The Kidnapping of a Country

The road to Chibok is eerily quiet, lined with checkpoints manned by civilians, many of them teenagers, wielding rusty rifles and serving as added security for an area that has little. In this northeast Nigerian village, where more than 300 teenage schoolgirls were kidnapped by the militant Islamist separatist group Boko Haram on April 14, their stunned families were still waiting this week for them to come home.

Lawan Zanna was still waiting for Aisha, his 18-year-old daughter. “How can I sleep?” Mr. Zanna asked. “Anger is gripping my body.” After the girls were abducted, Mr. Zanna said, he and other parents searched the nearby Sambisa forest for their children, but came back empty-handed. As he spoke, Aisha’s sister Hawa, 19, stood in silence. The two girls shared a small bedroom and almost everything else.

The Kidnapping of a CountryMore than 750 people have been killed this year alone in Boko Haram attacks; at least 29 boys were killed in a February school raid. This time, the government’s failure in rescuing the girls, and in addressing the issue, has incensed Nigerians and, increasingly, people around the world.

In the midst of the crisis, the World Economic Forum on Africa hosted a three-day summit meeting, May 7-9, bringing about a thousand delegates from around the world and Nigeria’s elite to Abuja, the Nigerian capital, to discuss economic growth and development. As the .001 percent opined in air-conditioned suites, far from the hot reality of Abuja’s streets and psyche, the government deployed 6,000 security officers for the event — an effort that many Nigerians half-joked, half-lamented would never be made to protect ordinary Nigerians, nor to retrieve the Chibok schoolgirls.

The city was at a standstill. Blue-uniformed security and police officers gathered around boomboxes perched on wooden benches and turned up to maximum volume, listening to voices shouting curses at the enigmatic Boko Haram. “We just don’t know who these people are or what exactly they want to do,” said a call-in guest on 95.1 FM Nigerian Info. “They say they want to impose Shariah law or whatever, but Nigeria is not an Islamic state! God go punish you!” A uniformed man holding a half-chewed juicy mango exclaimed, “Yes! God go punish them!” to nods of agreement.

Nigerian citizens exist in this surreal state of great contrasts, in a nation mired in corruption, under attack by an Islamist insurgency and at the same time brimming with potential and acclaimed as an economic engine for the African continent. With 170 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and largest oil producer. Its economy has surpassed South Africa’s, making it the largest on the continent. But that growth has only widened economic inequality. Economic activity has slowed to a trickle in regions where terrorizing at the hands of Boko Haram has forced farmers to abandon their fields, while young people without job prospects have left for the cities. More Nigerians are poor today than at independence in 1960, with over 60 percent below the poverty line.

For the past three weeks, we have been traveling the country reporting on youth unemployment, an issue consistently ignored by the government, but one that has been exploited by Boko Haram.

“The abductions are only the tip of the iceberg,” said Tayo Olufuwa, a bespectacled 23-year-old entrepreneur from Mushin, one of Lagos’s poorest neighborhoods. Mr. Olufuwa has started an online employment search company, Jobs in Nigeria. When we filmed him two weeks ago, walking on his old childhood streets for a multimedia report, plainclothes policemen detained us for four hours, confiscating our credentials and equipment. They told us they were protecting us from Boko Haram and other security threats, wrestled with our driver for a bribe and mocked a crowd of children. “We are a country sleeping with one eye open,” Mr. Olufuwa said afterward in exasperation.

It’s an expression used often by Nigerians, who are frustrated yet unsurprised by conflicting actions and reports from a government they have come to distrust. At least 16 Nigerians were killed in March in stampedes when nearly a half-million people applied for fewer than 5,000 government jobs.

Frederick Kusompwa, 30, eagerly joined thousands of job seekers at the national stadium in Abuja, one of the application sites, only to watch people climbing over one another, clawing for registration forms: “I just asked myself, What has my country become?” The interior minister, whose office oversaw the recruitment, announced that the dead “lost their lives through their impatience.”

Thousands apply for 20 full scholarships offered by the Institute of Petroleum Studies at the University of Port Harcourt in the Niger Delta. Celestina Johnson, an administrator at the institute, said she often wanted to cry during the interviews because so many of the applicants would never get a chance. As she spoke, the electricity went out — an everyday occurrence in Nigeria. “If this country’s condition continues, there will be a mass revolt,” Ms. Johnson said. “The country will break.”

In Lagos, the commercial capital of the country, a 41-year-old cabdriver, Oyebajo Adekunle, sweated as he swerved through rush-hour traffic. A college graduate with a business degree, he said he never thought he’d be driving people around, struggling to make enough money for his family of six. He pulled up to a cluster of people — one of the daily Bring Back Our Girls protests that have taken place here and around the country for weeks. “I would go out and stand with the women, but I have to hustle,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow. “It’s like the government makes the hustle so hard, so that we’re too tired to do anything about things like this.” He rolled down his window to shake one of the female protesters’ hands, locking eyes for a mere second, and then sped off to pick up another client.

Lauren Bohn and Chika Oduah are the recipients of a GlobalPost reporting fellowship in Nigeria for 2014.

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