Letter from Africa: Nigeria pride and foreign assistance

Martha Mark, the mother of kidnapped school girl Monica Mark cries as she display her photo, in the family house, in Chibok, Nigeria, on 19 May 2014 Image copyright AP

In our series of letters from African journalists, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani looks at whether Nigeria's national pride has been hurt by accepting foreign assistance in the quest to find the abducted schoolgirls.

I've been visiting Adamawa, one of the north-eastern states currently under emergency rule in Nigeria.

On 10 May, I attended the convocation ceremony of the American University of Nigeria, based in the state capital, Yola.

When the school's official singer rendered the American anthem before the that of Nigeria, the crowd around me began to mumble and grumble.

A journalist I know who sat in a different part of the hall told me that the reaction around him was similar.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The girls were seized from their school hostel around midnight
Image caption A video of some of the girls, dressed in Islamic attire, was released by the group

Guests whispered their strong displeasure at the American anthem being sung ahead of ours, when we were all on Nigerian soil.

At the end of the event, I witnessed a staff member frantically explaining to some who accosted him, that the sequence merely followed protocol. He recalled how, in football matches, the visiting team's anthem is usually played first.

Ghosts' choir

This incident may come across to some as anti-Americanism, especially at a time when the world superpower has set its sights on Nigeria.

Who are Boko Haram?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has threatened to treat them as slaves
  • Founded in 2002
  • Initially focused on opposing Western education - Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden" in the Hausa language
  • Launched military operations in 2009 to create Islamic state
  • Thousands killed, mostly in north-eastern Nigeria - also attacked police and UN headquarters in capital, Abuja
  • Some three million people affected
  • Declared terrorist group by US in 2013

Who are Boko Haram?

Profile: Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau

Why Nigeria has not defeated Boko Haram

However, the majority of Nigerians to whom I've been talking are quite relieved that the US has sent a team to assist our country in its fight against terrorism.

Even the young bellhop at my hotel expressed his relief that the Americans were "coming to end Boko Haram".

But not everyone is pleased with the US help.

As the Igbo proverb notes: It is usually the ghost with a full stomach that sings off-key in the hungry ghosts' choir.

Some of the loudest antagonists to foreign assistance are from among Nigerians in the diaspora - many with dual citizenship of countries where water flows from the taps, electricity is supplied 24 hours a day, and the police respond to 911 calls.

This group, famous for vehement bouts of "protecting our image", often seem more worried about the world's perception of their country, about stereotypes, than about the actual situations leading to those negative perceptions.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Boko Haram hascarried out bombings in north and central Nigeria
Image copyright Nigerian government
Image caption President Goodluck Jonathan (L) is accused of not doing enough to tackle the insurgency

Now, some of them appear more worried that the US is expanding its presence in Africa, than about the missing girls being found by all means necessary.

Nigerians are a typically proud people, often wary of foreign interference of any sort in our affairs.

But recent events have forced us to a place of humility.

Boko Haram is clearly one burden we cannot bear alone.

Nevertheless, there is just how low we will bow, how much dust we are willing to taste.

The reactions to the anthem episode could be a subconscious way of saying: "We know that we're at our lowest and that you Americans have been allowed to come in and help us. But, don't push it, please."

Image copyright other
Image caption US First Lady Michelle Obama has been campaigning for the release of the girls

Nigerians are also quite embarrassed by the Amnesty International report, which states that our military knew four hours in advance of the Boko Haram descent on Chibok where more than 200 schoolgirls were abducted.

Potbellied bureaucrats

Prior to that horrific 14 April incident, bashing President Goodluck Jonathan had become a national pastime.

Local politicians, activists and journalists utilised every available opportunity to declare his government a failure.

Thus, few Nigerians took it personally when the international community carried on with telling our government off.

However, the lavish criticism extending to our military is not so easy for some of us to swallow.

We know that our armed forces can't adequately tackle Boko Haram, we know that they are severely lacking in firepower, but we didn't know that they would hear of an attack four hours in advance and do absolutely nothing - just sit and wait for disaster to fall.

The same stoics manning checkpoints in the open air night and day, with half their allowances pocketed by potbellied bureaucrats?

A number of people I've talked to in Yola sang the valour of the Nigerian military personnel who have occupied their state for almost a year.

They described them as "brave" and said: "They are really trying".

Of course, Amnesty is a credible human rights organisation - they can't be intentionally misinforming the world.

But Nigerian military spokesperson Chris Olukolade asserts that the only credible information they received from Chibok that fateful night was a request for reinforcement after the insurgents struck.

Perhaps the information about advancing insurgents got hijacked by one of the many Boko Haram sympathisers who some Nigerian soldiers testify have infiltrated the rank and file of the military?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nigeria's security forces have been struggling to end the insurgency

Or the tip may have been ignored by one of the top officials who President Jonathan insists are within his government?

Perhaps it is the Boko Haram fifth columnists on the ground misinforming Amnesty about having sent an advance warning? After all, a student who escaped from the kidnappers said she recognised one of the men who herded the schoolgirls into trucks as a familiar face from her village.

Whatever the case, the war against Boko Haram will not be finished until the alleged sponsors and sympathisers are fished out.

That is something else I hope the US will assist us with while they are here: Find at least one highly-placed Boko Haram supporter, and hand him over to the Nigerian people as a goodbye gift.