The Chibok Girls by Helon Habila

The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria

Helon Habila trained as a journalist in Nigeria where he grew up. He is now a celebrated prize-winning novelist residing in Virginia, where he teaches. He’d read the stories of the April 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings of schoolgirls from Chibok and thought that perhaps there were some clues missing. How had this happened and why haven’t the girls been found?

Searching for clues in country, it must be said, sounds terrifying and risky. Boko Haram as an organization has the madness of a wounded animal and so is exceedingly dangerous. It is also profoundly anti-democratic and filled with a religious fervor Islamist scholars say has nothing to do with Islam. When the Boko Haram’s founding leader Yusef was killed by government security forces, the man who took over was even less stable and more brutal.

Government forces under the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, it turns out, did not put much credence in the veracity of kidnapping claims. Nigeria was to host the World Economic Forum the following month, and Goodluck Jonathan was convinced political opponents were trying to sabotage the event.

None of which explains why the government wasn’t able to make a larger effort to find the girls after the forum. Goodluck Jonathan lost the presidency the following year, the first time in Nigeria’s history an incumbent lost to a challenger. His incompetency and corruption in office may have been a factor.

The road Habila travelled to get to Chibok was pocked with exploded ordnance and littered with large shell casings. He was in a convoy with military trucks in front and at back, mounted with machine guns, with armed motorcycle outriders on the sides of his vehicle. They drove very fast and quiet, past abandoned villages whose buildings had been shattered with bullet holes or burned down. Rotting firewood was still stacked where it had been placed by farmers before everyone left.

What he ultimately discovered is, as he describes it, shockingly banal: some of the kidnappers were often hostages of a sort themselves. Ordinary boys in dirty shirts and slippers, shooting at whatever they were told to shoot at. Some of the girls managed to escape, but their story is devoid of magnificent acts of heroism or valor. They ran away in the night.

Habila’s investigation reminded us that ordinary people are capable of the most extraordinary cruelty and kindness. We just have to decide which it will be for ourselves. It requires attention, to make sure we do not stray into believing that we, as individuals, do not matter.

Habila sees the roots for the development of Boko Haram in government mismanagement of the 1970’s, when oil money did not translate into a better life for more educated citizens, but in the “cornering” of state money and privilege for personal use. Small, innocuous opportunities to feather one’s own nest and look the other way opened the door to division, discontent, and hardline religious fervor which rejected secular leadership (“democracy is a challenge to God’s sovereignty”) and every other religion but the “one, true” religion.

Nigeria may seem distant with its dirt roads, searing heat, and sand-filled Sahara winds but these folks have seen that transition from budding democracy to its charade. And these are lessons every nation can take to heart.

Habila’s reporting centered on interviewing the girls who escaped, some of whom were protected in the U.S. under the care of a concerned citizen. One managed to attend and finish high school and is anticipating college entrance, but most were ill-prepared for the U.S. education system. The Nigerian government then revoked the agreement the parents had with the benefactor in the U.S. and the government took over guardianship of the girls.

The girls he interviewed who stayed in Nigeria have continued their educations, though not in Chibok, which remains almost a dead zone. The vibrancy of the area is almost completely gone, the area isolated and remote now that surrounding towns are deserted.

It seems a small story, almost pathetic in its simplicity. We want to hear of success, not failure. We want to know more about the difficulties in finding the remaining girls and why, with even foreign help, the Nigerian military hasn’t been able to beat this seemingly discreet problem. But we will have to wait. That is a story for another time.

This book is in pre-production and will be released in December 2016 by Columbia Global Reports. (Click right here to pre-order). Thanks to CGR and Netgalley for an advance copy.


The Granta Book of the African Short Story

Presenting a diverse and dazzling collection from all over the continent, from Morocco to Zimbabwe, Uganda to Kenya. Helon Habila focuses on younger, newer writers—contrasted with some of their older, more established peers—to give a fascinating picture of a new and more liberated Africa.
These writers are characterized by their engagement with the wider world and the opportunities offered by the end of apartheid, the end of civil wars and dictatorships, and the possibilities of free movement. Their work is inspired by travel and exile. They are liberated, global and expansive. As Dambudzo Marechera wrote: ‘If you’re a writer for a specific nation or specific race, then f*** you.” These are the stories of a new Africa, punchy, self-confident and defiant.
Includes stories by: Fatou Diome; Aminatta Forna; Manuel Rui; Patrice Nganang; Leila Aboulela; Zoë Wicomb; Alaa Al Aswany; Doreen Baingana; E.C. Osondu.

Available at Amazon

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