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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

A Desperate Plea to Protect Our Children – By Julius Ogunro

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There is a joke I occasionally tell. I tell my wife that I love her as much as I love myself, but I love the children more. So, if there was a fire, I would prioritize saving the two boys before considering us. She responds that she came first before the kids and we laugh over it.

Jokes apart, that is how much I love my children and kids in general. So when I hear about the wholesale kidnapping of children by bandits and other criminals, which has become all too common, it breaks my heart. I cannot but think of my two preteen boys who have been lavished with so much love and care and what trauma parents of abducted children suffer.

The kidnapping of children in Nigeria is becoming too commonplace and normalised. It has become like one of those Nigerian maladies we are forced to live with – the frequent power cuts or the habit of starting scheduled events late.

Almost weekly, we read about mass kidnapping of children in the north. The headlines are terrifying: ‘Bandits reportedly kidnap 30 children in Katsina,’ ‘Gunmen who kidnapped 287 school children in Nigeria say they will kill them all if $622,000 ransom not paid,’ and ‘Nigeria school abductions: More pupils snatched as army hunts for missing children.’

The frequency appears to have softened the shock and pain we ought to feel about this abomination. Gradually too, such incidents have ceased to make front page news as newspapers focus on other catastrophes, which are not in short supply in the country. We, too, are not as outraged as we were after the first incident in 2014 when Boko Haram abducted hundreds of schoolchildren in Chibok, Borno State. The outcry that followed that event caught the world’s attention, leading to the viral campaign: #BringBackOurGrls. Arguably, the controversy surrounding the Chibok kidnapping contributed to President Goodluck Jonathan’s defeat in the subsequent presidential election.

But here we are now with mass kidnapping of children occurring weekly without a whimper. The bandits attack schools almost casually, ferrying hundreds of children into forests and threatening to kill them unless a large ransom is paid. Statistics are scarce, but it is safe to estimate that over 10,000 children may have been kidnapped since Chibok. That is how bad the situation is, with the far north now at the mercy of bloodthirsty criminals who see schoolchildren as soft targets and an easy way to rake in millions. The rest of us are helpless and appear to have become inured, or consciously shut our minds, to the gravity and oddity of this heinous crime, while praying that it does not affect our children or relatives.

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But, for a moment, imagine that you were a parent of an abducted child. You were at work and then received the call that your beloved son, Jide, Usman, or Tonye had been kidnapped. Tonye is only nine, the apple of your eye, who prefers Golden Morn cereal in the morning. He only eats Mummy’s specially prepared lunches and spends his evenings lounging on the family sofa, watching cartoons, or playing with other children. But in the bush with the bandits, Tonye is not special. He is one of a hundred children forced onto motorcycles and shipped to the hinterlands. The kidnappers were unprepared for the logistics of transporting and feeding so many people, leaving the children bedraggled and hungry.

Except for scraps, there is no food or clean water in the kidnappers’ lair. Tonye is starving, shivering, and fearful for his life, calling out for mummy and daddy. But there is little you can do. The kidnappers’ hideout is impossible to breach, and they demand a king’s ransom, which you will be unable to raise even if you sell everything you own. The security agencies are helpless, only issuing press statements. Your blood pressure is up. Your life suddenly seems meaningless, and you wish it were you rather than your beloved child who had been kidnapped.

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That is the fate of the parents of abducted children, and it could be any of us. Even you.

The government is apparently impotent and unable to stop this menace. The Nigeria Safe School Initiative (NSSI), launched in 2014 following the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, has proven ineffective in protecting children from the bloodsucking marauders. The NSSI’s mandate is to promote safe learning environments and secure schools in Nigeria. It seeks to safeguard students, teachers, and educational facilities against threats such as violence, attacks, and other forms of insecurity.

The Safe Schools Initiative has failed. If it hadn’t, there would be no need to write this article. We must devise new ways to protect our children from the threats posed by bandits and kidnappers. This is urgent because school insecurity threatens to exacerbate the already dire situation of out-of-school children in the far north. If school-age children don’t go to school for fear of being kidnapped or coming to harm and failing to acquire market-useful skills, the chances are higher that they may grow up to be criminals and bandits who would then pose a threat to other children. Securing schools is therefore critical to avoid repeating the patterns that allowed bandits to thrive.

We must do everything we can to protect our children, especially those in school. Even if it means striking a deal with criminals. We could offer them amnesty and provide support to reintegrate them as productive members of society. We could declare an emergency, and provide a security ring around vulnerable schools. Whatever the case, we must draw a red line that no mass kidnapping of children is permitted; if this is violated, the full weight of the Nigerian state will be brought to bear on the perpetrators.

PS: Replace the name of the kidnapped child in this article with your own. Don’t say, God forbid – feel for a moment the fear and pain of parents of abducted children.

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