Three different incidents in the last week cast, poignantly, in bold relief the plight of the girl-child in Nigeria. Thanks to The Punch newspaper which launched the #FreeEse, #JusticeforEse campaign and the civil society groups that took up the fight in a spirited manner. With the outrage and outcry that followed, within 72 hours, this same 14-year old girl who was abducted from Yenagoa, Bayelsa state and taken to Kano, seven months ago, by one Yinusa Dahiru alias Yellow, is now free. While we were still grappling with this bizarre story, on Monday, a group of criminals stormed a school, Babington Macaulay Junior Seminary in Ikorodu, Lagos state and abducted three girls.
And if that was not shocking enough, on Wednesday, there was this other report about a 15-year old Benue girl, Patience Paul, who had been abducted by two neighbours and married off to a certain “Sarkin Musulmi” in Sokoto state. Her brother cried out, obviously motivated to do so by the Ese Oruru story. Set against the background of the abduction of 219 Chibok girls in 2014, a story that is well known internationally, Nigeria must by now appear in the eyes of the world as a large den of sexual predators, who seem to be obsessed with young, under-aged girls, and the adolescent female.
The international community would be correct to conclude that something terrible is happening here. Indeed, can we blame any analyst who may soon conclude that a girl child is abducted, assaulted or violated per minute in Nigeria, and that Nigeria is not a safe place for either a girl child or a female? The sanity and moral temperature of a society should be measured by the manner in which that society treats its underprivileged and vulnerable members. The powerful trample upon the weak, the privileged despise the less fortunate; a long journey to Hobbes’ apotheosis, which is in truth a comment on the state of our development as state, country, people, and society.
It is instructive, for example, that the girls that end up being abused in the manner of the aforementioned are usually from poor backgrounds and perhaps this makes them specially vulnerable. But all the adult males who abduct other people’s daughters, marry them by force, put them in family way and convert them to Islam, not only make the entire country look bad, they give the rest of us a very bad name indeed. In the end, Nigeria is the victim, and this is why the various government agencies, which were in a position to make a difference when it mattered most in the Ese Oruru case, or similar cases, and failed to act, did the entire country a disservice. In some other countries, certain persons would have honourably submitted their resignations.
But you can be sure, it won’t happen here. The standard response in quarters that should be responsible is likely to be: “ah, wetin? So? “I beg”; Nigeria go stop because of one girl wey follow man?. And life will go on and go on, and the tragedy foretold gets moved to the future. Which is why the protesting small community of men and women with conscience, who have helped to rescue this one girl from sex slavery and forced conversion to a religion that is not of her choice deserve special praise.
The Ese Oruru case is a metaphor for the plight of the Nigerian girl-child. She is a living symbol of the assault on the integrity of the girl child and her hopes and aspirations in a deracinated, dispossessed and conflicted society. She was taken away from her parents at 13 by a man who of course was well-known to her family as a tricycle rider. Initial reports identified the abductor and tormentor as Yinusa Dahiru or Yellow, but from that moment, the story further got coloured by the usual politics of identity, ethnicity and religion. Yellow was branded “Kano man”. There were also references to a North-South cultural divide: a Northerner stealing a Southern child! And then of course, Ese’s conversion to the Islamic religion was a source of boiling anger – most abducted girls tend to be Christians.
There is also the role of the Emir of Kano in the matter. Too many loud and silent indications: conflict between traditional and modern institutions, with particular accent on the relevance, influence, and undue superiorization of the traditional institution in the North, ethnic and regional dichotomy, power dynamics, distortions and historical fault lines and the power of the media, old and new, to change trajectories. No one should fail to notice in this entire saga, how Nigeria and its many ugly complexities are again, sorrowfully on display. But the more urgent and painful part is that the life of a young girl has again been scarred forever. Ese could well have been one of the Chibok girls! Everyday, we are back to Chibok either as symbol, metaphor, painful reminder or elemental fact.
