Things I Don’t Know About Nigeria

Nigeria’s capital city used to be Lagos and now it is Abuja. I do not know why that happened.

Rashidi Yekini was a powerhouse striker for them at the USA 1994 World Cup but I don’t know who will lead the line for the Flying Eagles this summer in Brasil. I’d have to google “Flying Eagles” to make sure that is the national football team’s nickname.

I know Biafra is a region in the east because Irish missionaries had a strong presence there and my friend from church was born and raised there. But I don’t know what the other provinces are called.

I know the President of Nigeria is named Goodluck Jonathan, because who can forget a name like that. I don’t know what party he represents or what the parliamentary political spectrum of Nigeria looks like.

I know that there is oil wealth in Nigeria but I couldn’t tell you what people grow on their farms. Is there Nigerian coffee?

I heard over the weekend about “Nollywood”, a sort of makeshift Nigerian answer to Bollywood but I cannot name a single Nigerian actor or director. Or musician. Or poet. Or novelist. There are what, 100 million Nigerians? I don’t know. I don’t know a lot of things.

***

I do not for a moment want to malign or minimize the sincerity with which people have deployed the #bringbackourgirls campaign. That 200 girls can be whisked away is quite literally the stuff of fairytale nightmares. It is a horror movie made real. To the extent that we can think of it, it repels us. It is disgusting beyond words.

***

But if there was some scandal in the UK, where I live now, and people on social media took to commenting on it but were unable to tell me basic things about why London is the capital or what sports people play or how the Northerners resent the Southerners or who David Cameron is and why Satan has released him from hell, I’d weigh their input lightly. Granted, cricket is a tough game to understand, so we’ll lessen our demands for familiarity on that score. But if on top of all that they couldn’t say meaningful things about the economy or the arts and the best thing they could say about religion is that in the south they are Anglican and in the north they are Reformed, then we would definitely want to inquire about whether their public commentary was well placed.

“Raising awareness” is a phrase with very little meaning if hashtagification leaves me in the dark about such an endless list of things.

***

You may know Nigeria much better than me. You may have an in-depth understanding of Boko Haram; its aims and objectives and history. You may have just read the Wikipedia article about them, which is already vastly more than most people. But the very horror of the scenario makes this situation into a fiendishly good story. The temptation to comment on it on social media can feed into that fiendishness. Our commentary becomes part of the story.

***

I recognise the irony that I am commenting on the commenting on a story that I am suspicious about comment on. But bear with me. I am answering my friend’s question about what a Christian pacifist does in this situation.

***

When we reflect on the Boko Haram kidnappings we quickly ask ourselves why it is that this story has been picked up. Or at least, I ask that question. I mean, why does CNN tell this story? The simple answer is that the Malaysian Airlines plotline ran out of steam (so to speak) and the Crimean scenario is too complex to reduce into a ticker-tape message. Bad guys stealing teenaged girls is News TV gold.

Of course in some very real and important sense, it is good that we know this story. It is good that we know what is going on. But we already know that hundreds of thousands of people are kidnapped and trafficked every year. Presumably the horror movie shape of this tragedy is not categorically different from the mundane ways in which men profit from the flesh of women and children. A line, potted and meandering, can be traced from these girls’ captivity back to #everydaysexism (one of the rare sustained, politically sharp hashtag campaigns).

There may be even more nefarious reasons why this story is picked up but on a brutally pragmatic level, it is picked up because it can be packaged for television news. It can be hashtagged. It can be the feature of both op-eds and infographics in the Guardian. It is news that can be sold. And we buy it.

I’m not saying that is wrong in and of itself. But I would suggest that a politics informed by the daily news cycle is a politics bound to be manipulated and even misled. It is a politics that gives away the only politically potent thing you have – your agency – and in return gives you heartbreak and frustration.

I am not saying anyone is wrong for being caught up in this truly human story. But I am saying that your hashtagification of west African paramilitarism is unlikely to be the input required to bring reconciliation.

***

When was the last time you thought about Kony?

***

If you are anything like the statistically likely reader of this blog, here is the one tweet about this that you need to do business with:

We tweet, in total sincerity, out of love for our fellow humans, that in the face of such a tragedy we ache in our powerlessness. The story we reveal in such a tweet is that this story is about us.

***

Teju Cole wrote a few hundred words about this for the New Yorker today. He wrote less words than I have written and said more than I could hope to say. It’s funny how a man raised in Nigeria, by Nigerian parents, could have valuable things to say about Nigeria.

