BigMan for the obligatory photo-op, few names would emerge. The hostile reactions to – not only its ultimate verdict – but the very idea of a Coroner’s inquest into the deaths of 116 people in the collapse of the Synagogue Church of All Nations guest house last year typifies our usual response. Hiding behind presumptions about what God wants, we prefer amnesia. Let them become unnumbered, unnamed and unnumbered.

Indeed, the list of things that we – the Nigerian people – have not done about the human toll of the carnage in parts of our country could go on. “Unmourned” is another word we might use. We see pre-pubescent girls of nine, ten or eleven, strapped up with explosives and sent into the middle of crowds. We don’t know whether they are told to perform the action that detonates the explosives, or whether it is done by remote control. If the child is the agent of detonation, we don’t know whether she understands that this act will kill her; we don’t know whether she dies willingly in the belief that she is going direct to heaven, or whether she carries out the detonation in innocent ignorance of what she is about to do to herself and to others.

We can’t be sure – but what is sure is that we give her barely a thought. We don’t know when she went missing, whether she was abducted or whether she was handed over by misguided parents. Certainly we don’t shed any tears over her, do we? We don’t know her name, and we don’t care to know.

But when we stand in the breach for the Chibok girls – as we do today, to mark their 500th day of captivity–we stand in the breach for her, and for all those other victims. The ones we didn’t count. Those we didn’t name: The ones who must be included in our small acts of remembering.

  • This Best Outside Opinion was written by Ayo Obe/Thisday, a lawyer and mother who participates through Lagos BBOG

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