/ 16 October 2014

Battling Boko Haram and apathy

Barrier to progress: Police officers block supporters of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign from marching to President Goodluck Jonathan's official residence in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
Barrier to progress: Police officers block supporters of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign from marching to President Goodluck Jonathan's official residence in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

Since her escape, Rebecca Ishaku (18) has been haunted by nightmares of the moment Boko Haram militants stormed into her school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria six months ago and kidnapped nearly 300 girls.

The morning of the anniversary of the abduction on Tuesday this week was no different.

“I still cried about them this morning,” Ishaku said at a protest in the capital Abuja in support of her 219 classmates who remain in captivity.

Among them were her best friends Hauwa, Saratu and Monica, who had been too scared to run when the Islamist gunmen burst in and began rounding up the girls.

“I dream my friends have come back, but when I greet them, they don’t answer me. I wish I could help them,” the teenager said, her voice almost drowned out by the surrounding chants of “bring back our girls, now and alive!”

About 50 protesters decked out in red T-shirts tried to march to the presidential villa under an ­ominous, sweltering sky, but were repeatedly diverted by phalanxes of riot police, who formed a ring around them as they approached the president’s home.

“No arrests, no intimidation will keep us from finding out the truth. We have a right to know what is happening,” said Obi Ezekwesili, a former education minister who has spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

The protests have waned both in Nigeria and abroad, but those gathered on Tuesday seemed re-energised as they sought to draw attention back to a campaign that has been repeatedly hijacked in the run-up to presidential elections in February.

Stick-wielding youths have descended on the campaigners to insist it be renamed #releaseourgirls – putting the onus on the Islamists rather than the government. In recent days, campaigners for President Goodluck Jonathan surrounded the park where the small, daily protest takes place, with posters declaring #BringBackGoodluck2015.

One woman, covered head to toe in a red dress and hijab, wore a huge poster with the slogan: “We elected Jonathan, he has our mandate, not [Boko Haram leader Abubakar] Shekau, so we can only ask our president to #BringBackOurGirls.”

But hopes of speaking to the president, who agreed to meet with the families of the missing girls for the first time in July – following a visit from Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai – were dashed on Tuesday. Instead, the minister of land and housing, Akon Eyakenyi, was sent to appease the crowd.

“The president will do something – by the grace of God the girls will be brought back home,” she said, before hurrying off as the crowd booed.  

“What kind of response is that?” said Ibrahim Morocco, a protester wearing a red bandana. “They say they don’t want to go in and rescue the girls because Boko Haram will kill them, but then they don’t want to negotiate. So what is the alternative? There’s no plan B, no plan C. These girls are our future, so definitely we can’t just forget about them and all the others.”

Boko Haram’s campaign to impose a medieval Islamic caliphate on Africa’s most populous nation has killed more than 3?000 this year. Yet, as is so often the case in African conflicts, the death toll has become another statistic and activists are fighting to keep the atrocities in the public eye through online projects and art.

‘We’re not fighting this as one people’
Cartoonist Mike Asukwo has an unusual take: dark humour. “If you laugh it can give people hope and make the situation seem less gloomy. And then beyond the laughter, people can start thinking,” said Asukwo, who switched from fine art to political satire in a bid to raise political awareness seven years ago.

There is little to laugh at in a group whose methods include burning sleeping schoolchildren, but absurdities abound. The sect, which sometimes slit victims’ throats to save on bullets, is against Western education, “along with the ideologies of America, England, France, China and the whole world”, Shekau said in his most recent video.

“For any normal person, this should be disturbing. But once in a while you run into people who look at the situation from a very different angle,” Asukwo said, choosing his words carefully. “We’re not fighting this as one people, we’re not seeing Boko Haram as everybody’s enemy, and that’s partly why they’ve been able to make so many incursions.”

Campaigners face both public apathy and official repression. “Part of the reason ­people tune off is they’re always hearing ‘60 people were gunned down’ in their school,” said Nigerian rights campaigner Saratu Abiola, whose Testimonial Archive Project (TAP) is an ever-growing collection of harrowing stories from survivors of the mass murders. “You don’t hear that Ahmed was killed. And Ali was killed. Saratu, Joseph and Amina were killed. What did ordinary folk see? What did they feel?”

Three months after the project began, Boko Haram was propelled into global infamy when it kidnapped the schoolgirls. In September, gunmen from the sect are believed to have opened fire in a college in Kano, killing 20 students.

The news rarely makes official bulletins. “I sometimes wonder, do we just not allow ourselves to be angry any more because it’s too much,” said artist Tayo Ogunbiyi, who was angrily accused of perpetuating “a hoax” when she launched an exhibition celebrating both the Chibok girls’ lives and the horror they were enduring. Her work was inspired by some of the teenagers’ diaries and personal belongings, which were photographed by Glenna Gordon.

“The comments have been out of this world. Yesterday somebody said to me: ‘No girls are missing, and you people should stop insulting my intelligence,’?” Ogunbiyi added.

Despite a vibrant arts scene, few artists risk exploring the thorny subject of sectarian violence. “I know some who’ve said: ‘I don’t want to do anything that may bring me face-to-face with the government.’ But what’s art if you can’t actually speak for the voiceless?” said Chris Nwobu, a photographer whose collection captures the agonising silence of the Chibok girls amid the media frenzy that initially surrounded their abduction.

“This is part of our history. We can’t just sit back, fold our arms and allow this bullshit to continue going on.”

Nigerian historian Max Siollun believes the Biafra civil war, which left over one million dead, fostered a reluctance to document conflict. Censors recently tried to ban the film Half of a Yellow Sun, which was based on the 1967-1970 conflict.

“After the war, the ‘forgive and forget’ mentality encouraged conflict issues to be swept under the carpet. Except the phenomenon was not limited to Biafra only and spread across all controversial national discourses in Nigeria,” said Siollun, who ­manages a rare archive of historical Nigerian footage. – © Guardian News & Media 2014