It is as difficult as ever to wake up in the morning, as an African who watches events in the whole of the continent, and feel any sense of gladness that one is alive.
DRC’s president, Joseph Kabila, doesn’t want to obey the constitution and bow out of power . In sticking to power without the by-your-leave of his people (as constitutionally expressed) Joseph Kabila is following his neighbour in Gabon, who has spectacularly stolen an election and and has put himself firmly in place for another term.
Burundi isn’t any better. And the peace that came to the Central African Republic, with the help of a magnificent gesture from the Pope (who made a personal visit to the country, despite being warned of the immense risks involved) seems to be sticking together by a piece of band aid no bigger than the bullet of an AK-47.
So it was with some excitement that I received the news that 21 of the Chibok girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria, had been released. To hear some of their parents speak of the relief they felt on seeing their daughters again and to see their pictures, was very uplifting.
Of course, many of the kidnapped girls are, sadly still in captivity. But one parent said it all when he said that he’d never expected to see the face of his daughter again, and the fact that he had been able to do so meant that others who do not expect to see their daughters again, would similarly, with God’s grace, see them in the near future.
The Chibok Girls’ story is one of the most tragic to have ever occurred in Africa. For apart from the difficulties it unexpectedly thrust upon the parents and their daughters, it also lobbed a social hand-grenade into their bosoms. For many of the girls have returned home carrying babies.
How does an uptight and conservative society like that of Northern Nigeria deal with young ladies who are demonstrably no longer virgins?
And how are babies who were produced through rape and not marriage, to be treated by the rest of the society?
These are challenges of a very high ortder – in Northern Nigeria.
The first task of the Government must be to hire professionals to help in breaking down the social stigmatisation that the terrible kidnapping has brought on the heads of the families affected. There is evidence that the Government is aware of the problem and will fine-tune the process of handling it with sensitivity.
I am encouraged by the fact that despite tremendous pressure from the public, the Government didn’t rush to present the girls to the media but engaged in a debriefing exercise first.
The Government needs the encouragement and assistance of countries that have reintegrated the victims of civil wars or have survived being taken as hostages.
And, of course, the Government must vote a lot of money for the welfare of the babies and their mothers – including providing them with new personalities, where possible or necessary, in order to fight the aforementioned social stigmatisation. For adversity in early life can be overcome to produce outstanding citizens who become high-achievers and repay their society in multiples of what was expended to put them on the path of recovery.
The Government of General Muhammadu Buhari deserves congratulations on its ability to have achieved this initial accommodation with Boko Haram. Usually, military people are stiff and unbending when presented with situations involving kidnapping or hostage-taking.
Their training teaches them that if you negotiate with a kidnapper, you encourage him to do the same thing again, in order to entice you to negotiate with him once more, probably for a higher ransom. Because in negotiating with the kidnapper, you have demonstrated “weakness”.
But this textbook instructions can prove atavistic in practice. There is no guarantee that if you refuse to negotiate the release of a kidnap victim, the kidnapper will not continue to kidnap other people!
So there are risks, almost equal in weight, in both attitudes. It is a devil of a choice, really. For if you don’t try to negotiate, you can be accused of contributing to the probable murder of your fellow citizens. But of course, negotiation does not always succeed, either.
The reason why the path of negotiation is preferable to that of dogmatic obduracy, however, is that even if the negotiation ends nowhere, you would have demonstrated to everyone that you had not allowed yourself to be bound by inflexible rules but had done the best that any human being could be expected to do.
Running a country requires a system of sleights-of-hand (at times) far removed from the modalities needed by a man like General Buhari to run an army. But not many military men understand that situation well enough to enable them to run their countries successfully, when the reins of power come into their hands.
Think of where China might be today had Chairman Mao Tse Dong not had the courage to appear “weak” to the world when he was inviting President Richard Nixon to visit China in 1972.
And – on the opposite side – just remember what happened to Saddam Hussein and the beautiful country he had laboured to build – Iraq – when he stuck steadfastly to the idea of showing himself to be “strong” and “invincible”, while ending up dead, with his country in flames all around him.
I do not cite these examples because I think the two situations were exactly similar to what obtains in Nigeria between the Government and Boko Haram. All I want to illustrate is that sometimes, it is wise to jettison long-held precepts and try something new, because for all one knows, the new approach might pay dividends beyond one’s wildest dreams.
For instance, now that the Buhari Government has negotiated successfully on one aspect of the problem – the partial release of the Chibok Girls – what prevents it from utilising the same machinery that sowed the successful negotiations, to tackle the larger problem, namely, the Boko Haram insurrection itself?
It is negotiations that brought the British Government and the people it had often described as “IRA murderers” together to work out a peace agreement – the “Good Friday Agreement” – in 1998.
And recently, we have seen the long drawn-out rebellion in Colombia come very close to an end – through negotiations. In other words, it is never a disgrace to negotiate – no matter how harsh the words one has once used on the partners with whom one is forced to negotiate later.
What President Buhari now needs to do is to make sure that the Nigerian Army fights Boko Haram as efficiently as possible. It has been an unbelievable scenario to hear that money meant for the armed forces to equip them to fight Boko Haram effectively often went into the pockets of politicians as well as corrupt military officers.
Boko Haram has been the greatest threat to Nigeria’s peace since the Biafran Civil War ended in 1970, and it has been saddening to hear the details of how unpatriotic Nigerians collaborated – for that’s what it was – with Boko Haram by starving the men at the front fighting Boko Haram, of essential equipment and resources.
If President Buhari is able to reverse the situation and achieve victory, he will have put Nigeria back on the path that will enable her to pull her full weight in African affairs.
Letter from afar