Mr Yellow not only abducted her and turned her into a Muslim, all without her parents’, consent, he also allegedly put the girl in a family way. She is said to be five months pregnant. How sad and annoying. Perhaps if there had been a strong follow up mechanism in place at the Kano Emirate Council, the Emir’s order that she should be released would have saved her the ordeal of being turned into a sex slave. Perhaps if the police in the Kano zone had done their job, seeing that this was nothing but a crime in the eyes of the law, and they had remembered that the primary job of the police is to protect lives and property. But sorry, they just all forgot!
There must be sanctions and civil society must not get tired of this case. There are many other Eses out there, whose future hangs in the balance because certain persons remain morally trapped in the Stone Age. The atrocities that have been committed against innocent children in this land, are despicable: in Ese’s case, her right to education was truncated, she had to miss her JSS 3 exam because a man was busy changing the course of her life; she was subjected to undue imprisonment, and now she is a child bearing a child.
It is shocking to say the least that some persons, carried away by religious and ethnic prejudices, chose to justify this madness. Now that the truth is known that she is indeed a minor, and that Yellow is an adult who took advantage of her, I hope such persons will be reasonable enough to apologise, hide their heads in shame and return filthy lucre. The point has been made ad nauseam that Yinusa Yellow must not be allowed to get away with his brazen crime. The Zimbabwean sit-tight ruler has recommended castration as punishment in this kind of context, but castration not being part of our extant criminal law, we take solace in the realization that there is more than enough in the statutes to put Yinusa Yellow away for a long time, to serve as a deterrent to his ilk. He should be tried expeditiously and a proper closure put to this particular case in line with natural justice, equity and good conscience. His accomplices if there are any, no matter who they are, should also be identified and made to face the full wrath of the law.
This is clearly a case of man’s cruelty to man. In an interview with The Sun, her innocence and vulnerability shine through, as compellingly as the madness of her tormentors. She knows Yinusa as one of her mother’s customers who comes around to buy food at their shop, and she being with her mother at the shop knows and relates with everybody, without any special relationship with Yinusa. “He is not my boyfriend”, she tells us. “I just followed him. I don’t know how I followed him.” She says she doesn’t even know how she found herself in Kano.
She was obviously hypnotized or bewitched. Her kidnappers made her to recite lines she did not understand. They even gave her some strange water to drink. They changed her name to Aisha. She comes across as a child whose childhood and spirit have been polluted by wicked souls. When Ese saw her mother at the Emir’s palace during an earlier attempt to rescue her, she had been so polluted she could not even recognize her mother: “I just looked at her. I did not know her and I did not talk to her.”
She has now regained her senses enough to now ask her mother for “Banga soup and starch”, but there are many lessons involved. She offers advice, for example, to young girls like her: “They should be careful with the people they play with or talk with because it’s not everybody that is good.” Indeed, we live in a society where “not everybody is good” and that includes those callous ones who turned this episode upside down and spilled much ink trying to protect a fictitious Northern interest. At stake is the human interest, and it is not geographical.
Child labour such as the type Ese was involved in, assisting her mother in her food vending business is, let’s admit, culturally correct in Africa, but it also comes with grave dangers. The children are exposed to risks and accidents: crazy customers who can’t keep their eyes or fingers off the female child labourer and kidnappers like Yellow who go the extra length. Parents must be careful. They must be vigilant. The need to survive and deploy all possible hands in the house may be given as an excuse, but the truth is that children lack such negotiating skills that could protect them in an adult context. Caution is the word.
The argument that obsession with children as brides is cultural and religious is the most unreasonable thing I have ever heard and to think that some of the most enlightened and privileged men in a part of our country are part of this, beggars belief. The girl child is a child, not a bride, not a sex slave: she deserves her rights to human dignity, access to education, freedom from discrimination, a decent life in a decent society and the right to fulfill her potentials as a human being and a citizen. From Chibok to Kano, to Ikorodu, to Sokoto in the episodes under consideration, we lament the shame of a nation, and proclaim the right of the girl-child to dignity.