Picture the following scene, if you will, horrible though it is. A group of young schoolboys are asleep in their dormitory when the doors are quietly locked and the building set alight. Most are burned alive, while those who manage to escape have their throats slit by the Islamic extremists waiting outside. What’s more, it’s the third such attack in eight months.
Dreadful stuff, eh? The world should do something about it. Raise awareness. Another version of the BringBackOurGirls campaign for the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, perhaps. Only in this case, of course, there are no boys to bring back, only charred, bloodied corpses.
This is just one of the many grim stories of Boko Haram’s campaign of mayhem in Nigeria, where I’m currently reporting on the case of the missing schoolgirls. As I type, Michelle Obama is on the television in the hotel lobby, borrowing her hubby’s slot on the president’s weekly address to galvanise the world into action.
She says it’s “unconscionable” that a terrorist group like Boko Haram should kidnap innocent schoolgirls simply because it disapproves of them getting an eduction. I couldn’t agree more. But while this case has rightly become a cause celebre for schoolgirls’ rights in Nigeria, it should be remembered that their male counterparts are having a rough time at the hands of Boko Haram too.
The massacre that I refer to above took place in the northern state of Yobe just two months ago, and, like the previous two before it, caused little stir in the wider world. They also followed a pattern in which boy pupils are slaughtered while girls are spared. In the Yobe incident, the occupants of a nearby female dormitory were told to go home, get married, and forget about having an education. Not very progressive, and distinctly sexist, but at least they were still alive.
So why is it, then, that it is the girls’ suffering, rather than the boys’, that is finally bringing Boko Haram’s mayhem to world attention? Plenty of media-analysis stuff has already been written on this, and I don’t have much more to add.
But one of the reasons is this: the girls are still alive, while the boys are all dead, and therefore the story goes on. Sadly – and I speak from personal experience here – that’s also one of the reasons why terrorist gangs carry out kidnappings. They know it creates high drama in a way that mere slaughter doesn’t. The threat of death looms large, but at no fixed time or date, so there is no prospect of closure. And unlike a plane crash or bombing, the final outcome rests not in the disinterested hands of fate, but in the hands of malign human actors, whose intention all along is to create a lurid theatre.
Indeed, if you ever have a loved one abducted yourself – and I hope to God you don’t – the first thing the authorities will tell you is that a kidnappers’ target isn’t just the hostage. It’s also you.
In other words, had these schoolgirls simply been killed outright, the world might not be coming to Nigeria’s aid in the way it is now. And had these schoolgirls been schoolboys, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it in the first place.