Two hundred or more girls have been kidnapped in Nigeria. In most countries, even where the government demonstrates contempt for the electorate, the authorities would be going into overdrive, making all the right noises, mobilising every conceivable resource –
leaving no stone unturned might be the mantra. It’s the type of tragedy that, handled well, might even secure another term in power.
The Nigerian government appears, in contrast, unmotivated by such petty concerns as appeasing the electorate. There is national fury at the ineptitude of the authorities’ response to the recent kidnapping. Despite an increase in the budget for such purposes, there remains an absence of any coherent strategy to tackle security in the country. In the face of Boko Haram’s escalating five-year extremist uprising, this is extremely worrying for Nigerian citizens.
A culture of misinformation surrounds the case. Nigerian commentators are appalled that nobody even seems able to agree on the number of girls that are missing, with figures from between 100-234 flying around. It is hard to get a sense of the facts.
The day after the abduction, the military claimed to have rescued the majority of the girls. It later transpired that they had done no such thing, but that 40 girls had – without any support from the authorities – managed to escape. Rumours are now starting to emerge that the girls may have been smuggled into Cameroon and sold for less than £10 each into forced marriages with militants.
Even in the west, we know that black lives are not valued, and black female lives even less so. We saw this in the stark contrast between media coverage of the racist murders of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin last year. The subsequent outrage at this, where it existed, seemed to be concentrated among black women, and to take place online, outside the traditional halls of power.
Similarly the reaction to the Nigerian tragedy is happening largely on Twitter, and seems to be concentrated among Nigerians, other Africans, and members of the African diaspora. Nigerians are demanding that the government, and the world, take the issue seriously.
The trending hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, is advocating for government action and an international response now. While many of the tweets focus specifically on this case, others are taking it as a metaphor for the wider state of play. The case is symptomatic of what is happening in the country generally, and demonstrates the apathy that Nigerian leaders have towards ordinary Nigerian people.
Yesterday, approximately a thousand protesters marched to present a letter to the National Assembly in the nation’s capital Abuja. A speaker from the House of Representatives appeared, in the rain – a significant gesture in a country whose leaders are famed for their dismissive attitude to the hoi polloi – to address those gathered. However, while this may be “polite”, it remains inadequate in the absence of any meaningful action.
While the UK and global news media are waking up to the story now, the response has been slow, and relatively insignificant in comparison to what we might have expected had these events unfolded elsewhere.
The lack of interest shown by Nigerian politicians might be read in the same way that the limited coverage in the western media, and the absence of an international response, can be understood. The intersection between race, gender, and class has created a perfect storm of inaction. The Nigerian elite exhibits a similar attitude to the poor as that shown by the west towards black and brown lives.
While for a privileged few, involvement in the Nigerian state comes with all the trappings of power, for most, Nigeria remains an illusory façade of a nation, failing to provide any of the structural mechanisms, safety, or support networks, which the citizens of a functioning state might expect to enjoy.
The victims here are not rich, western or white, they are not from Kent, or even Korea, but from Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria. We have become almost immune to stories of death and violence from such parts of the world. Despite the horror that so many are missing, the fact that there are over two hundred almost desensitises us further to what is happening.
These girls are nameless, faceless victims. Their tragedy will not be humanised in the way that the high-profile stories of individual, western, kidnap victims are. Paul Gilroy advances the term “infrahuman”, to describe those bodies marked by race, whose alterity condemns them to worthlessness.
The lives of a nameless mass of infrahumans are not worth that of one European individual. The barbarity of the temperate zones in which the infrahuman resides, condemn them to short, brutal, lives. Such media representation of the infrahuman allows us to ignore the histories of the former colonies, and the role of Europe in the production of overseas theatres of violence.
Thus reconfigured, the structural problems that plague the British invention that is Nigeria are claimed to be the natural order of things, testimony of the barbarity and ineptitude of its people. But Nigerians have had enough. Perhaps this will be a tipping point, sparking real change in the country.
Nigeria has so much potential, if only this could be harnessed, and allowed to develop. I remain suspicious of outside, particularly western, intervention, in Africa. To succeed, Nigerian transformation must be indigenous, and start at grassroots level. If nothing else, the response of ordinary Nigerians to these painful events shows us the capacity that exists within the country for the masses to mobilise, and, crucially, make their voices heard.