TWO years ago on April 14, 2014, Nigeria’s crazed jihadist group Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from the remote northeast Nigerian town of Chibok.
And with that, the whole world soon got to know the “Chibok girls”, and the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls on Twitter, grew into a global rallying slogan for their return.
There was a lot of anger and furious campaigning, but the incompetent and corrupt government of former president Goodluck Jonathan, with Boko Haram running rings around it, failed to rescue the girls.
Former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, defeated Jonathan in March elections last year, becoming the first opposition leader to democratically unseat an incumbent in Africa’s most populous and largest economy.
Despite President Buhari’s no-nonsense reputation, a far-reaching shake up of the Nigeria military, and significant improvements in the campaign against Boko Haram, the Chibok girls have not been rescued en masse. A few have escaped over the two years. Recently, a handful have also popped, forcefully recruited as disposable Boko Haram suicide bombers.
Boko Haram hell-hole
But increasingly it looks like most have disappeared down the Boko Haram hell-hole; turned into sex slaves, possibly killed, or sold off in West Africa’s complex human traffic market.
Buhari, for one, has hinted despairingly that the Chibok girls might never be rescued. At least not while they are still girls.
A child soldier in South Sudan: Terrible things happen to boys as well as girls in war in Africa, but the boys don’t disappear easily. They often emerge in tragic and frightening form, but they emerge. (Photo/AFP)
The Chibok girls kidnap was wrong on so many levels: sex slavery, the waste of youth, an attack on children, name it.
But there was something else that was perhaps too uncomfortable to discuss. That schoolgirls were picked on, was not just because they were a target of opportunity or Boko Haram is depraved, which it is.
A “malehood’ problem
Their kidnap has to be understood in the context of northern Nigeria’s predominantly conservative Muslim culture that tends to treat women as second class citizens and chattels, and in the wider tradition of Nigerian – and indeed African – malehood that objectifies women and thus makes them a peculiar target in conflict.
Nine of Nigeria’s 36 states have instituted Islamic law (sharia). Three have it in the parts with majority Muslim populations.
But it’s not so much sharia law itself, as the strain of it some of these states have chosen. Thus, most notoriously, Amina Lawal, a single mother in Katsina State, was in 2002 accused of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning by a state Sharia court for conceiving a child out of wedlock. The father was released without conviction.
Fortunately, that tragic story ended well. In 2004 Lawal’s conviction was overturned by a Sharia court of appeal.
This view of women can produce a very messed up type of politics. Taking sovereignty away from women, directly places their defence in the hands of men. And, bizzarely, in turn it’s the fact that men are then the “protectors” of women, that for some justifies their subordination of women.
It’s a very different world from that envisioned in “Mad Max: Fury Road”, where the South African actress Charlize Theron is the warrior Imperator Furiosa, the slayer of evil men, and protector of women. If she or they are killed or captured, then Furiosa would have failed as a warrior, not as a woman.
Where women are chattels, one warring side scores victory by capturing the other’s side women. There is something deeply demoralising for men of a certain type to be told “you can’t protect your women”. And it’s an indictment that comes from the women too. It’s the “if you take away my rights, and if I can’t bear weapons, then you aren’t man enough if you can’t protect me against other men” kind of indictment.
Today we have arrived at a point where this runaway machoism and patriarchy have become impaled on their own logic. For jihadists like Boko Haram, there must also be an emptiness in the seizure of the Chibok girls.
For if women are second class citizens, then they are not worthy adversaries. The Chibok capture was too easy. It does not give Boko Haram even the illusion of strength, the affirmation that it has the muscle that it takes to build a caliphate.
And for the Nigerian army, it was a double humiliation that it could not defeat such a despicable lot, because the kidnap of the Chibok girls revealed to all that Boko Haram was after all a shell. And the Nigerian military was put to flight by that bunch? How?
Chibok was therefore a kind of self-castration by the guardians of the Nigerian Male Order, if we can call it. It brought down the male martial tradition from its perch, and showed it as incompetent.
And the misogynic, Islamist-addled Boko Haram violence was revealed not only as barbaric, but weak and bereft of valour.
Therefore, Nigerian society and patriarchal socieety might want to do some soul searching.
Boys vs. girls
It would be impossible to disappear 300 young men, unless you massacred them and buried in a secret mass grave. As the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the insurgency in northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army, taught us, they will show up as brainwashed murderous child soldiers at roadblocks, and rise to be frontline commanders in rebel ranks when they are older. No so the women.
It was possible for 300 Chibok schoolgirls to “disappear” because our societies are such that they are structured to make women disappear behind burkhas, high walls, and other forms of servitude and anonymisation.
Chibok revealed a northern Nigerian crisis, a Nigerian problem, and even a bigger disgrace of African patriarchy.
So there, I have said it. You can hang me now.