Amina Salihu, Development Sector Specialist, Civil Society

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Subjects of Interest

  • Governance
  • Sustainable Development

Chibok Girls: Eight years of anguish 10 May 2022

In April 2022, as I was visiting with my daughter, the world and especially the Nigerian feminist movement was marking the 8th year of the abduction of the Chibok girls. In Brussels, where we were, we did not have to worry about physical security even with the Russia – Ukraine war raging in not-too-far-away Eastern Europe. I didn’t have to worry about my work because the internet and other life infrastructures like electricity and water were a given once you paid your bills. Ditto food and transportation. Life can be lived with dignity once you have the means to meet your needs.

Following the abduction of the Chibok 276 girls, and the death of 59 boys in the attack on Federal Government College (FGC) Buni Yadi in 2014, UNICEF reported that over 1,000 school children have since been abducted by Boko Haram. The Chibok girls have come to represent the metaphor for the many abductions in Nigeria. The occurrence in itself is an attack on Western education.

In 2015, 40 boys and young men were abducted in Malari Borno. In 2018, another 115 school girls were taken from Dapchi in Yobe State. In December 2020, over 300 boys were abducted near Kankara in Katsina State. In February 2021, abduction of the Jangebe 276 females and the Kagara schoolboys occurred in Zamfara and Niger states, respectively. In March 2021, the abductions in Afaka College of Forestry in Kaduna State, and Birnin Yauri, Kebbi, in June 2021, happened. Some died, some escaped, while some were freed from among the abductees. Some remain in captivity. The poster child of those in captivity is Leah Sharibu of the Dapchi girls’ 2018 abduction.  

Boko Haram is the street name of the Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad. It means Western education is forbidden. Haram is the Arabic word for that which is not permitted or accepted and, from a theological perspective, is, therefore, a ‘sin’. Wherever there is sin, there is punishment. So, those who persist in ‘sinning’ would invariably attract the wrath of the crusading terrorists.

Girls who have regained their freedom from Boko Haram have related severally how they were advised not to return to secular school. Hence the escalation of the attack on schools or, more aptly, on education. The biggest paradox is that Islam commands the search for knowledge even as far as China (metaphorically denoting the end of the world). The very weapons Boko Haram uses to destroy are science products, communication gadgets, clothes, and the transportation they use are all products of ‘boko’ or secular technology and learning. What is the rationale for appropriating the products of a process you detest? How does that absolve it of sin?

Schools are easy targets not just because they are a symbol of what the movement detests but also because they have always been vulnerable. It is our moral compass built upon a norm that recognizes the sacredness of children that has kept schools, especially boarding schools, safe from any form of attack or untoward behavior, except for the few and far between incidences of violation. These places of learning are gaping fields dotted with essential buildings, innocent learners, their tutors, and caregivers, many without any remarkable fencing or security. Most struggle even to deliver the educational goal how much more to worry about security. Yet, why should schools have to worry? In the past, children were untouchable. There was a guarded code: children are gifts that belong to everyone to nurture, protect, guard and guide.

I attended Federal Government Girls College (FGGC) Bida in the 1980s. The school was a sprawling boarding entity, tucked in some out-of-way community on the road to Zungeru. We were in the middle of nowhere, and if you were adventurous enough to cross the west ‘borders’ of the school known to be so only because our seniors and authorities said so, you could trade with the village women who came bearing gari and kuli-kuli snacks for our extra nourishment and treat. To think that today even schools with physical security, gadgets and high walls are not safe is a sacrilege.

Is the problem so hydra-headed that it cannot be solved? Security analysts and social scientists always seem to have an answer and their concern; the government never listens. The government on its part, says it is doing its best but must consider all angles, including the unintended and unanticipated backlash of actions and inactions. Meanwhile, children languish, parents sorrow, while the State debates which is the best path to follow. I cannot imagine the agony of a parent. The Yorubas in their ethnological wisdom will say better that one’s child is dead than lost, for the torture of imagining their condition and what could have been. The picture never leaves you, making it difficult to achieve closure.   

We should all feel anguish because no one is safe from the insecurity meandering into aspects of our everyday lives. Anyone may be affected in ways you do not anticipate. The AK 9 Kaduna – Abuja train tragedy is a case in point. There are many dimensions to anguish related to the conflict. I focus on that related to captivity. Parents of lost children are themselves lost; even though terrorists abducted the children, their parents do not know where exactly the children are; dead, alive, well or ill. For those alive, now young adults, what kind of life are they living, what aspirations do they have, have they succumbed to Stockholm syndrome, became a willing part of the army of the bombers, or are they living life under duress?

For those who escaped or were rescued, there is some anguish. They may wonder why they are the lucky ones and what became of their comrades. There is psychosocial trauma from stigmatisation. Some of the girls who returned to the community are called Boko Haram wives. HumAngle and the Cable News each did a fantastic set of reports examining the lives of the girls known to have been ‘saved’ from Boko Haram. Kunle Adebajo of HumAngle interviewed nine of the girls who were opportune to attend the American University of Nigeria (AUN) Yola, on scholarship after their return from captivity.

In a Twitter meet during the eighth anniversary of the abduction of the Chibok girls, listeners learnt that the girls worry about their children’s future while they go to school. The government pledged to care for the girls prematuredly turned mothers, but naturally, the young mothers have their concerns about the state of affairs of children they cannot see often. At school, girls from affluent homes label the Chiboks girls and decline to share rooms with them. The university authorities refer any concerned person to the Ministry of Women Affairs. I have made it my business to bring these distressing situations to the attention of the hardworking and accessible  Minister, Dame Pauline Tallen.  

What is it about the psyche that makes us prey on victims and makes us think that we are better by labeling, ostracising, and stigmatizing others? No one diminishes another without having to diminish themselves. In the spirit of Ubuntu, we are because they are. The lived reality of the AUN Yola will be richer having these girls in their midst. The AUN community could be taught to reappraise what true wealth is from the courage and resilience of the girls from Chibok. In the 1980s in FGGC Bida, we had girls from Namibia and South Africa learning with us due to the apartheid in that region. We respected their sacrifice to learn miles away from home, but then many of us were from working-class and regular middle-class homes, who had never crossed our country’s borders and so found their situation romantic.    

The Twitter meet also examined the state of education in the Northeast. It affirmed what we found in a 2020 Managing Conflict in Nigeria (MCN) British Council study on the prevalence of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in Yobe, one of the BAY states (the other two being Borno and Adamawa) most affected by the insurgency and related conflict. Due to the conflict, schools have been relocated to communities considered safer, without addressing the logistics of commuting and safety. Parents and guardians still worry about covering the costs of transport and the new possible vulnerabilities such as SGBV and opt to keep their children at home. Either way, girls’ access to education remains truncated.

I salute the Bring Back Our Girls Movement for its steadfastness these 3,000 days, beginning with breathing truth into the fact at a time when the State denied the very existence of the mass abduction. We all must keep the story of the Chibok girls and all those abducted in Nigeria alive, for to be remembered is not to die.

Amina Salihu is a development sector specialist.