By Keri Day, Ph.D.,
I had an opportunity to interview Kelechi Ohanaja, a Nigerian American and member of the Indigenous People of Biafra, about the current kidnapping of the 276 Nigerian girls.
I am struck by the unfolding complexities associated with this situation in which the Nigerian government has not been transparent or resolute in rescuing these girls. I am also saddened that the daily violence among Nigerian girls and boys has been transpiring for several years now in Nigeria, of which the 276 kidnapped girls is one incident in a long history of violence for this country.
Below, I have provided an interview with Ohanaja on the complexities related to the Nigerian government and how this might affect our activism here in the United States on this issue.
KD: An article published on May 7, 2014 in the USA Today Online quoted President Jonathan as remarking in 2012 that Boko Haram had infiltrated every area of the Nigerian government. Why is the corruption of the government important to this horrific event, being the kidnapping of these girls? In other words, what should people be “digging for” in relation to this horrendous situation?
KO: There is currently a growing chorus of politicians from the northern part of Nigeria urging the current president, Goodluck Jonathan not to seek reelection. In an attempt to both undermine and dissuade the president from running, many believe that the president’s political adversaries are lending both financial and logistical support to Boko Haram. While advancing this argument, some politicians and citizens point to the fact that Boko Haram’s first major attack came three months after Goodluck Jonathan announced his 2011 presidential bid. In addition, statements made by presidential runner-up, Muhammadu Buhari, who pledged to make Nigeria ungovernable if he did not win the 2011 election, further corroborate this theory. A timeline of Boko Haram activity coupled with opposition statements should let the international community know Nigerian politicians are capable of doing anything to seize power. I like many Americans was saddened when the news of over 200 girls being abducted from school came to my attention on April 14th, 2014. My sadness turned to relief when we were told that the military rescued the kidnapped girls only to later find out that the military was lying and the girls were still at large. Inconsistencies within the reporting by the military led me to be more critical of the information I was receiving from the Nigerian government. There were several thoughts and questions that came to mind. First, why have the girls who escaped been unable to provide any credible leads to the location of the other missing girls? Second, what is the explanation behind the contradictory statements made by the school principal regarding her whereabouts at the time of the kidnapping? And lastly, why weren’t any of the teachers or principals kidnapped during the raid? To make tangible progress in this investigation it is necessary we answer these questions. We must dig deeper into the corrupt politics of Nigeria under the current leadership of President Jonathan.
KD: Why would the government publish the list of kidnapped girls against some families consent and why would these girls be grouped into sectarian categories, being “Christian” and “Muslim”?
KO: I was under the impression that the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), an umbrella organization containing numerous Christian denominations, released the names against the wishes of the family. After reading this I wondered why wouldn’t the government be the one to release the names. Upon looking at the list of names I also noticed that there was considerable overlap in the first names along with some questionable names. For instance: there were seven Rebecca’s and seven Mary’s amongst the missing Christian girls along with an Amina Ali, which is a common Muslim name that was listed as a Christian student as well. In conjunction with releasing the names of the girls, CAN also requested overseas scholarships and 50 million naira compensation to the girls, upon their return which I am sure they will receive a portion of. These pieces of information may seem insignificant in isolation, but when added to the unanswered questions, it suggests that there might be ulterior motives behind the gathering and releasing of the names. CAN’s decision to publish the religious affiliation of the girls calls into question the means at which this information was acquired. Public schools in Nigeria do not request religious identity when registering for exams. Therefore, it is my belief CAN included religious information to remind the public that despite Boko Haram’s recent attacks on Muslim communities, Boko Haram is still committed to subjugating Christians and implementing sharia law.
KD: These kidnappings are about state violence, not merely about fringe terrorist kidnappings. The US is never completely unaware of international conflicts of this nature such as state violence (as this group has been penetrating the Nigerian government for some time). What should we be pressuring the United States to actually do? One can easily conclude that even if the girls are rescued, more life will be kidnapped or murdered on tomorrow.
KO: Most Americans understand that Nigeria is a sovereign state that’s ultimately responsible for its own matters. Despite the rallies and growing protests, Nigerian politicians are largely unaffected by the growing crisis in Nigeria. Many of them have foreign bank accounts and houses abroad that shield them from the realities everyday people encounter in Nigeria. We should be pressuring our government to use all diplomatic means to hold Nigeria accountable for any violations of human rights against its citizens. The level of unabated violence in Nigeria can only be accomplished when a government has a history of violence against its citizens with no repercussions. Let’s not forget that this very same Nigeria we are asking to bring our girls back starved over 2 million children to death during the Biafran-Civil war less than fifty years ago without anybody being brought before an international court. And ironically many of those same leaders who thought it was appropriate to use starvation as a weapon are still presiding over affairs.
KD: What should our activism “look like” in light of the fact that Boko Haram has infiltrated so much of the Nigerian government? Presumably, we can march and rally to rescue these girls, but how can our activism reflect these unfolding complexities (that parts of the Nigerian government have enabled groups like Boko Haram)? What might faith communities do in order to support the girls and critique state violence in Nigeria?
KO: Our activism must be objective and consistent. Boko Haram has been largely ignored up until this point. Now that they have the public’s attention, it is critical that we attack the root of the problem, which is Boko Haram and their affiliates. It is very easy to be overcome with emotions when we hear about girls being abducted from their school, but without directing our energy towards a criminal government, this issue will persist. I fear that our singular fixation with the missing girls is masking the real problem, which is global terrorism in Africa and illegitimate governments.
KD: What can faith communities do in light of these complexities?
KO: Faith communities must first educate their congregations on the importance of religious tolerance and acceptance. I would also like to hear leadership from Islamic and Christian groups issue strong condemnation towards the government’s inability to curb religious violence.
Dr. Keri Day is the Assistant Professor of Theological and Social Ethics & Director of Black Church Studies Program at Brite Divinity School
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