Destroying the North-East’s social fabric

During Nigeria’s civil war almost half a century ago, there was a food crisis in the battle area. Eventually, the war ended, but the social conditions did not improve quickly. Because of government omissions and commissions, the Igbo people were crushed into the ground, and survival of the fittest became the order of the day. From that time, and for the next decade and half, men, and women, did whatever it took to put food on the table. In the case of many men, doing whatever it took often meant turning to crime, white, or blue collar. In the case of many women, it meant selling their bodies.

Now consider an Njideka who was born in 1950. By the time the Biafran festivities started in 1967 she was 17. Prior to that time, she’d been raised in a morally upright society where being loose was seen without any doubt as alu. Then the war came. And with it, an unravelling of society as she knew it. Her father was killed. But she survived. Now consider Njideka living in Enugu circa 1973. She’s 23, and very pretty. But opportunities are extremely limited to get ahead in life. Then her friend Ijeoma, who somehow seems to be getting by opens up to her. “Ere ihe ngi,” she tells her. “Ogini?” Njideka asks, to which Ijeoma simply replies, “Oto ngi.”

Now, as a well brought up girl, Njideka will have a period, in which she resists Ijeoma’s advice. Her mum will also tell her that Ijeoma is ajoo enyi, and advice her not to see her. But hunger is a persistent animal you see, and it won’t go away easily. Finally, one day, under the pressure of hunger, Njideka succumbs, and goes with Ijeoma to Independence Layout. After the first time, and seeing how easy it was to get paid £2 for short time action, and £5 for daybreak action, her inhibitions slowly ebb away, and it becomes habit. Then she moves to Lagos, and finds that the pay is even more. Before the end of the year, she is sending money home to her mum regularly, for her younger ones. Eventually, even Mummy stops asking questions, since food is on the table after all. With time, Njideka builds a house, and she is soon the undisputed bread winner of the family in word and in deed. The family looks to her for guidance in everything.

Now let us ask a question — seeing how Njideka rose, what is the likely path her sister’s daughter, Akunna, take in 1994 when the economy collapsed? The temptation to take the path that Aunt Njideka took will be real, especially seeing that society honours Aunt Njideka.

Fast forward to another place and another time, but in the same country. There is another war going on, this time, an asymmetric conflict, which has created a refugee crisis.

My employer published a report on the conditions of refugee camps in Nigeria earlier today. I recommend you read it too. For me, there’s something I’ve repeated as often as I can whenever I go on air, or have an opportunity to talk about this Boko Haram madness. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Nigeria will win the war against the insurgents. What scares me however, is whether we will win the peace. Sadly, Nigeria does not have a track record of winning that peace.

A section of today’s report reads — some young women are known to have resorted to offering sex in exchange for being permitted to leave the camp.

Women selling their bodies for food during times of war, or at least intense crisis, is nothing new. It has happened throughout history, and it will happen again. But preventing it from becoming an entrenched norm in a society, is largely dependent on how such a society wins the peace when the last gun has fallen silent.

For a part of Nigeria that on the surface at least, is socially conservative, this refugee crisis is distressing. It points to a bleak future for that region, and unfortunately, as a country, we’ve had that experience before, an experience we clearly have not learned from. If the theft from the refugees in the North-East continues unabated, and stretches for a much longer period that it has, two things will happen — the moral fabric of that, socially conservative region, will be destroyed for generations, and we will have created a whole new reservoir of recruits for whoever will come in to take the place of Boko Haram.