Everyone but the Chibok girls and their families have moved on. The Obamas are busy building a post-white house legacy that will help the world forget Barack’s previous work as President Drone and Deporter in Chief. Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, after losing to Muhammadu Buhari, is now playing elder statesman—dispensing advice on governance. The celebrities are back to making their music and movies and occasionally lending their faces to other causes. The intellectuals are back in their classrooms and offices writing their essays behind paywalls. And the politicians are thinking about the next election cycle. The media too has moved on—a Google news search of Chibok girls from the last 24 hours produces seven hits.
But as Helon Habila’s short and anguished book, The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria (2016) reminds us, history does not march on for the victims. Certainly not for the teens, now women, still in captivity. Today there are parents still wondering where their children are, knowing that if they are still alive they are enduring horrors at the hands of Boko Haram. That is four years of knowing without a doubt that your daughter is living a life of torture. Imagine living that reality as a parent. Imagine living that reality as one of the Chibok girls.
I had just finished reading Helon’s book, so the irony, quickly turned to abject anger, was not lost on me when French President Emmanuel told Nigerians that while they should remember their history, they should also leave it behind. CNN quoted him on July 5th as saying “My generation never experienced colonialism. I mean it’s part of our history obviously… you have to recognize all the past deeds and face them, but you have to move forward.” If this sounds vaguely familiar it is because 11 years earlier then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it more bluntly: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history… They have never really launched themselves into the future.” Put the two statements side by side and the puzzle is complete—history, whether you embrace it or whitewash it, has no business speaking to the present. Yes, colonialism was bad, a mistake (as Sarkozy called it in his 2007 Dakar speech), but that was a long a time ago—time to move on.
It is a lie to equate history with an expired coupon that can no longer be redeemed. In Kenya we declared colonialism over in 1963, but history just shrugged us off and marched us into neocolonialism. South Africans celebrated the end of Apartheid only to see neo-Apartheid usher in a small black elite that was only too eager to abandon the majority black population. One did not need foresight to know that affirmative action, by design, surely can never work for a majority population.
Slavery ended a long time ago, Apartheid-like segregation is dead, colonialism is long gone; we are post racial, post-colonial, post-apartheid—these declarations are made while history holds us to the structures that did not change. So, here we are today living through sedimented historical injustices of slavery, colonialism neo-colonialism, globalized inequalities and hoping that somehow free market democracy will undo that history.
African governments are leasing land to foreign powers to come and grow their own food. The African Union hall was built by the Chinese—African governments could not marshal the funds themselves. Macron, in his Nigeria speech, revealed that some African cultural events to be held in Paris in 2020 will be sponsored by African governments and businesses. Why not in Accra or Nairobi then? Or even more to the point, why not in Chibok?
It is not just we who are piling democracy on top of historical injustice and inequality—American democracy, built on slavery and its legacies racist and anti-worker hyper-capitalism, is a façade unraveling right before our eyes. Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, after his tour of the United States noted that “ in September 2017, more than one in every eight Americans was living in poverty (40 million, equal to 12.7% of the population). And almost half of those (18.5 million) were living in deep poverty, with reported family income below one-half of the poverty threshold.” And if the US does not have its Chibok girls, it has its fair share of state violence against black people, a still growing prison-industrial complex, anti-voting measures, xenophobia, not to mention being in the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” And let us not forget Western instigated or supported coups against democratically elected progressive governments all over the global south. In short American capitalism—America’s economic, racial and political reality—is incompatible with democracy.
There are many who tried to do just that, to change our societies fundamentally in order to change history, including Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Ruth First, Chris Hani, Amilcar Cabral, Pio Gama Pinto, Malcolm X and more recently Marielle Franco in Brazil and Berta Cáceres in Honduras to name a few. These men and women of revolutionary visions were all assassinated. Because of them history matters because it guides us, as if on rails. To change the direction of the train, you have to change the rails it travels on.
Indeed Boko Haram, Habila reminds us, does not come from a vacuum. It thrives along the fault lines of a Nigerian neo-colonial state with a leadership that has failed the Nigerian people. For example, Reuters reported in February 2018 that Africa’s largest oil producer had “spent $5.8 billion on fuel imports since late 2017.” It is the coups and counter coups of corrupt and yet-to-be decolonized leaders of the 1960s to the 1990s that made it possible for groups like Boko Haram to emerge. At the same time the Nigerian government, together with Shell Oil Company, were busy suppressing the Ogoni people who were opposed to living in poverty while their environment was being devastated. For being a voice of reason, the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged while the rest of the world watched in 1995.
If you want to understand the criminal callousness of leaders like Goodluck Jonathan—consider this response to the Chibok kidnappings. Jonathan was scheduled to visit with the families in Chibok on May 16, 2014 but citing security concerns, he cancelled the visit. On that same day he travelled to Paris for a security conference about Boko Haram. Even if we believe that the Nigerian police and army could not have kept him safe, why didn’t he use his presidential jet to bring the families to his presidential palace? It cannot get more cynical that this—and his contempt for the Nigerian poor could not be clearer. Call it the Goodluck syndrome: when Paris calls all else can go to hell.
The story about the Chibok girls is ultimately a story about who we are as people. Some of the girls who escaped eventually made their way to the United States where their tragedy became a recurring trauma to be exploited by Christian evangelicals, a shadowy Nigerian Human rights activist and American politicians. Why did they need to come to the U.S. at all? And once in the U.S., why send them to a Christian school in rural Virginia playing straight into the narrative of Islam is evil and cruel and Christianity is pure and kind? Where was the Nigerian government when these arrangements were being made? Where was the African Union?
And where were we? Where were we, the “relatively conscious” few that James Baldwin called upon in The Fire Next Time with the faint hope they would win the fight for a better world? There are some actions that should spell the end of a government: Goodluck Jonathan and the Chibok girls, George Bush and New Orleans (not to mention torture and illegal wars), Zuma and the Marikana massacres, Obama and drone warfare and targeted assassinations, Trump and the separation of asylum-seeking parents from children including infants. There are moments when an action, or inaction can no longer hide the lie, and on revealing that lie that government should fall. Yet we, the relatively conscious, trudge on sipping on Afro-optimism and democracy as history continues to call our bluff.
“The shocking banality of it all,” Helon writes towards the end of the book. Only one who has seen the horror and wishes for distance can write that sentence to sum up the kidnappings, murders, and attempts at reconstruction in Chibok. The tragedy is that it is also true—how many millions have died in the Congo since 1998? Some say 5.4 million, others contest that figure and say 2 million. Still others debate whether combat deaths should be counted alongside collateral deaths due to famine and the attrition of war. But even taking the lowest number should jolt us all into action. The Israeli state continues to kill, detain, torture and maim Palestinians with near impunity. Migrants are dying by the boat loads in the Mediterranean and African governments stand with the rest of us in shock as if they too could not do something about it. Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Philippines etc. Indeed, the banality of it all, the predictability of it all.
But the contradictions are sharpening internationally and nationally in ways that they never have. Certainly, the growing inequalities can no longer be sustained with band aid solutions. No promises of Making America Great Again will work because the problem is structural, as handed down to us by history. Most certainly in countries like Kenya, Nigeria or South Africa the poor will come calling because the history that we wish to banish into the past is very much the present.
There are two fundamental truths that we must face. History is still here with us and the global political leadership as we know it, across gender, race and ethnicity, has to go. Baldwin, writing in 1963, was speaking to us when he said that “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.”
If not, shame on all us for using democracy to sweep history under our collective beds. Shame on us all.