Leah Sharibu: Of character, courage, conviction

*Leah, Buhari

Tony Okeregbe

Like the nearly 40 million persons that make up the adolescent population of this country, Leah Sharibu, 15, is one of those pundits classify as vulnerable.

Judging by her membership in that demographic class trapped between childhood and adulthood, Leah may well be an insignificant number in the amorphous crowd mostly captured by statistics.

Worse still, being a girl, some cultures expect her to be voiceless, unheard, timid, and relegated.

Yet, out of this quagmire of anonymity, Leah, unlike the confused lot grappling with their status of marginality, has given a new meaning to ‘character’, as history and providence make her a symbol of freedom while still in captivity.

The story of her captivity is still very fresh in the memories of Nigerians.

Reports had it that Leah, then 14, was abducted with some 109 girls of the Government Girls Science and Technical College, Dapchi, Yobe State on February 19, 2018.

Khadija Grema, one of the returned Dapchi abductees, narrated to a television news channel at the time, that the students were ready for dinner when they heard gunshots.

Just as it was in Chibok in 2014, vehicles entered the school, pretending to take the girls to a safe place, and over a hundred girls were mobilised into the vehicles.

A few of the girls, on discovering they were being led into captivity, managed to escape. Of the 110 girls abducted, five were said to have died in captivity while 104 were released on March 20, 2018.

Minister of Defence, Mansur Dan Ali, who explained the process securing the lucky (104) girls’ freedom, said the girls were released through “backchannel negotiations”.

Unfortunately, Leah Sharibu was not released. The world got to know, from the returnees’ accounts, that Leah was not released because she refused to renounce her faith as a Christian and convert to Islam.

She rebuffed offers to secure her freedom on the platter of self-abnegation and ignoble compromise.

By that singular act of provocative gentility and defiance, which only harmless and innocent girlhood could muster, Leah has translated for us what it means to walk the path of honour, courage, conviction, and resistance in a society bedeviled by cowardice and deceit.

She joins the many prisoners of conscience before her in breaking the shackles of mental slavery and cultural suffocation to give herself identity in a world that has conspired to make her and her like anonymous. She is a representative of the victims of the many social afflictions befalling defenceless people.

It is this sort of heroism the former United States senator and environmental activist, Gayford Nelson, seemed to have in mind when he stated: “The ultimate test of man’s conscience may be his willingness to sacrifice something today for future generations whose words of thanks will not be heard.”

For Leah’s many admirers, resistance in the face of lifelong captivity or imminent death is a heroic demonstration of faith; so much akin to the sacrificial acts of early medieval Christian martyrs, whose mangled flesh and spilled blood from the mastication of starved Barbary lions bore testimony to strength of their faith.

To these fans of hers, Leah’s news value lies in her agency as a witness to her Christian faith.

Thus for refusing “to abandon her faith in God through Christ Jesus, on pain of death,” they have described her as “the most principled person in Nigeria today” in “a nation where politicians change parties more than prostitutes change partners.”

Other admirers have included her act of defiance as an appendix in the prospectus of feminism. They claim that Leah represents the manifestation of the spirit of tenacity and courage that is latent in every free and empowered woman.

To justify their claim that Leah epitomises the feminine candour, they argue that in 2018 women have actually outdone themselves in their resolve to make a statement about a better society.

Women are more often raped, ritualised for money, relegated in the scheme of politics, and cowed by obnoxious policies.

Even though lots of women have been found wanting in their responsibilities, the sterling qualities of those who have said, “enough is enough” are naturally embodied in Leah’s significant resistance.

Notwithstanding, to give a religious coloration to the virtuous act, or to instrumentalise Leah as the poster girl of an emerging trend of feminism is to undermine the excellence of character or moral disposition that drives genuine religious heroism or any sensible form of activism for that matter.

It is in this regard that Prof. Wole Soyinka’s wise counsel becomes instructive. In his comment on a choice of Leah Sharibu as ‘Person of the Year’, the avuncular sage pleaded against turning the innocent child into some advert, when he cautioned thus: “… no attempt should be made to fasten on that fragile prisoner of conscience any public burden beyond recovering her persona as human being and citizen. With the conferment of this award, I repeat and reinforce that plea. Recognize, honour, but prepare to let her be.”

And so, in recognising and honouring her, The Guardian believes that there are some enduring values and qualities which Leah’s pedigree had bestowed on her long before Dapchi realised them.

BORN on May 15, 2003, Leah was brought up in the modest Christian household of Mr. Nathaniel and Mrs. Rebecca Sharibu in a peaceful predominantly Muslim community of Dapchi. Nathaniel, a police officer and Rebecca, a school teacher, had met each other two years earlier when Nathan was posted to Dapchi.

Rebecca, who is reputed to have a passion for education and molding lives, had been teaching for over five years at the time.

Nathaniel, who is an Inspector of Police in the Special Protection Unit of the Adamawa Command of the force, has been described by his superiors and community folks as a brave and diligent officer with an exemplary disposition for sacrifice and saving lives.

Those familiar with the police administration claim that the SPU “has a reputation for protecting individuals and communities from the most dangerous threat to internal security and is at the forefront of Nigeria’s war on terror.”

Thus, while Boko Haram was wreaking havoc in Dapchi, with her daughter as victim, Nathaniel was in far-away Yola saving the lives of other peoples’ daughters.