I will quote him extensively because it is typical of the clarity and humanity he brings to everything he writes, and because scientific studies indicate you won’t click on a link just because I tell you the thing at the end of it is good:

And what are they themselves thinking of, huddled in their dozens, warned to stay quiet? Not of the murders of Boko Haram’s founder and some of his followers by Nigeria police five years ago, which sparked the violent phase of the group’s campaign of terror. Not of the thousands killed during that campaign, in suicide bombs, attacks on churches, and shootings at restaurants, a frightening catalog of atrocities. Not of the global war on terrorism, nor of America’s strategic goals in that war. (Already, in Niger, a drone base is assembled; already American specialists are on their way to help the Nigerian government.) Not of Baga, some two hundred miles from Chibok, where last year government forces massacred two hundred civilians, nor of Maiduguri, where, in mid-March this year, more than five hundred men were executed on suspicion of being terrorists. Not of Abuja, where bombs now explode with unnerving frequency. Not of next year’s elections, which the President wants to win at all costs, nor of the corruption fueling his reëlection bid.

They are not thinking of Twitter, where the captivity is the cause of the day, nor of the campaigns on the streets of Lagos for a more competent and less callous government, nor of the rallies in front of Nigeria’s embassies worldwide, nor of the suddenly ramped-up coverage by international media, nor of how this war will engulf even those who are only just beginning to hear about it, nor of those who, free for now, will someday become captives.

They are perhaps thinking only that night is falling again, and that the men will come to each of them again, an unending horror.

***

The middle thing a Christian pacifist would say in the face of the Boko Haram is that the causes of the kidnapping of these girls is remote and unavailable to westerners sitting on sofas, idling on their phones during the ad break of a Scandinavian detective show on BBC4. We can say it is horrendous. We can say it is wrong. But why say redundant things? The moral clarity of the Simpsons’ is helpful here. Helen Lovejoy is horrendous because she is futile.

We can say that whatever about other causes, the kidnapping was not caused by an absence of lethal violence. As Teju Cole documents in his writing, the Nigerian state is not afraid of murder. Killing people didn’t prevent this from happening. Why would we think killing people would fix it?

So the bulk of the response that this Christian pacifist makes is to say that we’re dealing with fantasies if we think that we can formulate a response that makes sense. The Americans are going to deploy their drones. Nigeria is rich in oil. It is a “hotbed” of “religious tension”. It is home to Taliban-esque groups who do inhumane things that defy reason. Is Nigeria being positioned as our next Afghanistan? Whether or not it is or it isn’t, “Kill them” is politically, militarily and morally problematic. If nothing else, how can we kill people we can’t find?

***

The first thing that the person committed to Christian non-violence would say in the face of this incident is the first thing they always say: Pray. Good words to start with are the words of Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” See where that takes you. Or Jesus, as quoted by Matthew, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Or of course, the Psalms of imprecation will come as comfort for your troubled soul. Psalm 94 begins, “O Yahweh, God of vengeance, God of vengeance, shine forth. Rise up, O Judge of the earth. Repay upon the proud what is their rightful due. How long will the wicked, O Yahweh, how long will the wicked exult?”

What do Christian pacifists advocate in response to the Boko Haram? Prayer.

***

So first prayer. And then humble acknowledgement that we don’t and can’t know what is at play and how to win this game so that those girls no longer have to spend a night facing the horror Cole so vividly draws. What then is the last thing that the Christian pacifist will do?

They’ll pray again. Because if they are wrong about this non-violence thing and are trying to convince the church to follow them, that is a very, very serious misdeed.

Your Correspondent, Will listen to his wife when he’s dead

6 Replies to “Things I Don’t Know About Nigeria”

  1. This is an interesting addendum ” They’ll pray again. Because if they are wrong about this non-violence thing and are trying to convince the church to follow them, that is a very, very serious misdeed. ”
    Do you ever doubt pacifism is what God expects of Christians? Doubt, not in the sense of some vague “I have a feeling I could be wrong here” but something more concrete like for example in relation to some of what Jesus says or an exegesis of some passage? How about this instead, if you were asked to argue against pacifism what would lead off with?

  2. There are a few people who seem very disappointed that i didn’t use my “influence” to tweet about this. which drives me batty. I appreciate you not wanting to belittle people who genuinely want to pray and see change happen. But I too wonder: don’t we all know this shit happens all the time? If you don’t know that, then I don’t know what to do.

