New Internationalist

Words, words and more damned words

US politicians' moment of silence [Related Image]
Words - and moments of silence - are not enough. International leaders need to take action to track down the missing Nigerian schoolgirls. Senate Democrats under a Creative Commons Licence

The news of the 286 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram has provoked universal condemnation. If, sitting safely in our homes, secure in the knowledge that such a thing could never happen to our children, we can feel such a sense of anger and outrage, imagine the plight of the girls and their families. The anguish, dread and frustration of not knowing what will happen to them. The stomach-churning fear that the girls have already been sold and are beyond rescue.

Let’s examine what has happened in the three weeks since the kidnapping on 15 April. Practically nothing, as far as rescue operations or effective action are concerned. Compare this with what happened after Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing with 239 people aboard. The first phase of the search and rescue mission involved more than 300 aircraft spending 3,000-plus hours in the air, scouring 4.6 million square kilometres of ocean. Twenty-six countries were involved. And this was just Phase 1! Australia has estimated the costs of Phase 2 will have reached $60 million. America’s Bluefin 21 Drone, which was used to scan underwater, cost a staggering $40,000 a day.  Now, what is being spent on the 286 girls who have gone missing? Is the lack of resources being offered because they are African? Or girls? Or just plain dirt poor? I suspect all three. No airline industry reputation to be protected, either. The numbers of missing in each case are close, making it even more ironic. We live in a world where double standards no longer even raise eyebrows.

Three weeks is a long, long time for helpless young girls to live in captivity with ruthless, unscrupulous abductors.

But consider Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s inane response at the World Economic Forum (WEF) he is busy hosting at the nation’s capital. ‘Thank you for accepting to come even at a time we’re facing attacks by terrorists. Your presence helps us in the war against terror. By God’s grace, we’ll defeat the terrorists. I believe the kidnap of these girls will be the beginning of the end of terrorism in Nigeria.’ Some consolation for the girls and their families.   

Reportedly around 6,000 soldiers were sent to protect international WEF dignitaries. The budget, media reports say, for the two-day meeting is twice that of Nigeria’s Federal Initiative for the North East – the plan for enhancing security in northeast Nigeria, where the violence has been constant for some years now. Soldiers are guarding the international meet instead of searching for their kidnapped girls. Does that sound remarkably like Nero fiddling while Rome burnt?

What were world leaders thinking when they decided to come and listen to the Nigerian President’s irrelevant verbiage in the middle of such a life-threatening hostage situation? Are they even slightly ashamed of wining and dining, fine living and pompous verbal diarrhoea while young girls are being raped and killed and Nigerians burnt alive close to their conference? Is there no sense of what’s appropriate? No end to their shamelessness? Reports suggest that even as they talk in the capital, some of the girls are being sold to neighbouring countries.

And then, President, Barack Obama’s grave pronouncement: ‘The Chibok kidnappings may be the event that helps to mobilize the entire international community to finally do something against this horrendous organization that has perpetrated such a terrible crime.’

Seriously, is this a time for mere words? More sound bites? 

It is 25 whole days and nights since the girls were abducted. My mind refuses to dwell on the horrors implicit in their imprisonment. Imagine their plight. Imagine their families. We cannot pretend that as a global society we do not have the resources – human, financial, technological – to search for and rescue these girls. Mere platitudes will not cut it. We need action, not words. And we need it now.

The Nigerian people think so. Unfortunately, their President and our leaders across the globe just continue making speeches.

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  1. #1 tom 09 May 14

    beautiful article. said as it is. our govt is about talk, more talk and grandstanding. all hot air but no action.

  2. #2 david cohen 09 May 14

    At first reading I was going to pass up commenting on Mari Marcel Thekaekara's blog, Words, Words, and More DamnedWords but further reflection causes me to make these comments.

    I of course bemoan and agree with Mari's scolding of leaders' vacuous comments. When these leaders have nothing to say they have not learned the virtue of silence. When they do not act as they should, they use words as a failed substitute. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan exemplifies that. He is not alone.

    Here are my thoughts.

    I learn from Ecclesiastes, a profound Jewish teaching . There is a time in my engaged world for words and a time for action. Surely finding those girls, and what happened in the Malaysian airline tragedy, calls for unhesitating action. It calls for high levels of cooperation and costs should not be spared.

    But there is also a time for words. In my US experience I think of Lincoln's Gettysburg address and his peroration that we must be a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

    I think of Franklin Roosevelt's Four Freedoms--freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear. These freedoms should be universal in scope.

    Each culture has an appropriate use of words that can galvanize people.

    Today I read an op-ed in the Wall St. Journal by Aynaan Hirsi Ali, a person deeply bruised by the Islamic religion, and to me a purveyor
    of Islam phobia language, ideas and action. (Greedy Rupert Murdoch won't allow a link because he insists on charging for information though I subscribe to the print edition.)

