Bring Back Our Girls Movement And A Culture Of Decent Dissent

It is, therefore, imperative that decent dissent be encouraged. It is indeed in the interest of the government and the governed.

It was initially a rabble of a few citizens; then the number grew to hundreds and then thousands. Chanting war songs and wielding all sorts of objects, they marched into the mayor’s magnificent building, dragged him out and set him ablaze. That was in June 2004. They were the citizens of Ayo Ayo Local Council in Bolivia. He was their mayor, a man by the name Benjamin Altamirano. His offence: corruption!

Citizens’ resort to jungle justice against their elected or imposed leaders dot the history of humans for as long as anyone can remember. Nigeria’s history echoes this: the struggle for democracy, the anti-SAP riots, the Agbekoya riots, the Aba women’s riots, and the Egba women’s riots, were all popular uprisings against unbearable leadership excesses or lethargy.

However, violent uprisings have not been the only way citizens have courted and birthed change. Citizens have resorted to court action, peaceful protests and marches, and some of these have brought changes even if it took much longer than desired. The Not Too Young to Run movement is a recent example. Even in the climes where mayors were burnt and killed, some were taken to court, which is an expression of decent dissent. In 2004 alone, seven mayors in the Philippines were taken to court. The number of court cases instituted by Nigerians against political leaders or public officials is difficult to estimate. This, again, shows Nigerians’ faith in decent dissent.

Since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999, no civil society group has accomplished as much through decent dissent as the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) group. The BBOG emerged in April 2014 in response to the callous abduction of 276 schoolgirls of Chibok Secondary School, Borno State by Boko Haram, and the government silence that followed it. Remarks made at the World Book Day in Port Harcourt by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and former minister ObyEzekwesili became the tipping point for the spontaneous eruption of the movement. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls emerged from this.

Led by the irrepressible Oby Ezekwesili, a group of women organised the maiden march of the BBOG on 30 April, 2014, in Abuja. Within weeks, the hashtag #Bring- BackOurGirlswas tweeted 3.3 million times. First Lady Michelle Obama’s tweet of the hashtag was retweeted  57,000 times within a few days. The BBOG became one of the most viral phenomena known in the cyber world.

A study conducted by the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR) on the structure, strategies and the achievements of the BBOG threw up many interesting findings. Among them was that the BBOG was committed to strict discipline and decency among its members.

The intention of many who took part in the first BBOG march in Abuja was to adopt all and any means including violent ones to compel the government rescue the abducted girls. However, shock came when the leaders issued a no-violence order.    No member was allowed to make bonfires or roadblocks, throw stones or assault security officials. Even verbal assaults were strongly curtailed, in fact, forbidden. Part of the strict discipline of the group was that any leader going into partisan politics must resign from leadership. This directive, though adhered to by members of this group, however, failed to convince critics who, from inception, had branded the BBOG as a group working for the opposition.

The insistence on decent dissent irked some members who spoiled for war and led to the first cracks in the ranks of the BBOG. Many who desired to give to the Jona- than government a semblance of what the Ayo Ayo people of Bolivia or the Ilave people of Peru did to their mayors had to quit the BBOG movement because of its insistence on decent dissent. The movement, however, went on without them.

The question we might ask is: did BBOG’s decent dissent work? The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari might wish to deny this. However, too many observers, if there had not been the BBOG group, the government would not have bent over backward to pay ransom and swap prisoners for the release of some of the girls. There had been abductions and killings (such as the slaughter of schoolboys in Buni Yadi) but nothing had been done about that. There was clear evidence that the pressure mounted on government, especially internationally, was instrumental to government negotiating with the terrorists which led to the release of some of the girls.

The study also documented the unintended consequences of the BBOG movement such as empowerment of members; provision of a haven for the hurting; provision of missing persons register; and the overwhelming attraction of the international community to the annihilation going on in North East Nigeria.

More to the point here is that the strategies of the BBOG saved the Federal Government – both the Jonathan and Buhari administrations – much embarrassment which violent dissent would have brought upon it. It forestalled the loss of lives and property that usually follow violent dissent everywhere in the world. When Dr. Eze- kwesili and her team stood their ground during that tense protest and insisted that there must be no violence and indecorum, they nipped a simmering nationwide inferno in the bud.

It is, therefore, imperative that decent dissent is encouraged. It is indeed in the interest of the government and the governed. It is the best way to prevent violent dissent. Where decent dissent is ignored, violent dissent should be expected.

The citizens of Ayo Ayo in Bolivia had the practice of community justice: a collective imposition of punishment on an offender. However, before 2004, the toughest form of community justice they had always practiced was public flogging – not burning people alive. How come the same people dragged out their mayor and burnt him to death? At what point do pacifistic people turn to barbaric violence? The answer is not difficult to find. It is precisely at the point when they conclude that decent dissent would not produce results.

One recent example should suffice: in Igboora, Oyo State, young people realised that the citizens were being over-billed by the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). Under the umbrella of the Federation of Igboora Students’ Union (FISU), they wrote to PHCN to complain. They got no response. The wrote again, and again, copying the local police station, I learned. No one responded. Then they went on the streets, marched on the PHCN office and, predictably, a scuffle ensued between the young men and PHCN staff. A few people on both sides were injured. Immediately, the hitherto sleepy police officers swung into action, arrested the youth leader, dragged him to Ibadan and got him locked up in Iyaganku for days. Those who ignore decent dissent often have to cope with unruly and violent ones. The late Dr. Tai Solarin believed so much indecent dissent that he joined his students at Mayflower to compose and refine protest songs to be sung against his own school and against him. He understood that discontent, like strong running water, must find an outlet. He understood that if a peaceful outlet was blocked, a violent one would erupt.

It is another anniversary of the savage abduction of the Chibok girls by Boko Haram. While the world waits on the Federal Government to rescue the remaining girls, it would do the nation good to begin to deliberately cultivate a culture of decent dissent. In this direction, the Federal Government should dialogue with #EndSARS, and others engaged in decent dissent. This is how to nurture civility. The BBOG movement laid an example which should not be ignored.

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