Culture & Society

  • Issue 116 / March - April 2017



    Schoolgirls Kidnapped in Nigeria!

    Sophia Pandya

    Introduction

    On the night
    of January 13, 2017, eight people were kidnapped at gun point in the Ogun State
    of Nigeria,[1] by
    masked members of a group calling itself “The Delta Militants.” Those kidnapped
    were students and employees at a private school located near Lagos. These
    include three female students, aged eleven, fourteen, and fifteen years, who were
    seized from the girls’ dormitory. The five women included two supervisors, one
    headmistress, one cook, and a teacher, and all are Nigerian, except for the
    teacher, who is Turkish. Beaten and threatened with their lives, the victims
    were released relatively unscathed twelve days later, and all of the girls
    returned to their school within days, as did their teacher. I was able to meet all
    of the children and their teacher only a month after their ordeal, during a
    visit to their school, and over a meal at the teacher’s home.

    When the girls sat shyly in front of me, two of them wearing
    green and pink skirts and the third dressed in grey, purple and white, I took a
    deep breath, shocked, and thought, “These girls are way too young to have
    experienced what they went through.” One, with enormous sad eyes, and a solemn,
    yet stunned expression, sat silently and did not answer any of my cautiously-framed
    questions, but occasionally nodded in agreement, or smiled briefly. The other
    two did speak to me, but were understandably reticent. After telling them I
    thought they were brave survivors, I asked where they had slept while in the
    forest, and whether or not they were bothered by insects. The silent one
    nodded, affirming that insects had pestered her at night. Another girl, the fifteen-year-old,
    explained that after being led out of the compound at night, the students and
    teachers just had to sleep either on the forest floor, or squashed together on
    an old mattress. I asked her if there was any silver lining to her ordeal, and
    her answer surprised me. She replied earnestly, “I learned that some people are
    really poor and that makes them do bad things,” a lesson she should not have
    had to learn at that age. All of their faces lit up with smiles when I asked
    them if they had wanted to bathe after they were released—after an exuberant
    and emotional meeting with their family members, it was the very first thing
    they wanted to do.

    In order to feel safe after the kidnapping, they pray, keep the
    lights on at night, and sleep with others in the room. The youngest explained
    that her mother was going to purchase a “Sadness” doll for her, a figure from
    the Disney film Inside Out, to help
    her feel safer as she tries to cope with her emotions. All three conveyed that
    they had really, really wanted to return as soon as they could to their school,
    which they did only a few days after their release. While I avoided asking the
    children questions about the worst parts of their ordeal, the Turkish teacher
    explained that during the first few days of the abduction, the militants hit them
    and constantly threatened to kill all of them. Mercifully, none was sexually
    abused. Prayer and the responsibility of caring for children during the painful
    experience helped the teacher keep her strength, although she was almost
    certain she would not survive. Like the children, she returned to her school
    only five days after the attack.

    Their own school negotiated to pay ransom, saving eight
    lives. Sometimes, kidnappers sell their victims to other more brutal militant
    groups; these eight survivors were indeed fortunate they were released alive. Here
    I shed light on the mission, reception, and challenges of these schools, and
    offer greater context for why the kidnapping occurred.

    Much-needed schools,
    challenging circumstances

    The school is affiliated with the Hizmet Movement (also known as
    the
    Gülen Movement).
    Hizmet is a civil society organization, inspired by Sufi Islam, which was
    founded in Turkey around the ideas of an Islamic cleric, Fethullah G
    ülen (b. 1941), and participants began to
    launch businesses, as well as educational, and interfaith projects, in Nigeria
    in the 1990s.

    Hizmet is the Turkish word for “service,” and
    indeed, these schools serve their communities. The school’s mission is to
    “produce intelligent, enlightened and highly socialized individuals (youths),
    who are fit to pursue higher education and become effective, integrated
    and productive members of the society.”[2]
    Towards that goal, together with its affiliated institutions throughout the
    country they provide instruction to around 5,000 students, regardless of their religious, ethnic, or tribal
    affiliations (there are over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria).[3]
    The movement has also established other partnering institutions in Nigeria, including
    a university, a hospital, an educational consulting agency), a tuition center which
    caters to those students preparing for statewide examinations), and a dialogue
    foundation (which hosts interfaith dialogue events). All of these are located
    in Abuja, but representatives from these institutions are found across Nigeria.

