While many Nigerians are pained at the current lockdown across the country with agitations for easing it, we seem to have forgotten that the only Dapchi abductee, Leah Sharibu who had just turned 17 last Thursday, May 14, 2020 is on her third anniversary of lockdown. To many people, lockdown is a prison of some sort which limits personal freedom, freedom of movement and further isolates from friends or usual daily routine. If we are feeling this way, how much more would Leah who was kidnapped in her teens and separated from her family and friends as well as her future plans? How devastating this is to her father – Nathan Sharibu, mother – Mrs. Rebecca Sharibu and only brother – Donald Sharibu. While we are on transient lockdown which will be relaxed soon, Leah remains on a perpetual lockdown that only God knows when it would abate.
Leah’s perpetual lockdown began on February 19, 2018, when militants of the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP), a faction of Boko Haram kidnapped her along with 110 other schoolgirls from a boarding school in Dapchi, Yobe State, North-Eastern Nigeria. It was surprising that following a deal between the Federal Government and members of the sect, 104 girls were released but Leah, the only Christian girl remained with her kidnappers because she refused to renounce her faith. The other five schoolgirls are said to have died in captivity. This sad incident was preceded by a similar abduction of hundreds of women and girls with the most outrageous being the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls which attracted global sympathy and condemnation.
It would be recalled that on the first anniversary of her abduction, Secretary of Association of Parents of Abducted Dapchi Girls, Kachalla Mohammed told the press that: “We have gathered at Leah’s House in Dapchi today to show our solidarity to the mother and parents of Leah. As it is today, we don’t know the kind of condition that Leah is inside. Whether she is alive, healthy or sick, we don’t know” before family and community members in her parent’s home in Dapchi. While this lasted, the government kept making empty promises to reunite her with her family.
For example, in a statement released on 22 March 2018, Nigeria’s government through the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu assured that: “President Buhari is conscious of his duty under the constitution to protect all Nigerians, irrespective of faith, ethnic background or geopolitical location and will not shirk this responsibility. The President is equally mindful of the fact that true followers of Islam all over the world respect the injunction that there is no compulsion in religion. To this effect, no one or group can impose its religion on another. His heart goes out to the isolated parents who must watch others rejoice while their daughter is still away (in captivity). The lone Dapchi girl, Leah, will not be abandoned.” But these assurances have remained mere promises.
What is clear in the Leah narrative is that her abduction has truncated four phases of her life namely her innocence, academic pursuit, aims and aspirations and her faith. In a world where various Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have been drumming support for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 3 – which urges various governments across the globe to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, 4 – which says ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, and 5 – which sets out to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, Leah remains a metaphor for children in all sorts of deprivations such as lack of food, clothing, shelter and both civic and religious education.
Another critical dimension of this discourse is that Leah’s lockdown has impinged on her purity as a child and woman and personal conviction/values as a Christian. With her body as a battleground for their unholy exploits, her virtue of virginity which is the right of every child was brutally violated against her wish and Christian principles. The news that she was reportedly married off to a top Boko Haram commander in Niger Republic where she gave birth reveals how her childhood was forcefully migrated into adulthood by her abductors. With an innocent child in her arms, both Leah and her baby represent victimhood in every sense of the word – victimhood may be a single narrative but it speaks for other vulnerable children in Nigeria like Ese Rita Oruru et al who are forcefully abducted and converted to Islam against the wishes of their parents and guardians.
Published Gender-Specific Persecution Report by Open Doors International showed that 84% of respondents indicated that the most-reported strategy of persecution used against Christian women is the sexual violence and forced marriage. Accordingly, on March 6, 2020, Julia Bicknell’s World Watch Monitor reported the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres as saying “biggest data gap in the world” affects persecuted Christian women. The UN helmsman allegedly decried lack of “counting” which extends to some of the most “hidden” abuses in the world which women who belong to religious minorities in countries where they face double or even triple vulnerability for their faith, gender and poverty face.
On 16 May 2020, The Guardian reporter, Mansur Aramide disclosed that in February of 2020, Leah’s mother joined a protest group outside the Nigerian High Commission in London, the United Kingdom (UK) to mark the second anniversary of her daughter’s abduction and delivered a petition with 12,132 signatures to the High Commission, calling on the Nigerian government to take action to secure her release. Apparently, the Nigerian Parliament is in comatose about Leah’s plight. In what appears as a better commitment to ending armed non-state actors in Nigeria towards ensuring various forms of freedom, the international community seems better disposed. Otherwise, how would Leah’s Mother, Rebecca call on the US President, Donald Trump to help secure the release of her daughter? In a story titled, “Insecurity: Nigerian govt accuses Leah Sharibu’s mother, others of ‘falsehood’ at the U.S” on June 30, 2019, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) reported that the Nigerian Embassy in the US accused the government of listening to one side of the story while emphasizing that no Nigerian “irrespective of religious creed or ethnic affiliation was being persecuted as alleged by the witnesses.
In an article entitled: “Silence of Journalists about Children in Conflict: A Critical Assessment” published in International Journal of Applied Research and Technology (7,1: 25-40), this columnist had maintained that the vulnerability of kids makes underreporting of children in conflict a humanitarian crisis. This is because even where children are reported as some of the rescued Chibok Schoolgirls who were serially raped by members of the dreaded Boko Haram Islamists, their identities are not hidden. This creates some physiological torture in them, brings about low-self-esteem and makes it difficult for them to be fully integrated into society for fear of being stigmatized. It is heartrending that Children are deliberate targets who are often subjected to extreme forms of violence which range from kidnapping to slavery and brutal killings apart from being recruited as child soldiers and suicide bombers.
In another book chapter contribution, “Boko Haram’s violence against women: What can the media do?” (In Ndubisi E.J & Kanu I.A (Eds.). Gender equality and power relations in Africa: Insights from religion and socio-cultural perspectives, Pp.9-31) Dyikuk and Kanu (2018,p.10) raised alarm that: “Women raise children and children are the leaders of tomorrow. If those who are responsible for raising kids and nurturing the young are either brutalized or killed, those who survive are likely to radicalize their kids. This is even true of female children who are used as child soldiers and sex slaves who eventually raise children for the insurgents. Such children end up being raised in the cruellest manner waiting to unleash acts of terror on humanity.”
While this innocent girl is still with her abductors, the onus lies on the media to engage in media saturation of the story of the only Christian Dapchi Abductee still in detention so that she can be reunited with her family. With relentless reportage about her plight plus the heroic efforts of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and Save the Children, the desired goal could be achieved. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign which rose to prominence in its efforts to ensure the safe return of all kidnapped girls must not waver. This group must fan into flames its desired commitment towards her/their release.
Uthman Dan Fodio’s popular quote “Conscience is an open wound and only truth can heal” should prick the consciences of public servants to remember the implication of the social contract they entered with the citizenry through the polls. Section 14 (2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended provides that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.” To this end, if the government fails to bring back Leah and her child alive, their case would remain a wound in the consciences of the leaders and a nation that failed them. If the current transitory lockdown makes all of us uneasy, then we must realize how three years of perpetual lockdown for Leah seems eternal. Let those saddled with the responsibility of security of lives and property do the needful as we continue our candlelight procession until her lockdown is relaxed. Bring back the kids – bring back Leah and her child. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria!
Fr. Dyikuk is a Lecturer of Mass Communication, University of Jos, Editor – Caritas Newspaper and Convener, Media Team Network Initiative (MTNI), Nigeria.