7th May, 2014
by Cindy Wockner
FOR the past two years I lived in Nigeria — in its capital Abuja.
Home was an armed compound, surrounded by guards and barbed wire. Many areas of the city were completely off limits to my family and other Westerners, especially as the security situation deteriorated.
The world’s attention has finally focused on the stricken country, following the abduction of 267 girls from a school by Islamic fanatics — and the subsequent kidnap of more from a village. The crimes are beyond sickening.
While the youngsters’ families are in shocked distress, Western governments are pledging help to find and rescue them from terror group Boko Haram and well-meaning celebrities drive “awareness” campaigns.
But can they be saved?
Nigeria is a country where vast areas are “ruled” by lawless brutality, where corruption is endemic, where Westerners dare not move beyond certain safe zones and where the grip of this fundamentalist monster is viciously tightening.
Even the captital would frequently be surrounded by police and military checkpoints, stopping and checking vehicles — especially unnerving at night, with electricity shortages meaning no street lights and the police holding only tiny torches.
During my 24 months in the country the security situation rapidly slumped to the point where most of the north, the stronghold of Boko Haram, was considered too dangerous to visit.
The abductions of the girls from a school in Chibok and subsequent declarations that the terrified youngsters will be sold like slaves in the market are shocking.
But so too is what has been happening in northern Nigeria now for years. Last year Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden”, burned 29 students alive in a school and earlier this year 59 schoolboys were reportedly massacred at a boarding school in the same region.
It is symptomatic of the mayhem and lawlessness which now exists in parts of Nigeria and particularly the north.
Two western hostages of the terror group were shot and killed during a rescue attempt soon after our arrival and another seven hostages were killed in a separate abduction last year.
Violence was and is commonplace. Soon after my arrival there I read a newspaper article about 19 people killed in a bank robbery.
Nineteen people killed. Yet it was just a brief, a couple of paragraphs in the local newspaper. Despite so many deaths it wasn’t considered a big story – it was normal. People I spoke to about it, locals, shrugged their shoulders.
Living in Nigeria, especially with small children, means security is always at the forefront of your mind — even down to driving on the roads,which by any description is just madness.
Even slight traffic accidents turn into major altercations where everyone gets out of their cars, screams and shouts, punches are thrown and occasionally weapons are produced. I always resolved that if I was involved in any kind of accident I would stay safely locked in my car and not venture out. Fortunately I never was.
One day I did see the ever-present violence up close. I had gone to the local market, a crazy frenetic place which sells everything. I wanted to do a picture story about Nigerian women’s head dresses.
But the existence of my camera, which many Nigerians hate, provoked anger amongst some of the stallholders and locals who crowded around me. One man in particular took umbrage with me, demanding that I leave immediately and wanted to smash my camera.
It got more and more heated until the man produced a flick knife which he opened and held towards me.
Fortunately another member of the crowd stepped in to defend me and helped me beat a hasty retreat. I have interviewed murderers, terrorists, rapists and paedophiles but I have never felt as threatened anywhere as I did that day in a Nigerian marketplace in the nation’s capital city.
This was despite the fact that the women making the head dresses had agreed to talk to me and to be photographed.
The abduction of the schoolgirls shows, on a far greater level, how brutal life is, especially for women.
Life is not just brutal, but cheap.
It shouldn’t be normal or acceptable. Nigerians should not stand for it and the world should not. Like we should not accept that more than 250 young girls, aged 16 to 18 years, who were preparing and studying for a physics exam, can be kidnapped and sold off without outrage from the country’s government.
Especially a government that is about to host a World Economic Forum this week for Africa.
It is now three weeks since the abductions and the Nigerian Government and its military and police appear to have done precious little to rescue the girls. Until recently were denying they had even been taken. This is not unusual.
It wasn’t until groups started marching and the world started taking notice that some action seemed to be galvanising to find the girls and lock up their abductors.
Overnight President Goodluck Jonathan accepted an offer of US help to find the girls.
But it is three weeks since the first group of girls were taken from their boarding school in the dead of night – eight more were seized from a village in recent days.
The government spent precious time seemingly paralysed by inaction, despite the fact that many people — including the girls’ families and an NGO called Every Nigerian Do Something or ENDS — seem to know exactly where the teens but lack the firepower to get them back.
Dr. Peregrino Brimah prepares to speak at #BringBackOurGirls rally, Nigerian embassy, New York, USA, May 6, 2014
Family members from Chibok have reportedly ventured into the forest and seen the girls’ prison but are too scared to do anything.
Dr Peregrino Brimah from ENDS says their group has seen the camps where Boko Haram live, in the Sambisa Forest, bordering the town of Chibok.
“When my boys went to spy they saw operating generators with gas, fridges, welding machines, tents, a thriving community of 4000, in clear sight of the forest,” Dr Brimah said.
There are reports that some of the girls have already been married off to Boko Haram fighters who believe that women should not be at school but should be cooking and looking after the men.