It may be that Leah, the first of the Sharibu’s two children, inherited the combined virtues of passion, sacrifice and courage from her parents.

Besides, she is known to be a brilliant student who also shares her mother’s passion for education and community development.

According to her chronicler, Leah was a “very studious pupil who often read by the light of a hurricane lantern… She was also known for encouraging local girls in Dapchi to be serious about their studies.”

Her Junior Secondary School Examination, in which she cleared all 13 subjects with nine A’s, one C and three B’s, verily attests to this.

In the ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa) she attends, Leah is a member of the church choir, youth fellowship and Sunday School programme.

For a young girl nurtured in the kind of household she found herself, and expressing her potential in such challenging environment, it was only natural that she would become a rising star heading for the skies.

Questions and questions again

All these raise questions about the Dapchi strange abduction. Did the life of a passionate, focused and compassionate promising school girl like Leah so shine that it attracted the Boko Haram hunters? Why did they target Leah’s school, a soft target of predominantly Muslims? Was Dapchi a pre-determined target by the insurgents? Sceptics who refuse to accept the Dapchi abduction as a mere coincidence point to its many coincidences as a reason for their denial.

They also ask: Why is it that the Dapchi abduction, like the abduction of the Chibok girls, came one year into the election year? Why was an all-girls school targeted for the abduction? How come the abduction followed similar scripting like that of the Chibok girls?

As this newspaper had observed in an editorial on the Dapchi abduction, the coincidences also question the logic in the Dapchi narratives.

For how come would 110 girls be bundled into vehicles without creating suspicion? Do people understand the logistics of conveying 110 people at the same time to some destination? Are such movements of people usual occurrences in that region? If they are not, couldn’t the principals, teachers and workers of the school have thought of Chibok and alerted authorities of this strange event? Were there any officials of the school who witnessed the abduction? What action did they take? Are Nigerians to live with the thinking that there was no trail in all of this?

In another breath, Leah’s captivity makes one wonder whether Leah understands the implication of what she is doing.

How does her mind work in such a manner that she could, in the face of maniacal terror, stand her ground so expressively? In world and age when highly placed pastors and Imams can, at the slightest dangling of a carrot, renounce their faith and denounce the values that formed them, Leah’s courage is as strange and it is re-assuring.

Again, as The Guardian and well-meaning Nigerians have queried, is Leah’s Dapchi an equation in some political calculation? Why has there not been any public international outcry over Leah’s abduction in the same manner the world rose up in support of Pakistani Malala Yousafzai against the Talibans? Why is the social media not awash with protestations for Leah as it did for the Chibok Girls against Boko Haram? Or any form of solicitude as the world did for the trapped Thai teenage footballers? Why has there not been any profound statement from powerful religious leaders and associations on Leah’s case? Why have the efforts made by some prominent persons not yielded fruits? Is Leah the trumpcard or joker that would be exposed in Nigeria’s election poker?

The contextual lessons!

While Nigerians leave President Muhammadu Buhari and his administration to do the needful (since the president vowed that he would do everything within his power to rescue Leah Sharibu) there are lessons to be learnt from Leah’s captivity.

First, the predicament this child faces is a sad telltale of the pervasive grand deceit that characterises the lives and actions of some global leaders.

It reveals a deceptive global community that only recognises or appreciates virtue when it is a public performance rather than a genuine demonstration of strength of character, and when it optimises the self-image of the powerful rather than prick their conscience.

Nigeria is often lampooned as a nation largely bereft of people with enviable values.

Many persons have needlessly acquired an attitude of easy compromise that makes them succumb readily in the face of threats to their survival.

Leah’s captivity therefore speaks to leaders, political aspirants, lily-livered pastors and clerics whose cowardly silence and indifference to people’s plight contribute to the buffoonery at the corridors of power.

Leah brings out a refreshing ‘paradigm shift’ for a nation in search of enduring and uncompromising values for sustainable development. And her story is a lesson for the nation to stand by enduring values for its survival.

It is common knowledge that the many priests and pastors, who rend the airwaves with monotonous preachment of prosperity and fund-raising, have insured themselves and their families against the Nigerian hell-hole by securing second homes and nationalities in choice countries.

In cohort with profligate politicians and dubious persons they have also perfected the art of courting power for selfish ends. Leah’s courage tests the authenticity of the faith they preach and calls to question their sincerity of purpose.

For the hopeless, the voiceless, and others in various forms of captivity, Leah is a motivation for many whose consciences have been dented by the forces of oppression and marginalisation, and are unable to speak truth to power.

In the long run, it does not matter whether Leah Sharibu is a boy or girl, Christian or Muslim, northerner or southerner.

What matters is that this young person, almost a child, sprang out of the cesspool of cowardice, pretence, fear, and such pervading monstrosities to become one of the greatest exemplars of character, courage and hope at such a time like this.

Should Leah be pressured and broken to submission, it would be to the eternal shame of her captors that a child was wickedly blackmailed to be free. Yet, it would not remove from the fact that once upon a time there lived a girl, Leah Sharibu, whose strength of character signalled ‘hope of a better tomorrow’, which an African writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, says ‘is the only comfort you can give to a weeping child’.

However, should she come out free, exuding the courage of her conviction, as the world hopes she would, Leah would be reiterating the timeless lesson of authentic existence which binds all prisoners of conscience, from Socrates to Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi to Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King to Kudirat Abiola: to live is to be able to stand and die courageously for a just cause.


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