Saving Nigeria’s Stolen Future

LONDON – The fate of almost 280 Nigerian girls abducted a month ago by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram from their school in northeastern Borno State hangs in the balance. But, while their families fear for their safety, the power of global public opinion is forcing action for their release to the top of the international agenda.

One million people have now signed petitions, and a month from now, on June 16, the international Day of the African Child, there will be vigils in every continent of the world. In 20 countries, young people will take over national parliaments to highlight the girls’ fate – and that of the 57 million other children who cannot go to school.

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A safe schools initiative has been established to rebuild the girls’ own school in Chibok and to make the roughly 5,000 schools in northern Nigerian safe from terrorist attacks. And Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan will meet on Saturday with world leaders at a security summit convened in Paris by French President François Hollande to consider what action the international community can take.

Given Boko Haram’s threat to sell the girls across Africa as sex slaves, the abduction is now an issue not just for Nigeria but for surrounding countries, including Chad and particularly Cameron, where they are likely to be sent. Indeed, there are already fears now that the girls have been trafficked out of Nigeria into neighboring countries, where it is possible that the international “responsibility to protect” doctrine will be invoked.

In the short term, Nigeria needs to make its schools safer and more secure from terrorist attacks, and a safe-schools plan is being created by the Nigerian authorities to ensure that girls no longer fear going to school in the country’s six northern states. Guards, fortifications, and communications equipment must be installed. And, in the longer term, the authorities must craft a new plan to educate Nigeria’s ten million out-of-school girls and boys.

Nigeria must confront years of anti-education propaganda generated by Boko Haram, whose name in the local Hausa dialect literally means, “Western education is forbidden.”

A few years ago, I visited a school on the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, alongside the philanthropist and pop star Bono. When we asked the children what their ambitions were, we found that they were exactly the same as those of kids worldwide. They wanted to be doctors, scientists, nurses, engineers, airline pilots, entrepreneurs. None, of course, wanted to be a politician – and, to Bono’s surprise, none wanted to be a rock star.

What struck me most during our visit was the substandard education they were receiving, with far too little support from Western aid (which amounts to only $2 per pupil annually in Nigeria and $12 per pupil across sub-Saharan Africa). The lessons were being conducted in a run-down, dilapidated school with a leaking, corrugated iron roof. The children either sat on the floor or huddled together, three or four at a rickety desk built for one – something no parent in the West would ever accept.

What we ultimately learned was deeply disturbing: The school was losing pupils to a madrasa only a few miles away – a new, well-financed institution that offered free education financed by the same Middle East money that was supporting terrorism. The drawback for the students was that they were being indoctrinated; their school preaching support for terrorism. A perverted and distorted view of a peaceful religion was being disseminated to a new generation of young people. So it is no surprise to me that extremism is on the rise in parts of Africa.

And Nigeria is not the only country at risk. More than two million out-of-school children are growing up in conflict zones, whether it be on the fringes of Burma, in South Sudan, or on the Afghan-Pakistan border. A few weeks ago, I returned to Pakistan 18 months after a visit I made following the shooting of Malala Yousafzai. On my first visit, there had been outrage that a young girl could be shot simply for wanting girls to go to school. A whole population almost seemed fearful and cowed by the Taliban. On my recent trip, however, addressing 2,000 girls who had turned out on a Saturday afternoon in Islamabad, I found a determination that no girl should ever be forced out of their country by the Taliban again.

None of them wanted their country to be defined by a shooting. They wanted Pakistan recognized not by girls’ failure but by their success. These socially aware girls, desperate for education and careers, are globalization’s children, well aware of the opportunities that girls elsewhere enjoy.

In Nigeria, too, there are young girls and boys prepared to stand up to terrorism. This week, 12 Nigerian young people, appointed Global Youth Ambassadors for education by the education initiative A World at School, declared that they will continue to work to uphold every child’s right to go to school safely.

The Nigerian government and the country’s citizens deserve the fullest international support in tackling terrorism. They have been victims of a massive but underreported effort by a few extremists to split the country. Two weeks ago, in Abuja, Boko Haram bombed and killed dozens. In the past four years, the group’s attacks on Nigerians have taken more than 4,000 lives, including 171 teachers massacred in separate incidents in Borno State. Only two months ago, seven teachers were assassinated, and their family members, including wives and children, were abducted.

None of us can stand by and endlessly witness schools shut down, girls cut off from education, and parents living in fear for their daughters’ lives. Those who murder or abduct children should be made aware that international authorities will punish them. And, while we cannot end terrorism overnight, we can show determination to stand up to it by making schools safe. Every child is precious, and every child deserves the right to learn.