    The neglect in finding the girls does call on those believers in Islam, who are non-violent, reject violence and terror, have a special responsibility to speak out and urge action against those like Boko Haram who act violently with terror as their mantra.

    Those of us who are not followers of Islam have a special responsibility to oppose those who purvey Islam phobia even by those like Ayaan Hirst Ali who was abused by Islamic brutes and haters.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC
    May 9, 2014

  3. #3 Betty 09 May 14

    ’Is the lack of resources being offered because they are African? Or girls? Or just plain dirt poor? I suspect all three’.

    NO, NO and NO again.

    You can't have it both ways. Should the West intervene ? They have paid a huge price (financially, in terms of human life and homegrown terrorists) when they intervened in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in order to combat Islamic terrorism and nudge authoritarian regimes towards democracy. Blair and Bush's naivety and altruistic intentions have been branded as Islamophobia. Hilary Clinton's State Dept. wouldn't even classify Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation.

    Muslim clergy all over the world, speaking from the same sheet should be denouncing this act of barbarism.

  4. #4 mari 09 May 14


    Blair and Bush's altruistic motives? It is now universally acknowledged that they manufactured lies concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. All the while Osama was in Pakistan but they are still cosying up to Pakistan.

    I dont expect them to send in the troops, but I wish there'd be less talk..hypocritical cheap talk anyway


  5. #5 ludwig pesch 09 May 14

    To the point and insightful as always, Mari - the kind of self-introspection needed.
    One question remains lingering in my mind on first reading: what distinguishes any of the career politicians or entrepreneurs as the WEF participants as to be called a ’world leader’? I fear character and integrity aren't high on the list of criteria. Wishing that I'm wrong on this account, I'm yet waiting for sound reasons to think otherwise.
    It simply can't be mere inclusion in one of the mass media-oriented circus venues (all too similar to Nero's Roman customs)? The freedom of squandering tax money of ’their’ respective nations where citizens constantly are told that there isn't enough money for health care and the elderly? Your blog remains a pointer to the prevailing cynicism, the free havens where accountability stops, lives for ’insiders’ are protected at gun point and those of outsiders, as in this tragic case of hundreds of schoolgirls, worth no more than the cash in a local goon's pocket.
    There's yet another side to consider: many international organisations (sport, culture, education, environment) now gravitate to the very same venues where this kind of mischief creates the infrastructure with the attending militarisation of civil society for ’security reasons’ etc. The worst of Roman customs was subordination of all aspects of life to a military agenda. The difference is that there was little pretence at being ruled by democratically elected leaders then. Just warlords with fancy titles.
    Are we all helpless or is it time to respond by way of ’no show’ in such mega events? The luxury, all too often paid for by one's employer (i.e. tax payers directly or otherwise).
    As far as we are entitled to being heard as board members, let's raise this issue as part of the agenda.
    I'd call for ’zero tolerance’ for ’collateral damage’ of this kind - apart from the redirection of scarce resources, the worst is that we all become insensitive, even indifferent. ’Minding our own business’?
    Do keep up the pressure, thanks for staying focused on issues that matter. For all of us!

  6. #6 priya thomas 10 May 14

    todays papers tell us that US and British forces are arriving Nigeria to help tackle the crisis-took a long time for the world to wake up-Nigerian President Jonathan chose to remain mum God alone knows why even after 53 girls escaped from the boko haram clutches a few days ago-around 300 people were massacred this last week by the same insane militant islamist group-we can only hope the girls are rescued before these fanatical feudalistic brutes sell them as sex slaves as their leader had threatened

  7. #7 otieno ombok 12 May 14

    The world has been all along hypocritical. Humans should go back to their small communes and retain their sovereignty there and not to pretend to have a state ith all that it takes to deliver, security and other basic needs at a cost of their blood and sweat

  8. #8 Petrer Berger 14 May 14

    So true, politicians of every hue spout words as platitudes but do nothing except line heir own nests and pockets. Politics has become the refuge of every scoundrel, not a profession with honour and respect. When will we as educated individuals demand action from those we elect and when we don't get it do something besides spout rhetoric as they do.
    There are times when I think the violent 60's of Calcutta are needed again to get action taken on the most pressing of matters, our children and the survival of the underpriviliged.

  9. #9 Chris 20 May 14

    Thanks Mari for a beautiful article.

    The news of the 286 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram is a real shock. It is wrong in every sense. This is where the leaders of each country must rise up and take action. Boko Haram is trying his luck in small portions and if he gets away with this one... one day he will turn into as big as hitler.

    Single men.. single groups become this way because they get away with what they do.

    Well if the military has to get it.. so be it.. I believe if this is taken lightly, there will be something bigger still to come. There are trained police and military forces for people and forces who destroy the peace.. isn't there???

    When things like this happen.. we begin to feel insecure in our own land.. our own leaders.. and protective forces.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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