The news that over 200 school children were last week abducted by the Boko Haram terrorist group in north-east Nigeria makes for depressing reading. Pupils sitting their end of school examinations were rounded up, packed in vehicles and taken away by Boko Haram insurgents in an attack that lasted 4 hours.
The abduction story is not only depressing; the Nigerian military issued a statement that almost all the girls have been rescued. This proved to be a lie as the school principal gave a statement to the contrary. It now appears that a few of the girls were able to escape with the rest still held captive by the terrorist group. Of course the military later issued a statement to retract their earlier one. So far no one knows the fate of most of the abducted schoolgirls.
Or maybe we do know. We know the fate of girls who are usually caught up in conflict situations all over the world. In the past, in conflict zones like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda and other places, girls who were abducted were turned into sex slaves or forced to “marry” their abductors. Their main role was to serve their masters in every way possible. They cook, clean and are forced to have unprotected and endless sex with their abductors. They are forced to have babies – who are later groomed as children to become child soldiers to continue the war and kill people. They become indoctrinated and are forced to partake in the carnage.
This singular act of mass abduction of children has shifted the Boko Haram insurgency from a middle of the road uprising to a possible longer term conflict situation in Nigeria. It is obvious that with the success of this initial mass abduction of girls, other operations of similar nature are bound to follow and other schools will be attacked with girls abducted and enslaved. Yet the abduction of girls by Boko Haram is not the only instance in which children have been caught up as major victims in the conflict plaguing that part of Nigeria. It is only an indicator of how well children have become the key casualties of the insurgency. Boko Haram’s mantra that “Western Education is a sin” ensures that educational institutions in the North-east – its stronghold – have become key targets.
So far, Boko Haram have killed over 5,000 people since it commenced its terrible campaign of calumny against the Nigerian people in 2010. Many of the victims are children. Many children have lost their parents and relatives. These children will become or have become victims in other ways – for instance, many will be prey to human traffickers as they are homeless and parentless with no one to cater for their needs. Others will become reabsorbed into the terrorist world as fighters or killers in order to be able to survive. The Boko Haram insurgency has disrupted the education of millions of children in that part of Nigeria and has destroyed the lives of millions of children too.
What is the role of the Nigerian government in all of this? The saddest part is that very little is being done on the ground to help protect children from Boko Haram. Even though there is a system of emergency rule in the areas where the terrorist are active, they are still able to operate virtually unhindered. They attack schools and other places, spending hours to rape and kill – yet the Nigerian military is unable to either prevent such attacks or even counter them in any way. Basically, Boko Haram has so far had a very easy access to attack and kill children in their schools with little or no protect offered by the government. Aside this, virtually nothing is being done to rehabilitate or rehouse victims of the attacks. People are left to their own devises to survive their ordeal and move on with their lives in whatever way possible.
Yet the whole world keeps silent about the atrocities going on against children in Nigeria. Hundreds, possibly thousands of children have become victims of the Boko Haram insurgency. Children are doubly the real victims of the Boko Haram insurgency, having been maimed, killed, orphaned, enslaved and terrorised in different ways. They are victims of their own government’s inability to offer them any form of support or protection. That is the real tragedy of the Boko Haram terrorism – the fact that children are not only caught up in this senseless conflict or insurgency – but that their own government has failed to fulfill its role as the protector of its own citizens.
The fact that schools in North East Nigeria can no longer function appropriately nor guarantee the safety of children is a forgone conclusion. Unless the government can send in troops to protect children, it is not only senseless but an act of cruelty to keep schools open, only for children to be massacred and abducted by terrorists. It is a gross act of irresponsibility on the part of the Nigerian government to put children at such risk of harm. The safety of the children in North East Nigeria is paramount. As long as the government is unable to guarantee their protection, then unfortunately alternative forms of education need to be made available, at least in the interim. In the meantime, let us hope that the campaign of calumny against children by Boko Haram can be at the very least curtailed by the government.
Debbie Ariyo OBE is founder and Executive Director of AFRUCA – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, a UK based charity promoting the rights and welfare of African children.