From Chibok to Banki: Of heroes and hope – JJ. Omojuwa

Have you ever suffered for 900 straight days? Have you ever gone two straight years where your only asset is the hope in your heart that fades with every new day? May you never have to die before that thing you desire most comes home to you. Two years and 83 days after Boko Haram kidnapped them, 21 Chibok girls regained their freedom last Thursday. After successful negotiations with the sect brokered by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Government of Switzerland, 21 of the over 200 girls were released to the Nigerian government in Banki town, 256 kilometres from the site of the April 2014 kidnap.

For these girls, it was an escape from over 900 days of hell and torture. For their parents, the end of an emotional nightmare, the weight and magnitude of which there are no words to quantify.

By brokering the deal for the freedom of the 21 Chibok girls, the Swiss Government and the ICRC rekindled the embers of hope for a nation in dire need of succour. However, the story of the Chibok girls is never complete without due mention to the Bring Back Our Girls movement. For 900 days plus, the BBOG movement made it impossible for Nigeria, its leadership and its people, to sweep the issue under the carpet. Through a national election and the institution of a new government at the federal level, the BBOG movement remained consistent and apolitical in its demand – the rescue of Chibok girls and all others in Boko Haram captivity.

Every day for over 900 days, the BBOG movement held sit-ins at the Unity Fountain in Abuja and other cities across the nation. Through its campaigns, protests and public demands, the BBOG group showed the tenacity and singularity of purpose that kept the government on its toes in exploring all available options to bring the Chibok girls back. The BBOG movement ensured the kidnap remained on the front burner of issues in a nation full of distractions.

For the Buhari administration, the Chibok girls’ rescue is significant of a major victory in the war against insurgency. A victory for which some men and women of the armed forces paid the ultimate price. For six years, Nigeria’s troops have battled Boko Haram insurgents in the North-East. Often outnumbered and under-equipped, these men and women fought and continue to fight gallantly to defend Nigeria’s sovereignty and protect lives and property,  some losing theirs in the process.

Banki, the freedom town for the 21 Chibok girls, was initially captured by Boko Haram in September 2014. A week earlier, the sect had secured a major victory in fulfilling its mandate of declaring an Islamic caliphate within Nigeria’s borders by capturing Bama, the second biggest town in Borno. This territorial advancement was achieved at the expense of the lives of hundreds of demoralised and unequipped men and women of the Nigerian Army.

Their sacrifices should forever be acknowledged and their memories venerated. There is perhaps no honour great enough to recompense these fallen heroes for their invaluable service to the nation. But a memorial in Abuja by the Nigerian government as a show of gratitude is a great start. The families left behind by these gallant men and women should also be taken care of with all the resources available.

It is not yet Uhuru until all the girls and women abducted by Boko Haram are rescued. It is of paramount importance that the Nigerian government continues the process of negotiating the release of the remaining girls and women in Boko Haram custody. As the BBOG movement has shown, when there is a will, there is a way. The joy of the 21 parents who were reunited with their daughters this week should not be denied the rest who remain vigilant in hope that their girls will also be brought home soon.

The failure of leadership under the previous administration exemplified by the disastrous handling of the Chibok girls kidnap is one Nigeria cannot afford a repeat of. For 42 days, the Nigerian government refused to acknowledge the kidnap of these girls. Forty two days during which the entire military might of the nation should have been mobilised and deployed to the rescue of these girls.

No expense should be spared in the rehabilitation and reintegration of all the girls and women so far rescued, from Chibok and elsewhere. To this end, government should pay attention to the humanitarian crisis in the Internally Displaced Persons camps in the North-East. Men and women who have had to ensure several months of terror in the hands of Boko Haram should not be subjected to further trauma.

Less talked about is the psychological damage the Chibok kidnap has done to girl child education in Northern Nigeria. With over 10 million out-of-school children, it is essential that the government shows only rewards exist, not punishments, for sending the girl child to school, especially in the North-East.

The homecoming of the 21 Chibok girls represents a silver lining for 180 million Nigerians as the nation paddles through the clouds of its first economic recession in three decades. There is a lot of lessons to be learnt in the Chibok story and even as it unfolds, we must pay attention to these lessons. Sometimes, you have to make the government do the right thing. Take it or leave it, we would not be speaking of a Chibok girls’ rescue today but for the dogged and persistent advocacy by the Bring Back Our Girls group. The advocacy has been a marathon, something most Nigerians do not have patience for. We want to see our country transformed but we do not have the patience and persistence to insist on getting those who have elected to do the right thing. We would rather excuse their failings. The Nigerian military is only as good as the political will behind it. If there is a political will to make it stronger and all conquering, it will reflect in the resources and arsenal available to it. We did not essentially recruit new men to the frontlines, we simply empowered the same army and the results have changed drastically.

It speaks to a fundamental fact; if Nigerians want Nigeria to move forward, Nigeria will move forward. That would take a collective commitment on the side of the people because most politicians are like normal human beings; they need to be made to do the right thing at times. The quest for normalcy in the North-East continues and we must never feel comfortable until all the factors that made terrorism thrive in the region have been subdued. As negotiations continue for the release of the rest of the Chibok girls and others abducted by Boko Haram, the government must continue to commit to the safety and protection of the IDPs. Reports coming from the camps are tragic and shocking.  The one thing people who have been displaced by terrorism and are now in camps should not suffer is food shortage. There is enough humanity in Nigeria and enough resources within the Nigerian government to feed all the IDPs and feed them well. We know corrupt people do not discriminate in terms of whom to steal from but all hands must be on deck to ensure all that is meant for the IDPs get to them. Let us help keep their hope of returning home alive, because like the rest of us, they matter.

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