Un­schooled, hun­gry chil­dren will carry Nige­ria’s plight

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ALI ABARE ABUBAKAR

GOMBE, NIGE­RIA | Sit­ting with a metal bowl in his hands, 7-year-old Isi­aka Ibrahim begged for food out­side the en­trance of a bus sta­tion.

“I was brought to Gombe to learn the Ko­ran,” said Isi­aka, who comes from Kona, a town in north­west­ern Nige­ria about 280 miles away.

But his teach­ers wouldn’t pro­vide him with room and board, so he took to the streets. “On nights that peo­ple don’t give me food, I sleep on empty stom­ach,” said the shoe­less boy.

It’s a cruel irony: Africa’s wealth­i­est and most pop­u­lous coun­try, an en­ergy su­per­power, is hav­ing trou­ble feed­ing its own peo­ple.

Chil­dren like Isi­aka have come to sym­bol­ize Nige­ria’s plight as chronic cor­rup­tion, de­clin­ing oil pro­duc­tion and fall­ing global prices, and the fight against Is­lamic Stateaf­fil­i­ated Boko Haram and other mil­i­tants and sep­a­ratist move­ments exacerbate the coun­try’s year-old re­ces­sion.

“This is not the best time to be born in Nige­ria,” said Betty Abah, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Chil­dren’s Health Ed­u­ca­tion, Ori­en­ta­tion and Pro­tec­tion in La­gos. “We just have to face the re­al­ity.”

Chil­dren younger than 15 ac­count for about 45 per­cent of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion, a UNICEF re­port shows, and more than 10.5 mil­lion of them are not at­tend­ing school. The ma­jor­ity of un­schooled chil­dren are girls.

“Nige­ria is the rich­est coun­try in Africa but has more girls out of school than any coun­try in the world,” said ed­u­ca­tion ac­tivist Malala Yousafzai.

The No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate re­cently vis­ited Maiduguri, the cap­i­tal of Borno State in north­east­ern Nige­ria, where she met with girls dis­placed by the Boko Haram cri­sis.

Those dis­mal num­bers bode ill for the coun­try’s fu­ture, said Nige­rian Sen­ate Pres­i­dent Bukola Saraki.

“Hav­ing 10 mil­lion chil­dren out of school is lit­er­ally a tick­ing time bomb for our na­tion,” he said. “An un­e­d­u­cated pop­u­la­tion will be locked in a cy­cle of poverty for their en­tire lives. These chil­dren could con­sti­tute the next gen­er­a­tion of sui­cide bombers and mil­i­tant ter­ror­ists.”

There are few signs that the Nige­rian econ­omy will im­prove to ac­com­mo­date the young any­time soon.

More than a year af­ter eco­nomic growth went neg­a­tive, the un­em­ploy­ment rate in Nige­ria stands at 14.2 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the coun­try’s Na­tional Bu­reau of Sta­tis­tics. The in­fla­tion rate is more than 17 per­cent. About 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple re­main dis­placed be­cause of Boko Haram­re­lated vi­o­lence.

The United Na­tions has es­ti­mated that 20 mil­lion peo­ple in Nige­ria, South Su­dan, So­ma­lia and Ye­men are on the “tip­ping point” of famine. Drought con­di­tions ex­tend to Uganda and parts of Tan­za­nia. The last famine in Africa was de­clared in 2011 in So­ma­lia. An es­ti­mated 260,000 peo­ple died.

Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari has health is­sues and is on a pro­longed med­i­cal va­ca­tion to Lon­don. A photo re­leased by the gov­ern­ment Sun­day, show­ing Mr. Buhari con­va­lesc­ing in his hos­pi­tal room, is the first view or­di­nary Nige­ri­ans have had of their pres­i­dent since he left for treat­ment in early May.

In his ab­sence, Vice Pres­i­dent Yemi Os­in­bajo is gov­ern­ing an in­creas­ingly un­ruly coun­try.

“We present a gen­eral pic­ture of a na­tion that is frag­ile,” said Car­di­nal John Onaiyekan, the Catholic arch­bishop of Abuja. “There’s the need to se­ri­ously ad­dress cer­tain un­der­min­ing and abid­ing causes of dis­tur­bance, dis­sat­is­fac­tion amongst our peo­ple.”

