Chibok is perhaps the poorest and most neglected of all the twenty-seven local government areas in Borno State, in north-eastern Nigeria. It was recorded as an area of 1,350 km² with a population of 66,105 at the 2006 census. Most of the people are farmers and hunters, although many younger men and women occupied mid-level positions in teaching, the military, and the civil service.
The Chibok people call themselves ‘the Kibaku‘, which is also the name of the language they speak. Chibok is predominantly Christian in a predominantly Muslim state – the Chibok local government chairman is the only Christian among the twenty-seven local government chairmen in Borno State. It is a sleepy, dusty town where nothing ever seems to happen, and it would have continued its peaceful and obscure existence when everything changed that night on April 14, 2014.
Boko Haram, gunmen arrived in the town late at night, in a blaze of gunfire and headed for the school where they raided the dormitories and loaded 276 girls on to 25 lorries. Some managed to escape within hours of their kidnapping, mostly by jumping off the lorries and running off into the bushes.
The jihadi group Boko Haram have become one of the most brutal terror organisations. Since the beginning of its uprising in 2009 more than 3 million people have left their homes, at least 250,000 have fled into Cameroon, Chad or Niger and more than 20,000 people have been killed. Boko Haram has used at least 117 children in suicide bomb attacks since 2014, according to UNICEF. More than 80% were girls, some as young as 7. Girls and young women make better bombers because society sees them as harmless, so they are rarely stopped at security checkpoints.
With, The Chibok Girls, Helon Habila, who grew up in northern Nigeria provides insights into this kidnapping. He talked to ‘Southworld’: “I heard about the kidnapping of the 276 Chibok girls while I was doing research for my doctorate in Germany on the wars in Africa. I realized that it was about my land, the places where I grew up. I had to do something. I’m a writer. I had to go back. So I came back”.
Habila tells the stories of the girls and the anguish of their parents. He said: “After the kidnapping of the girls, at least more than eighteen parents died of depression, heart attacks, ulcers and hypertension. It was just the same for others as Boko Haram killed them as they were looking for their daughters”.
In his book, Habila illuminates also the long history of colonialism – and unmasks cultural and religious dynamics – that gave rise to the conflicts that have ravaged the region to this day.The author has had access to the families of the kidnapped to offer a devastating account of the tragedy. He talked about this abandoned land. “In my book – says Habila – I wanted to tell all that’s going on around this kidnapping. We cannot forget that this land has been abandoned by the central government. A land of so much poverty, and without hope, especially for the young”.
Last May, 82 girls were released; another 21 were released in October. Some also succeeded in escaping. This leaves 113 girls who are still unaccounted for. It is believed that they are still being held by Boko Haram, although there are reports that some may also have died.
“I wrote this book – concludes Habila – because these things must no longer happen, and that those responsible should be tried and condemned. And I am not talking only about Boko Haram”. Habila offers a short history of Boko Haram, illuminating the regional, religious and ethnic divisions that help explain its rise. But the author is most concerned with the pain the terrorist organization has inflicted on the country… perhaps making sense of these horrific kidnappings is just as futile as trying to understand a random, fatal bus crash. The best Habila can offer us is his compelling portrait of a troubled land.
Helon Habila is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, USA. He was born in Nigeria and worked as a journalist in Lagos. His novels include, ‘Waiting for an Angel’, ‘Measuring Time and Oil on Water’, and he is the editor of ‘The Granta Book of the African Short Story’. He has won many awards, including the Commonwealth Prize for best first novel, the Caine Prize and, most recently, the Windham-Campbell Prize. Helon Habila has been a contributing editor of the Virgina Quarterly Review since 2004 and he is a regular reviewer for the Guardian. He lives in Virginia, USA, with his wife and three children. (Ayobami K. Mba)
Helon Habila, The Chibok Girls, Penguin Books, UK, 2017, 127 pp.