The girl said ‘no’
Last week, on April 14, Nigeria marked the fourth anniversary of the capture and abduction of 276 young girls, all of them students, by Boko Haram from their school in Chibok, Borno State. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari has had 163 of them returned in tranches to Nigeria and their parents. All of them have been rehabilitated by the government and the distortion in their young lives is, in the process of a happy rehabilitation. That is the happy part of this unhappy story. The unhappy part is that 113 of the girls are still in the custody of the Boko Haram terrorists and there is no certainty about their safety or when they might be brought back home for a happy reunion with their loved ones. However, we have Buhari’s assurance that they are not forgotten and that his government will do what it needs to do to bring this unhappy incident to a close. This assurance may be cold comfort to the parents of these kids who have waited for four years without having these youngsters in their embrace.
But the important thing is for us all to encourage the government to keep the issue on the front burner despite competing national issues. In fact, security generally is central to our survival as a nation. The Dapchi abduction of another batch of young girls most of whom have now been retrieved underlines the fact that the terrorists see the success of their exploits largely in terms of grabbing our young school girls. Abducting young school girls means a lot to the terrorists’ campaign mantra against western education generally and female education specifically. And because they are young and in school their abduction is likely to command global publicity and attention. This draws unmerited attention to the weird cause of the terrorists. For them this is the oxygen for their evil campaign.
As we urge the government to work on the release of the remaining Chibok girls, we also wish to draw its attention to the plight of the remaining Dapchi girls including the most famous name in the Dapchi episode, Leah Sharibu. Of the one hundred and something girls of the Government Science and Technical College, Dapchi, Yobe State, taken away by the terrorists a few weeks ago all of them have been returned except five who died. The only other student who still remains in captivity till today is a 15-year old girl who is a Christian by faith. The girl, Leah Sharibu, the only non-Muslim in the group was asked to convert to Islam if she wanted to be freed along with the others. This senior secondary school pupil said she knew nothing about Islam and would therefore not convert to a religion that was alien to her. As her school mates were filing into vehicles at the terrorists’ camp that were to bring them back to freedom without Leah she sent a message to her mother to pray that the “will of God be done in her life.”
It is tempting to compare Leah’s show of conviction to that of the Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Talibans a few years ago. Malala was a campaigner for girl-child education in Pakistan while the Taliban, the bearded purveyors of a primitive and decadent ideology think girls should neither go to school nor work. They should simply get married, stay home and breed children like rabbits. Malala survived the shooting, was flown abroad, healed and hailed for her exceptional courage. She is now a proud recipient of a Nobel Peace Award. The world has made her the poster girl for peace, girl-child education and the warrior for a good cause.
The question put to Leah was “would you convert to Islam and be freed?” The question seemed simple, almost innocuous, the answer seemed even predictable in a situation in which the young girl was surrounded by guns and those who use them to do their unholy duty unthinkingly. But to Leah the question was not just a question. It was a stab in the heart, her heart, the heart of her faith, the heart of Christianity, the heart of whatever she held dear. It wasn’t just a question, it was an inquiry into her faith, into the strength of her conviction, into the strength of her character. Her mind must have bulged with unasked questions but she had to take a decision quickly on the spur of the moment. There was no time for meditation, rumination or for the examination of the pros and cons of the offer because terrorists have no time or patience for such niceties. Instinctively the girl simply said, No. It came from the heart spontaneously; she had no need to debate with herself to establish whether what she did was right or wrong. This was an act of rebellion against nihilism, a vulnerable display of integrity and conviction. She personified the dignity of someone who would not sell her principle for a pot of honey, for desirable freedom. She could easily have done it and walked into freedom. She refused to exchange her faith for freedom. She is by her dangerous decision the watch tower of fidelity to her faith. You may wonder how many of Nigeria’s men of God, if confronted with the challenge that Leah faced would have chosen the road that Leah took. Pretty few if any.
A hard headed pragmatist would have opted for freedom with the apparently “harmless” condition attached. She had a chance to accept it and renounce it later on the basis that it was done by compulsion, that it was not from the bottom of her heart, it was executed under duress and therefore she had a right to renounce it and go back to her original faith. Weighed in the bright light of reason her decision would have been thoroughly excusable, and wisely pragmatic. But this strong willed teenager chose the path that many people in the world, old and young, men and women, would not have chosen given the same set of circumstances.
For Leah’s parents who were saddened by the fact that the other girls had returned without their dear daughter, Leah’s story of heroism may just be cold comfort especially in a country with a low sense of morality and a high level of integrity deficit. The Leah story may seem like the lowest point in her life but it is the highest point in the estimation of the world. As Henry Ward Beecher said in his Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit (1887) “expedients are for the hour but principles are for the ages”.
What makes Leah’s heroism particularly outstanding is her young age. The second is the danger she faced. When you juxtapose her principled stand against the hedonism and vulgarism of many of today’s youths, her exemplary conduct becomes a gleaming beacon. The prevalence of hard drugs and cultism and rape and violence among today’s youths is a cause for serious worry about Nigeria’s future. Also, a lot of the electoral offences that have been committed over the years, such as snatching of ballot boxes, illegal thumb printing, falsification of election results and gun fights have been traced largely to our youths. In 1962, it was our youths from the University of Ibadan who trooped down to Lagos to protest the Federal Government’s decision to sign an Anglo-Defence Pact with Britain.
With their intense pressure that defence pact was aborted by Sir Abubakar Tafewa Balewa’s government. It is uncertain what the objective of today’s Nigerian students is. The only thing that is certain is that student union leaders today parade our university campuses in huge SUV’s which obviously are products of corruption. They are the thugs and guerilla warriors for desperate politicians. I have seen nothing in the behaviour of their unions that tells me that they are determined to fight for a better society. If the country is good they have a longer time to benefit from it than the older generation of Nigerians. If the country is bad they have a longer period of holocaust years to go through. These two scenarios ought to be an inducement for them to work for a better country.
As we speak, education is going to the dogs nationwide. And in the north east there is a huge war to be fought not just to dislodge the Boko Haram Sect but to rescue education from the jaws of annihilation. And of course women education which, before now, had not been taken seriously is in deep danger of being drowned by the fallouts of the insecurity imbroglio. I have not heard a resonant voice from the youths on this important issue which has the potential of compromising their future. If they have faith in education as the transformer of human destiny, as the catalyst for development and as a liberation ideology I expect them to rise in defence of education, not only in the traumatized north east but all over the country.
Leah is in no position to help herself now as she is a captured exemplar of integrity. The people who are keeping her have no interest in her heroism and the display of integrity and conviction. So it is up to President Buhari to use all means possible to bring this heroine back. He can flaunt her to the global community that Nigeria still has a residue of virtue that the world can point to. But it is not about Leah only. The remaining Chibok girls are still in our memory despite the effluxion of time and no effort should be spared to bring them home soon. What makes the Chibok and Dapchi abductions so important to the world – and to Nigerians – are their sex and age. These two factors underscore their vulnerability but do not diminish the need for the recovery of all other captives who do not fall into these two categories. Every life counts and their return will speak volumes for the quantum of value we place on security and human life.
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