History suggests that there are three main triggers of national transformation – moral awakening, political revolution and social trauma. Moral awakenings redefine socially acceptable norms and conventions. The struggle to abolish slave trade in the 19th century and the civil rights struggle in 1960s America were fundamentally ethical revolutions – transformative shifts in society’s perception of racism and slavery. Campaigns for social justice such as those that promote fundamental human rights, a fair minimum wage and gender equality all represent an evolving moral intelligence on these issues.
National transformation also comes by way of fundamental changes in political reality whether they are revolutions, coups d’etat or electoral regime change. Historical examples include revolutions in Haiti, France and Russia, the Sokoto Jihad and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Political upheavals tend to throw up new leaders who set new coordinates for national progress.
Where moral traditions and politics fail to deliver change, it often takes an epic national trauma to change the course of a country’s history and trigger a collective catharsis. This usually takes the form a catastrophe – a natural disaster, famine, economic depression, war and pestilence. At such times, societies typically unite to confront their challenges. This is the generally positive outcome. On other occasions, traumas, while transformative, can also yield negative results. The Depression of the 1930s coupled with its defeat during the First World War set the stage for Germany to succumb to the white supremacist lunacies of Hitler and the Nazis. More positively, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 became the background for the ascent of President Paul Kagame and the resurgent East African nation is now one of Africa’s most competently run states.
Clearly, Nigeria’s five year-long insurgency represents both an existential threat and a national trauma. But it has provoked neither a moral awakening nor a paradigm shift in our politics. Religious leaders have failed to chart a moral direction that urges us towards a greater reverence for the sanctity of life to counter Boko Haram’s feral bloodlust. Instead, they have been mostly agents of discord and intolerance. While they bicker over whether the insurgents are killing more Christians than Muslims or vice versa, the terrorists carry on with their mass murder of Nigerian citizens. A fickle, feckless rent-seeking political class cannot marshal the resolve to decisively confront the terrorists or to rally Nigerians across their sectarian cleavages.
Social trauma as a transformative instrument works best where there is a high degree of empathy and solidarity. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation set off a popular revolt in Tunisia because Tunisians identified with his traumatic humiliation by a state official as a microcosmic representation of their own traumatic alienation from the state.
Boko Haram’s continuing expansion has cruelly exposed our mutual alienation and the exhaustion of our social capital. Scenes from Nigeria’s northeast evoke memories of Rwanda circa 1994 while politicians obsess with winning elections. The continuous barrage of body counts contrasts sharply with the body language of an incumbent president evidently more preoccupied with defeating the opposition in an election than defeating the insurgents even as they unfurl their dark and bloody banners over more chunks of Nigerian territory. The northeast might as well be another country.
In a memorable statement, the German pastor Martin Niemoller explained the series of moral abdications and derelictions of conscience that marked the decent into Nazi terror: “In Germany they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” By keeping silent, the German population allowed Hitler’s Nazi Party to grow confident in its appalling atrocities until it metastasized into an omnivorous evil threatening to consume everyone.
Boko Haram would never have emerged if we had condemned the culture of violence which for decades targeted ethnic and religious minorities or if we had ardently resisted the idea that violence is justified when it is inflicted upon those with whom we share neither creed nor kinship. The insurgency would have been aborted if the administration had acted as though it were a national problem rather than a northern or northeastern problem.
This empathy deficit is why the abduction of the Chibok girls has not marked a cathartic turning point in the administration’s shoddy handling of the insurgency. It is why the administration has bizarrely tried to criminalize the Bring Back Our Girls protesters whose main crime is ensuring that the girls are not consigned to our mounting trash heap of acceptable abominations, and that we, in turn, do not lose our humanity. It is why twitter trolls have subjected Oby Ezekwesili to abuse for being a southern Christian busy body whose “overzealous” concern for a few expendable girls in the “Muslim North” is embarrassing her “brother’s” government.
The worry is that this ongoing trauma needs to assume a larger scale to shake us out of our apathy. It may well be that these torments have to spread beyond the northeast; that grief and suffering have to be democratized, and that something truly catastrophic has to happen to bestir the national conscience. Perhaps, denizens of Abuja will awaken one morning to bloody battles between government troops and the insurgents on their streets. Such an event would dispel the illusion that Abuja is a fortified city where political frivolities can proceed while barbarians are seizing swathes of Nigerian territory.
Assuredly, if terrorists had abducted 200 young girls from one of Abuja’s elite schools, among them daughters of public functionaries and their cronies, the quality of the administration’s response would have been radically different. The poor northeastern communities simply cannot generate the same response and are paying the penalty for poverty. There is a sense that some epic disaster has to burst the bubble of gilded indifference which currently insulates the high and mighty from the nightmare that has befallen millions of their compatriots.
Perhaps, being constantly bombarded with tragedy has, in the words of Dele Giwa, “shocked” us into “a state of unshockability” or the spirit of the age has warped our moral senses and sharply curtailed our capacity for fellow feeling. Either way, this loss of empathy can only endanger more Nigerians.
(All images sourced in order of appearance from www.newsrescue.com, www.tobietti.com, www.news247.com.ng and Harry Olufunwa; @holufunwa)