By Betty Abah
It is a sweet coincidence that the International Children’s Day now falls within two days of change of government in Nigeria. It is even sweeter that this change of government is not just another sonorous self-succession scheme but a new person ascending the helms of power and screaming the message of a much-needed change. Yet it will be sweetest if when seated in power, Muhammadu Buhari can shed his stern stance and just for a moment, smile at our children.
Children in Nigeria, one of the most endangered species in the world, need this pain-effacing smile. It may be understandable if the general’s unsmiling carriage increases in light of the Augean stables that must be cleansed, of mountains that must be moved and of sacred cows that must be tied up so that Nigeria can be whipped into line again and so that the shame of a nation can end. It will be a hard time for political criminals and executive pen robbers if Buhari remains true to his name, yet, in all of these, he must remember to smile at our children.
Why the urgent need to smile at our children? GMB may ask. Sir, in case you do not know, the global guffaw is on us as to the bleak statistics on the state of Nigerian children. I believe you are aware that our country currently has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, standing at 10.5 million since 2013, according to UNESCO. With upheavals in the North especially in the last few years, your esteemed guess is as good as that of my humble self.
And to add, Save Our Children also rates us as having one of the highest rates of maternal mortality, and infancy deaths, ranking in the leagues of war-torn countries such as Congo, Afghanistan and Sudan. We also have, according to UNICEF’s statistics, one of the highest rates of girl child marriage in the world, particularly in the North, where VVF is widespread, a major threat to sustainable development. We can’t discountenance these reports – the evidence is everywhere. Or, you want to talk of skyrocketing incidences of rape without consequences, sale of babies (baby factories), child trafficking and other woes befalling our hapless children and with hardly any respite?
And ofcourse, you may know that we also have one of the highest figures of displaced person, including thousands of children. Now, they are among the world’s highest number of displaced persons and refugees. Just the other day, we saw that more than 500 of the persons rescued from the Boko Haram Sambisa hell were children and young girls. Many died on the way back to ‘life’. Not long after, 11 thousand trooped in, tired, hungry and dying from refugee camps in Niger Republic.
Many more holed up in Cameroon and Chad will soon troop back and with many children dying of starvation along the way. Internally, we have 1.5 Million people who are displaced, according to the United Nations Humanitarian Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). But we do not even need those statistics. The horrendous truth stares us in the face on street corners and school compounds of Maiduguri, Yola, Damaturu, Potiskum, Kano, Abuja and elsewhere. These humanitarian crises, these great human suffering, these deaths and the shame were quite avoidable if we had a proactive, stick-wielding and at the same time, child-friendly government in place. We won’t wail over spilled milk now, but we will ask you to smile.
Sir, let the very thought of the thoughtlessly and needlessly exterminated droves of Nigerian children up North make you smile at the survivors, at the living lot of today. Oh, let the unforgivable indifference of the past government move you into child-friendly action. Think of the children of the infamous Dogo Nahawa massacre, 500 lying still, extinguished by the sides of the cold Plateau hills; think of the 58 school boys of Buni Yadi murdered in cold blood after which the government joyously embarked on a senseless Centenary celebration; think of the Potiskum school kids put out so brutally; think of the bloodbath in Nyanya after which the out-going president, leader of the nation, went on a shoki dance in Kano; think of the abducted teenagers of Chibok and all that was done by the Federal Government to sweep it under the carpet, more than 200 of people’s children!
Think of the fact that in all of these, the Ministry of Women Affairs which should be the vanguard of protecting these vulnerable young people was deeply engrossed in organising rallies for the First Lady. It took international outcries, as you know, for the government to ever respond. And now the world views us as ugly monsters that care not for their young. Think deeply, sir of the lack of empathy and be resolved to make a smile-inducing difference. The world must now see our children smile. Simile, sir, smile at the survivors and future leaders, but first, frown and say ‘Never Again’.
History, I trust, will smile at you if in light of these tear-inducing realities you make the overall welfare of Nigerian children one of the cornerstones of your administration’s policies. If you ensure efficient rehabilitation, resettlement and reintegration program for families and children displaced by Boko Haram and the various ethno-religious crises and without bias, and rescue those still in captivity. You know that without tackling this squarely, especially for the young and impressionable, we can’t say the insurgency battle is over.
We must stop breeding monsters, consciously or otherwise; if you ensure the effective enforcement of child-friendly policies littering government offices across the country; if violators of children’s rights face the law squarely as against what obtains now; if we have much better and more affordable healthcare and strict child safeguard policies, free universal basic education and take the life-enhancing light of literacy to children on city street corners and rural hamlets; if education is subsidized to ensure the intellectual development of EVERY Nigerian child not withstanding his or her religion, tribe or background so that he/she turns out as contributor and not minus, to national growth, then we can truly say you had smiled. Again, we await you to say Never Again will extremist forces capitalise on the mass illiteracy of our children to turn them to brainwashed little devils. Kindly say it with a fatherly smile.
Sir, you know ofcourse that governments world over which display, allow or accommodate cruelty, in any form, to children are no longer deemed the mightiest; great powers show their prowess by the care and compassion they extend to the most vulnerable in society. We will hold you up to those global standards. We expect that while you must show your unsmiling face at defaulting adults, please ensure you beam a loving face at our children. We can’t sit down and expect our children to turn out humane when all we mete to them is harm. A thinking, forward-looking nation’s resources and assets must be used for the comfort and protection of its young. You are now the father of the nation, their father, and they mustn’t know the sledgehammer of governmental irresponsibility anymore.
Maybe, just maybe, if you would make our children smile from ear-to-ear, make them feel safe, genuinely loved and proud to be Nigerians once again, this may just be your most enduring legacy in this second chance given you by God to serve our bruised fatherland.
May History, ultimately, remember you with a smile for making us the ‘Most Child-Friendly Nation on Earth’ as you kick-start May 29 with a warm smile at the bruised children of our fatherland.
Mrs Abah is Lagos-based journalist and Executive Director CEE-HOPE, a child’s rights NGO.
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