    The schools are widely lauded for their academic success,[4]
    and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari thus far supports their presence in
    Nigeria.[5]
    After the July 15, 2016, attempted coup in Turkey, Turkish President
    Tayyip Erdoǧan blamed the plot on Hizmet. He did so without evidence,
    scapegoating participants and labeling them traitors and terrorists, apparently
    in order to increase his own authority. While Hizmet has over 2,000 schools
    around the world, Erdoǧan has recently pressured foreign governments to shutter
    these schools, in some cases succeeding. However, Nigeria’s Minister of
    Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, has
    stated that given the frivolity of the request and the lack of evidence
    confirming any complicity on the part of Hizmet in the plot, the schools, which
    employ around 2,000 Nigerians, would remain open.[6]

    Operating in Nigeria poses Turkish Hizmet participants unique
    challenges, although those interviewed also spoke of their love for their students
    and their appreciation for the beauty of Nigeria. However, challenges include obvious
    and serious security concerns, and a “very high” risk of major infectious
    diseases including malaria, meningitis, hepatitis, dengue fever, lassa fever, AIDS,
    and typhoid.[7] Participants
    also suffer from isolation from their families and friends back in Turkey,
    which has become especially acute since the recent events in Turkey.
    Since
    then, all affiliated with Hizmet have been widely ostracized in their homeland,
    and in many cases shunned by their own friends and family members. In Turkey, thousands
    have been detained, arrested, fired from their jobs, or forced to flee the
    country because of Erdoǧan’s “purge” of the movement.

    Adding to this crisis,
    the Turkish government, according to those I interviewed, has refused to renew
    the Turkish passports of those abroad, or to give new passports to Turkish babies
    born outside Turkey. At a dinner in Lagos, one young woman laughed wryly,
    raising her baby up for me to see, and exclaimed, “No passport! He is a citizen
    of the world!” Absurdly, many of these babies do not hold citizenship anywhere.
    The danger of arrest and the passport issue have made it dangerous, and for
    many, impossible, to return home. Those few that have been able to go home for
    a visit spoke to me of strained relationships in their families, or of family
    members in jail. Without a doubt, many Turkish Hizmet-affiliated teachers and
    administrators in Nigeria are homesick, worried about relatives at home, and
    grieving for Turkish staples such as feta cheese and olives that are hard to
    find in some regions of Nigeria. Turkish delicacies aside, their religiously-inspired
    hizmet, or service, has required
    quite a sacrifice.

    Why kidnap little girls?

    The short answer is that some poor people do carry out criminal activities to
    access resources, and some wealthy people do as well, in order to hoard those
    resources. Nigeria has suffered for decades from
    acute corruption, economic inequality, and state instability.
    Even the recently-elected President Muhammadu Buhari
    acknowledges Nigeria’s tradition of bribery, skimming, and overcharging, and
    laudably, has recently launched anti-corruption measures.[8] With all of its human and
    natural resources, the West African country has witnessed its share of
    Christian/Muslim conflict, the violence of internal displacement, poverty, and
    forms of social injustice.
    Reflecting this, life expectancy at birth is only 52 years,[9]
    and the literacy rate stands at 59.6 %.[10]
    Over two million internally displaced persons languish in camps.[11]

    Oil is Nigeria’s main export, and a primary area of conflict
    is who will exercise control over the oil-rich delta.[12]
    The self-termed “Delta Militants” responsible for the abduction are likely one
    of the many Niger Delta militant groups, who have stated that they are fighting
    to force the government to grant more resources to local communities.[13]
    It is also possible that they were mere criminals, using kidnapping as a means to
    make easy money.

    Political scientist William Hansen explains that for some
    radical extremists in Nigeria suffering from poverty and life in rural regions,
    violence is a form of class warfare and an expression of anger against the
    state.[14]
    Unfortunately, in this case, innocent young schoolgirls and their caretakers
    paid the price. Terrorized, the girls will likely sleep with the lights on for
    a long, long time.

    Conclusion

    While I will
    not soon be able to forget the anxious expressions and courageous smiles of those
    girls and their teacher, it gave me some pleasure to hear that their school
    recently threw them a “survivors’ party,” celebrating their will to move
    forward. Hizmet’s projects in Nigeria, including high quality educational
    institutions and centers for interfaith dialogue, are also moving forward and
    will contribute in positive ways to Nigeria’s future. However, Turkish participants
    there were shaken by the ordeal of those kidnapped, and likely concerned for
    their own security and that of their students in the future months. Many of the
    Turkish Hizmet participants with whom I spoke expressed

    gratitude that the Nigerian government continues to allow them to reside and
    work there, despite any challenges. “I am Nigerian now!” more than one Turkish
    person claimed during my visit.




















































    The monstrous abduction
    of the schoolgirls represents only a fraction of the hundreds of abducted persons
    in Nigeria every year. Solving this predicament requires training the next
    generation to run the country efficiently and fairly, the equitable
    distribution of resources, and job creation. While their Turkish friends
    contribute modestly towards the development of Nigeria through educating some
    of that country’s youth, it is the Nigerians, with the support of the
    international community, who will have to come together to achieve this goal in
    their own way.














    [1] Population 186,053,386. CIA World Factbook:
    Nigeria,
    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ni.html.







    [2]Nigerian Tulip International
    Colleges,“About Us,”
    http://www.ntic.edu.ng/.







    [3]CIA World Factbook: Nigeria.







    [4] Executive Administrator, 20 Best Ranked Secondary School in Nigeria,” Good Schools Guide Nigeria, October 5, 2016.







    [5]MisbahuBashir,“Nigeria: How
    Govt Snubbed Turkey On Schools Closure,” allAfrica,
    August 18, 2016,
    http://allafrica.com/stories/201608180108.html.







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