Cor­rup­tion’s legacy

An­a­lysts blame Nige­ria’s woes in large part on decades of un­fet­tered cor­rup­tion. Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional last year ranked Nige­ria as the 28th most cor­rupt na­tion in the world. In a closely di­vided coun­try, politi­cians ap­peal to Chris­tian, Is­lamic and lo­cal re­li­gious and eth­nic vot­ing blocs to win elec­tions but en­rich them­selves once in of­fice, said Gombe State Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor Ab­dulka­dir Saleh.

“The po­lit­i­cal elites al­ways use re­li­gion and tribe to ma­nip­u­late the masses while loot­ing away re­sources,” said Mr. Saleh. “Institutions are not work­ing be­cause of the high level of cor­rup­tion among the elites. In Nige­ria, we only have in­flu­en­tial per­son­al­i­ties and not institutions.”

That cyn­i­cal po­lit­i­cal strat­egy might be back­fir­ing as those same vot­ing blocs lash out against the cen­tral gov­ern­ment while liv­ing con­di­tions de­cline.

Although dec­i­mated by years of fight­ing Nige­rian troops and other ar­mies in the re­gion, Boko Haram still man­ages to hold sway in parts of the north where Islam is the ma­jor­ity faith.

Fe­male sui­cide bombers linked to Boko Haram have been blamed for an at­tack Sun­day on a camp for in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple in Maiduguri that killed at least eight and wounded 15. It was the first ma­jor at­tack on a refugee camp in Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s birth­place.

The Indige­nous Peo­ple of Bi­afra, a group rep­re­sent­ing the Igbo-speak­ing com­mu­nity of Bi­afra in south­east­ern Nige­ria, are seek­ing an in­de­pen­dent state and threat­en­ing civil war — a chilling echo of the dev­as­tat­ing clashes of the 1960s. An­other group, the Coali­tion of Arewa Youth Groups, has been threat­en­ing Igbo in north­ern Nige­ria and de­mand­ing that they re­turn to Bi­afra in the south.

Mil­i­tants called the Niger Delta Avengers have sab­o­taged oil pipe­lines and de­manded that more oil money be spent on the poor. Their at­tacks have re­duced oil and gas ex­ports that com­prise 70 per­cent of gov­ern­ment rev­enue.

All the in­ter­nal strife is scar­ring the na­tion’s youngest and most vul­ner­a­ble gen­er­a­tion, said child rights ac­tivists. Six out of 10 Nige­ri­ans suf­fer some form of phys­i­cal, emo­tional or sex­ual vi­o­lence be­fore they turn 18, ac­cord­ing to a 2014 sur­vey by the Na­tional Pop­u­la­tion Com­mis­sion.

An­other street beg­gar in Gombe, 7-year-old Musa Haruna, il­lus­trated the sur­vey’s sad find­ings. He said his par­ents also sent him to Gombe to study the Ko­ran, but his teacher forced him to beg for food and money.

“I will re­ceive the beat­ing of my life if I go back emp­ty­handed,” Haruna said, sob­bing.

Ac­tivists in Nige­ria said the gov­ern­ment wasn’t do­ing enough to pro­tect chil­dren.

“Gov­ern­ment must look into the af­fairs of our chil­dren na­tion­wide with a view to ad­dress­ing the teem­ing is­sues that have left Nige­ria with­out a fu­ture in its chil­dren,” said In­ime Aguma, the La­gos-based coun­try di­rec­tor for the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Women Lawyers.

She and her fel­low ac­tivists were or­ga­niz­ing a cam­paign to draw at­ten­tion to the suf­fer­ing. Chil­dren’s Day 2017 is “an­other op­por­tu­nity for us to call upon fed­eral and state gov­ern­ments” to do more, she said.

Isi­aka wished the gov­ern­ment could pro­vide him with ba­sic ameni­ties so he could grow up like a nor­mal child.

“I have no clothes to wear and can­not af­ford to visit a hos­pi­tal when sick,” he said. “Most nights I am so hun­gry that learn­ing be­comes im­pos­si­ble.”


The United Na­tions has es­ti­mated that 20 mil­lion peo­ple in Nige­ria, South Su­dan, So­ma­lia and Ye­men are on the “tip­ping point” of famine. Chil­dren younger than 15 ac­count for about 45 per­cent of Nige­ria’s pop­u­la­tion, a UNICEF re­port shows, and more than 10.5 mil­lion of them do not at­tend school.

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