WARNING: there’s a gory image in this post. Please Keep reading only if you’re sure you can handle it. Thanks!
My reality is shifting.
Years ago as 10-year-olds playing in the sand, when we thought about the United States of America, we pictured it as a land flowing with milk and honey. It was the land where everything is free, where the streets are paved with gold, where the trees grow lush and the branches never die.
When we thought about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and otheristans in the Middle East, we imagined arid deserts populated by thin men in black turbans riding horses and blowing themselves up every day. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre cemented our perception of the Arabs as a violent set of people. The endless reports and interviews with former Generals, Defence Experts, public analysts…the news features that dug into the lifestyle of the terrorists that claimed 3000 lives in horrifying detail.
Almost every day, we read reports of people killed in Afghanistan. I learnt about suicide bombers and suicide belts. I knew places like Kabul, Homs, Tehran, Benghazi and all of those places…because of the violence. Then we used to remark to ourselves that this could NEVER happen in Nigeria. Sure we had our problems- the corruption was stifling, the educational sector was failing and keeping thousands of students at home, the job market was tightening so much that you needed 5 years’ previous experience to get any serious Job. But no Nigerian was suicidal enough to carry bombs!
But then under President Yar’Adua we started hearing of a group that would love Nigeria to become an Islāmic country. They held seminars trying to convince people that the righteous way to live was to abandon all “Western” civilisation. I wondered what “western” meant. Did they want us to stop living in houses and driving cars? Did they want us to abandon electricity and computers and all of that?
I thought it was curious- the leader Mallam Yusuf visited a Northern University to explain Boko Haram’s philosophy. And he was using a Public Address system to preach! And as colleague questioned him once- “If western civilization is sinful, why do you wear a GOLD wristwatch, use an advanced mobile phone and drive a car?” My friend says the meeting ended in pandemonium because his followers refused to allow him answer the question.
The next we heard was that Boko Haram had attacked some people in Borno state. The Nigerian government reacted swiftly- they “crushed” the resistance and arrested the leader. Information started filtering out slowly…we discovered that the leader of Boko Haram was a highly educated person! What an Irony!
The news articles said that he was willing to name the sponsors of Boko Haram. I actually watched a video where he was saying just that. All of a sudden the news was that the Boko Haram leader had been shot trying to escape. Again the swirl of public discussions (a.k.a gossip) had it that he had been shot in the face, not the back. Secondly he was handcuffed. Everyone in their classic distrust for the government agreed Yusuf was killed to hide the identity of his highly placed sponsors.
By this time I was beginning to form an opinion about Boko Haram. I was convinced that no sane person would join Boko Haram except he truly believed he was fighting for his god. As if to support my theory, Boko Haram kept attacking Churches. Given their declared agenda to Islamize Nigeria, Christians cried out for help. Muslim leaders were in denial. They kept “sympathizing” with Christians over each fresh attack with empty statements like “we are all affected”. There was no public denunciation, no statement from the Supreme Islāmic Council to that effect.
Now they bombed Nyanya and everyone is getting serious. That Nyanya park- I’ve spent up to an hour at the park when I went to pick up a cousin visiting from the countryside. I’ve accompanied a friend who forgot his wallet on the bus from Calabar. I’ve taken that road several times to the Bingham University just outside Abuja. At any time of the day, the park is full of people. At any hour of the day between 5am and 9pm you’re sure to find at least a thousand people (passengers, drivers, hawkers, and cars on the nearby express). Yet our government’s official casualty figures did not go beyond 80.
We are afraid because the demon that terrorised our brothers in the core north has suddenly found its way into the backyard we once called safe. Now Nigeria’s identity has gone beyond a nation of fraudsters and crooks…to a nation of terrorists. Our pysches are shattered. The bloodshed has made us so numb that we are almost accepting it as our fate. Only when fate brings death to our doorsteps do we react, always too late.
Now even our children are not safe. We call them OUR children because in Africa, the child belongs to the community. Barely ten years ago I was in a boarding school, mixed with students from literally every part of Nigeria, every state represented. Then I could hardly picture anything more horrible for a 13 year old than horrible seniors who sent us crabbing at 1am or who forced us to do their laundry in the freezing cold. But now our children face a new horror- the horror of being woken up by men in army fatigues WITH guns pointed at their faces.
I don’t know what your president told you would be your mission in Nigeria. Maybe you are here to help us find the missing girls. Maybe you are here to help us find them and bring them back home. Maybe you are here to do all that and keep them safe from Boko Haram. Maybe you’re here to wipe Boko Haram out.
Maybe you’re what Nigerians hope for. Did you see the jubilation when they heard US Soldiers were coming? There was ecstasy in the air. People at Newspaper stands bragged optimistically about how Boko Haram would be flushed out within weeks. We have watched too many American movies that portray the US army as invincible, too many World War II documentaries, too many reports on how Bin Laden was killed in a raid that took mere minutes. We have read in the papers and seen on the TV how your drones kill Al Qaeda targets.
The Nigerian people pray you will rescue them from the new reality that confronts them; the reality that poverty is rising to its zenith even though on paper the country is Africa’s biggest economy; the reality that in 10 years there may be nowhere for anyone at all to call “home”; the reality that our government has failed dismally to protect us both from external aggressors in Bakassi and from internal saboteurs that would watch the world burn to satisfy their bloodlust.
You cannot lose sight of the fact that the people hold you in high esteem. You embody the power that they have wished and dreamed for years. You represent a body that to the people is impartial and unbiased. This may be their first interaction with armed officials who aren’t threats but protectors. They may be surprised to see soldiers who actually smile. They will be thrilled to see soldiers who won’t make catcalls at their women or children, soldiers who won’t slap, kick or force their men to frog-jump on asphalt blazing in the afternoon heat. They will be glad to know you won’t rape their women.
The girls are dreaming of meeting a handsome American soldier with a bank account that’ll make them swoon; they want a good time and will probably try to have a baby with you. I don’t know what your orders are, but I’ll advise you to keep your distance. I’ll advise you to preserve the saintly reputation that preceded your arrival.
I know you’re human after all. I expect there will be some lapses due to human error. I expect you to keep your ears to the ground as we say in Nigeria. I expect you all to leave this country the same way you came- alive, complete and celebrated.
I wish you the best; and I hope my people will one day say “God bless America”.