    I teach women who were denied access to education. In my own small way, I am trying to combat the larger forces behind this. But I didn’t tweet about it enough I guess.

    Also, in all the Nigerian films I have watched (2) the threat of beating your child is viewed as comedy gold. Comedy. Gold.

    Thanks for writing about this.

  3. First of all, thank you so much for answering my question. I’ve finally gathered my wits about me & screwed my courage to the sticking place (because the Internet is terrifying) to write you a response.

    Secondly, hashtag activism. I think it’s a lot like one-week-long youth group missions trips. Stage 4 #SolidarityHashtags are ineffective & certainly more for the tweeter than for the cause, but I think they arise from a healthy instinct to reach outside our bubbles. There’s absolutely the Stage 5 problem of people thinking their tweet is enough & only caring about the cause as long as its trending. There’s also the problem that you (& Teju Cole) illustrate of complex issues being reduced to catchphrases by bandwagon-jumping outsiders. But hopefully it’s not too naive to hope that even that humble effort twitches an empathy muscle, or helps someone to recognize & become involved in injustices in their own community.

    Happily, if this article is accurate, it seems that Nigeria itself created & invited the world into #BringBackOurGirls, which actually has been surprisingly effective in its own way, putting enough pressure on the government to grind a few gears.

    Thirdly, Christian pacifism. I was hoping your kind, careful, & valiant effort here would be a lightning bolt of clarity that would end my long struggle with this issue. Sadly, it wasn’t that easy.

    This is where the Boko Haram abductions begin to serve as (forgive me!) a case study, and my questions reach beyond just (just!) this incident.

    Where my own safety or life is concerned, I’m with Jim Elliott. I’ll defend myself against harm if possible, but if one of us isn’t going to make it out alive, I (hope I) would die rather than kill. Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice is unequivocal.

    Where I become viscerally conflicted is when the safety & life of someone else besides myself is concerned. Jesus’ command about enemies is in the second person, but what about the third person? My instinct is that if only one of them is going to make it out alive, it should be the victim rather than the attacker.

    One thing my China years helped me understand is that where some people have been given a shepherd’s heart, I think maybe I have the sheepdog’s? I have a deep, fierce, righteous-feeling instinct to protect the vulnerable from predators. It’s not bloodthirst for revenge, because when I think past my anger at people who harm others, I understand that they too are victims of the evil they do – live by the sword, die by the sword & all, not to mention spiritually. But it’s that witnessing the unjust suffering of others sets me on fire in a way that I can’t quench except through action. What do I do with that?

    (That totally sounds like I think of myself as some kind of chosen holy warrior. I swear I do realize that I am not a paladin. I know that what I describe is not unique to me. I assume it’s the same thing that motivates some people to become social workers & police officers & missionaries & yes, soldiers. Maybe it’s universal, I don’t know. I cannot emphasize enough how many things about this whole thing I do not know. Don’t even get me started on imprecatory psalms.)

    Pray, yes. Yes yes yes. Prayer is an action. I have to keep telling myself that prayer is the mightiest action available to me. I need to pray more, always more, always always always more. For something like this, these Nigerian schoolgirls so far beyond my reach, it is the only thing I can do.

    But are we not also Christ’s hands & feet, his agents & ambassadors? If I were a Nigerian Christian pacifist, would there be any other course of action open to me? Surely there must be! I wouldn’t argue for deadly action against Boko Haram. Their lives, despite the evil use they’ve put them to, are precious too. But God gave us imaginations, could not some third way of intervention on behalf of these schoolgirls be found? Could there be such a thing as a non-lethal tactical rescue? Or is that just a stupid fantasy of Trigun-style peaceful violence? Again, I don’t know. I don’t know!

    I think about Naaman’s slave girl, about how God can redeem even this, even the horror those girls are living right now, even Boko Haram themselves. But (but?!) I want to help.

  4. Not that this has much to do with what you write, but one thing I know about Nigeria is that Paul McCartney took his wife, Linda, and his faithful Wings-mate Denny Laine there on a whim in 1973 and recorded one of his best albums, _Band on the Run_. Nigeria’s being a former British colony and all, EMI had a ramshackle recording studio there. The two other members of Wings were afraid to go and left the band.

    The liner notes of a recent reissue mention that Paul, Linda, and Denny got robbed at gunpoint. Bandits stole some expensive camera equipment.

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