An empathetic inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the 2014 kidnapping of 276 girls from the Chibok Secondary School in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
Nigerian-born poet and novelist Habila (Oil on Water, 2010, etc.) seeks to remind the global community of the plight of the kidnapped girls, most still presumed to be held somewhere in Boko Haram’s forested strongholds in northern Nigeria or in the terrorist group’s bolt-holes in neighboring Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. The author is less interested in assigning blame to former president Goodluck Jonathan’s halfhearted counterterrorism efforts or the international community’s short attention span than in detailing the complex fault lines that perpetuate Boko Haram’s brutal insurgency. After at least two centuries of ethnic and religious conflict, Habila writes that most Nigerians—especially in the north—are “always Muslim or Christian first, ethnic affiliation second, and Nigerian third.” The author briefly traces the history of these conflicts but leaves a more thorough accounting in the hands of historians. While Habila’s purpose is essentially journalistic, he does not shy away from heartbreaking literary asides. He writes of visiting Chibok years after the girls were taken: “it was like going to Hamelin and feeling the weight of the absent boys taken by the Pied Piper.” Habila also identifies long-running themes, tying Boko Haram’s kidnappings back to the Sokoto Caliphate, a 19th-century political entity established through jihad and economically sustained by enslaved Christians from Nigeria’s “Middle Belt.” According to the author, when Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, announced in a propaganda video, “I took your girls. I will turn your girls into slaves,” their parents, “descendants of the Middle Belt ‘pagans,’ understood exactly what he was saying.”
Both an informative primer on Nigeria’s history of Islamist conflict and a passionate testimonial on behalf of the 218 Chibok girls still missing.