Kidnapped in Nigeria the U.S. Can Help, but Nigeria's History of Reconciliation Must Come into Play

By Simpson, Dan | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), May 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Kidnapped in Nigeria the U.S. Can Help, but Nigeria's History of Reconciliation Must Come into Play


Simpson, Dan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The horrible drama of the more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, a violent Islamist group in northern Nigeria, hits me particularly hard because I lived in rural Nigeria for two years, as a just-out-of-college schoolteacher in the early 1960s, right after Nigerian independence from the United Kingdom.

It was a different place. I drove all over the country in a Volkswagen beetle, finding a place to stay in each town where I stopped, with no advance reservations. There were always young British or American teachers in the schools. The reason was the precipitous departure of the British colonial officers at independence, leaving the Nigerians with insufficient teachers of their own, needing to fill the positions temporarily with foreigners.

There were a few schools like Chibok, where the girls were abducted, although at that point, particularly in the north of Nigeria, predominantly Muslim, there were many more boys' schools than girls' schools, reflecting the Nigerians' priorities.

There were no military roadblocks. One saw no serious weapons at all, although men did hunt game with muskets, what people called "bush rifles." For those who know Nigeria only more recently the idea of circulating freely and never feeling threatened is unknown.

But, to put the current situation into context, it is necessary to review some of Nigeria's more violent history, before and after the time I was there.

First of all, get rid of any gooey ideas about the "civilizing" role of British colonial rule. It lasted from 1900 to 1960. To secure control over Nigeria, the British had to fight, particularly in the north, the military forces of what was left of a number of kingdoms. They were not that easy to defeat, although, in the end, local forces were no match for European troops and weaponry.

In the place where I taught, Benin City, the British had not been able to assert control until 1897,within the living memory of some of the Edo (Bini) people who lived and had ruled there, the remnants of the Benin Kingdom. British forces arrived in Benin to find human sacrifices hung on crosses along the road, to deter their entry. My household staff and the non-Edo-speaking students at the school were firmly persuaded that the Binis were night- raiding homicidal cannibals; they would not venture off campus at night.

The Bini king (the oba), Akenzua II, was an apparently mild- mannered man who wanted to review his sons' report cards with me over a game of pool, although I also attended a tribute ceremony over which he presided during which various sub-chiefs brought him living animal sacrifices whose throats were cut on the spot and whose blood was then smeared on his forehead in a cross.

In the category of other intra-Nigerian violence, five years after independence came a military coup d'etat, and then, in 1967, a three-year civil war, the Biafra war of attempted secession, which claimed as many as 3 million victims. It was based not only on tribe, the Igbos against the rest, but also to some degree on religion. …

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