LAGOS, Nigeria — There’s a political sea change brewing in Nigeria, fanned by angry demonstrations over the government’s failure to rescue more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Islamic militants — and the government’s clumsy efforts to suppress those protests.
Ever since the girls were seized by the Boko Haram insurgents from their school in Chibok in northeast Borno State on April 14, a group of several hundred supporters has camped out at the Unity Fountain in a downtown park in Abuja, the capital, and refused to budge until “our girls are brought back.”
Hundreds of protests have also been held in Lagos, Kaduna, Lokoja and other cities and towns across Nigeria, all of them united under the “#BringBackOurGirls” hashtag. The demonstrations have been peaceful, at least on the part of the protesters. Although it is widely known that the government would love to end them, officials have been loath to send in the police because of the unrelenting international attention the abductions have received.
Instead, last week, the government opted to hire a mob to stage a counter-protest. According to Jibrin Ibrahim, an organizer of the demonstrations in support of the return of the girls, protesters first noticed thousands of counter-protesters massing near the park on May 26. Using a slogan current among Christian fundamentalists, they chanted, “Holy Ghost fire, pursue Boko Haram,” as they descended on the protesters, warning them to leave the government alone and direct their wrath against the Islamic insurgents instead.
The following day, the counter-protesters appeared in even greater numbers, many of them transported in dozens of government buses, witnesses said. The day after that, they were back again. This time the crowd included hundreds of young men on motorbikes, revved at full throttle “to drown out our voices,” Mr. Ibrahim said. He then described what followed: “They first went for the foreign and national television crews, smashing their cameras with clubs, and the cameramen fled for their lives. They then came for us, forcibly seizing telephones and handbags of our women. We all stood our ground.”
Despite the mayhem, he said, the protesters remained mostly calm and the incident ended without any fatalities.
There’s little doubt that many of the counter-protesters were organized at the behest of President Goodluck Jonathan — the Cable, a news website, reported that “a campaign bus bearing the photos of President Goodluck Jonathan and Vice President Namadi Sambo circled the venue.” Moreover, the government’s strict command structure makes it likely that the police had been ordered not to interfere with the counter-protesters
This was not the case the week before, when the police tried, unsuccessfully, to get the “BringBackOurGirls” people to move on. “I am not going anywhere,” one of their leaders, Oby Ezekwesili, a former minister of education and former World Bank vice president for Africa, reportedly told police officials. “My rights will not be violated.”
But on Monday, the police commissioner for Abuja, Joseph Mbu, banned all protests concerning the abducted girls. “I cannot fold my hands and watch this lawlessness,” he told reporters, adding that the authorities had received information that “soon, dangerous elements will join groups under the guise of protest and detonate explosives aimed at embarrassing the government.”
Ms. Ezekwesili condemned the ban as a violation of constitutional guarantees to “our rights to freedom of expression, peaceful association and assembly,” and said the protesters would challenge it in court. But then, on Tuesday, the police inspector general, Mohammed Abubakar, rescinded Mr. Mbu’s order, though he urged protesters “to apply caution.”
To a certain extent, the confusion is understandable. After all, this is new territory, for the government as much as for ordinary citizens. Ordinarily, the government would have responded to the protests with the usual platitudes about being on top of the situation, and business would have continued as usual, which is to say that the abductions would have gradually been forgotten by all but the families and friends of the victims. But national indignation has provided a much-needed fillip for Nigerians to declare that enough is enough. The louder the protests, the more foolish efforts to suppress them appear.
It took almost three weeks for the president to call a press conference to admit his government’s failure to rescue the girls. Most Nigerians were relieved when he finally agreed to accept foreign military assistance, but the slight to our country’s sovereignty was unsettling. Whether any of this will cost Mr. Jonathan a second term come next year’s elections remains to be seen.
In the meantime, we know that the military is ill-equipped relative to the insurgents’ superior firepower — despite huge security budgets, currently running at about $5.8 billion, much of which is looted at the source. Just one example: In 2006, the military bought several drones from an Israeli company, Aeronautics Defense Systems, each at an estimated cost of between $15 million and $17 million. They ought to be of use in the search for the abducted schoolgirls, except that they are all grounded for lack of maintenance.
This official ineptitude doesn’t only apply to the big picture. Not long after the counter-protesters left the park, many of them complained about the government’s nonpayment of the $25 they said they were each promised for every day they took part. “Getting the money is a very difficult process because there are so many of us jostling to receive payment for our hard work,” one of them told a reporter.
This, again, is a familiar story. Perhaps even those willing to take occasional work as government stooges are themselves slowly waking up from a slumber that has gone on for far too long. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign might just signal the end of this debilitating state of affairs. If nothing else, Boko Haram has shown us the powerlessness of the combined forces of the state we once cowered before.
The question is: Where do we go from here?
Adewale Maja-Pearce is a writer and critic, and the author of “Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Other Essays.” A New York Times Op-ed Piece On Abducted School Girls
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