A Government (And People) Devoid of Empathy, By Maryam Uwais

Today, our country is witnessing an unbelievable nightmare with the invasion by the murderous, senseless and bloodthirsty hounds in the name of Boko Haram. No fewer than a million Nigerian citizens have been displaced from their homes, while several thousands have been killed. To compound the situation, many of our compatriots are still wandering aimlessly in the wilderness, their entire communities having been sacked. Relatively safer host communities have been compelled to absorb hundreds of internally displaced people without any preparation, while other homeless peoples have registered to live in various camps that have sprung up in Adamawa, Borno, Yobe, Nassarawa States, as well as on the outskirts of the FCT.

Today, first class traditional titleholders around Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States currently reside outside their domains because their palaces have been taken over by the insurgents. Boko Haram flags have been hoisted victoriously on Nigerian soil, with villages and towns renamed by these blood-thirsty intruders. Almost every day now, we awake to the frightening news of yet another onslaught or bomb explosion, with rumours of our military and local hunters battling to confront the Boko Haram insurgents and reclaim lost territories that are most often lost and won again in a matter of days.

However, the reality that will never go away is that of Chibok, a community in Borno State. Chibok came to the limelight when the Boko Haram insurgents abducted 279 schoolgirls one dark night in April 2014. It took two weeks for the Federal Government to react, apparently not believing that the incident even occurred. The #BringBackOurGirls coalition, initially comprising just a few concerned women and men, succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of the girls. However, even while the coalition has gone international and despite all its efforts, it has not achieved its core objective: to ensure that the girls are brought back home to their parents, safe and alive.

Now that we have come to the end of the year, government officials seem more interested in the polls coming up in February 2015, than in rescuing the nation’s vulnerable women and girls, caught up and still held by the Boko Haram insurgents. Today, all that seems to matter, from the bickering going on in the public sphere, as well as the billions of naira being raised even from State Governments (that have been unable to pay the salaries of their civil servants), is the coming general election. It does not even matter if the very citizens expected to vote for these politicians are being incapacitated and killed in their thousands.

The common refrain these days is that Nigerians should support the Government in its efforts to combat the insurgency. Reminding these people about the ordinary Nigerian citizens that have been missing for months on end is perceived as confrontational and anti-government. Criticising the manner in which the operations have been conducted, that have so far failed to rescue the girls, is perceived as standing with the opposition. Demanding that our military officers in the field be properly equipped and motivated before being sent out on the deadly missions against the insurgency, is considered unpatriotic. The sincerity and patriotism of responsible Nigerians that continue to protest the absence of the girls, is put in question.

Nigerians are informed that in other climes such as America, when such calamities befall a Nation, citizens would rush out with their flags, demonstrating and drumming up support for their government. They conveniently forget that in those countries, their governments do not hesitate to act swiftly, as proof that it cares for its citizens. Other governments go the extra mile to demonstrate that their citizens, no matter the class, gender, religion or ethnicity, are the heart and soul of the country.

In most of these countries being cited, their Presidents rush to the scenes of sudden disruption and violence, reaching out to the families of victims and survivors with words of solace, empathy and love. Indeed, there appears to be no limit to the extent that those governments would go to safeguard the rights of, and protect their own citizens. Those governments certainly do not make feeble excuses for their inability to show love and concern. Neither do they attempt to physically (using hired thugs) or verbally (through government agencies and spokesmen) attack those who venture to express solidarity with the victims or survivors of crises.

In Nigeria, we have a Government where high-ranking public officials unabashedly inform the world that there is absolutely no benefit to the President visiting Chibok as such a trip would not ‘bring back the girls’. The motives of concerned citizens who remind government and it’s officials that it is their constitutional duty to protect and promote the welfare of citizens are denounced; official channels, sustained by tax payers money are utilised to lambast and discredit caring and conscientious Nigerian citizens, because after all, ‘none of them are the biological parents of the missing girls’.

In our country today, members of the BBOG coalition are condemned and castigated by government officials for standing up for the girls; innocent Nigerian girls whose only ‘offence’ appears to have been their desire to better themselves by acquiring an education. Massive resources are sourced and allocated for the sole purpose of harassing and intimidating perceived enemies of government, whereas the military personnel fighting the insurgency in the field are in dire need of such resources, being bereft of the requisite wherewithal to effectively confront and combat the enemy.

What type of solidarity and support for government can be engendered by such an assault on the natural inclination to support fellow citizens; with alienation and intimidation? What culture are we borrowing from, where we are told pointedly that we must not express solidarity and compassion unless we have blood ties, share kinship with the victims of violence and injustice, or do not belong to any political party? Why is it so inappropriate for a President to reach out to a grieving and apprehensive Nigerian community, even for the purposes of extending sympathies and reassuring those who are on the verge of losing hope, having lost kith and kin, as well as property and a home they can call their own? Have we lost touch with our own humanity?

Our Constitution provides that the purpose of government is to safeguard life and property, yet empathy is sorely missing in governance. All we hear and see nowadays are the sundry advertorials rallying for support for the sustenance of a government that has so far appeared devoid of compassion; pleas that only appear hollow in the present circumstances. A government that actively demonstrates that it cares for its people will continue to engender support from the people. Where a Government appears steeped in its own selfish and parochial wants, however, it would be foolhardy for it to expect solidarity from the majority of the populace.

Ironically, it is not nearly as costly to reach out and show compassion, as it is to lavish money on propaganda that seeks to garner support. All that is required is a swift, sincere and good faith response, whatever the circumstances. Indeed, our Government becoming proactive in so many spheres would do Nigerians (and the government) a world of good. Visiting the camps of internally displaced people this festive season, for instance, would be a good place to start. That singular act would expressly edify that Government identifies with the plight of suffering Nigerians, thereby reassuring that all hope is not lost.

In a country where so much adversity has happened to so many, we desperately need to keep hope alive.

Mrs. Maryam Uwais, MFR, is principal counsel at Wali-Uwais & Co. She wrote from Abuja