By April this year, the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram had, according to someone who tries to keep count of the militants’ grim handiwork, killed anything between 5,000 and 6,000 people.
Africa, and indeed the world, didn’t give more a day’s attention to the numerous killings. Then, on the night of April 14, the militants abducted nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok School in the northern state of Borno.
The roof came down. To this day, nearly six weeks later, the story has not left CNN. The Americans, Britons, French, and Israelis have jumped into the hunt for the abducted girls.
A global campaign, that begun life as a hashtag on the social media Twitter, #BringBackOurGirls has caught fire. Everyone who is anyone, including America’s First Lady Michelle Obama and a posse of Hollywood stars, have jumped into the fray.
In Nigeria and a couple of western capitals, every weekend there are demonstrations demanding the release of the girls. A special summit of Nigeria and its neighbours on the Adicho girls was held in France. And on May 23, the UN slapped sanctions on Boko Haram.
This one would come as a surprise for anyone who knows that Boko Haram has abducted schoolgirls before, and in the last year alone has attacked 50 schools, and killed more than 100 schoolchildren and 70 teachers.
Yes, the abduction of 300 schoolgirls horrifies because of its scale, but still that doesn’t explain why Boko Haram should be sanctioned for those abductions, and not the killing of 100 school children, for example.
Could it be that it is worse to abduct 300 students than to kill 100 of them? Is killing 5,000 people less sanction-worthy than abducting 300 girls?
Of course not. However, something about the Adicho abductions confirms the universality of humankind. No matter our race, religion, gender, nationality, we want to feel in control; we need closure; we can’t deal with high levels of uncertainty.
I was intrigued that the story of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, was among the most read on several African news websites. If the wreckage of flight MH370 had been found within 48 hours, with the bodies charred, most of us would have forgotten about it quickly. It is the mystery that kept us hooked.
Some African cultures really hate having loose ends. If a woman’s husband disappears “just like that” and his family doesn’t know what happened to him, she has to remain in mourning for years, and can’t remarry. But if he is murdered by his enemies in the village, and his body found along the village path in the morning, he will be buried a day or two later. After a few weeks of mourning, she will be a free woman and can remarry.
So it is with the Adicho girls. Where are they? Are they all still alive? Have they been forced into marriage or sold as slaves? Will they ever be found? What would we do if they were our daughters and sisters?
If Boko Haram had murdered the 300 girls, probably they would have disappeared from the headlines already and there would be no demonstrations. The UN might not even have hit them with sanctions, because there would be familiar about that. “These Africans are like that, brutal and murderous”, some might say.
I can imagine the Boko Haram Central Command or whatever they call themselves, must be confused. They killed 5,000 and got away with it. They murdered 100 school kids and 70 teachers and got away with it. Then they abducted 300 schoolgirls and the whole world has turned on them.
Yes, but maybe the international reaction has only little to do with the Adicho girls. What Boko Haram has done with the abduction is to force us to face our worst fears.
We can deal with the finality of a dead body in front us, but we can’t handle not knowing where the body is buried. It is that not knowing that kills us.