ABUJA (AFP) – With international attention focused on Nigeria and the plight of more than 200 girls abducted by Boko Haram, Margee Ensign is keen to stress one thing: it’s not just girls at risk from the militants.
“It’s children,” said Ensign, the president of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), based in Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, which is one of three in northeast Nigeria worst affected by the five-year insurgency.
“Girls have been kidnapped. It’s horrible,” she told AFP, but added: “Hundreds of boys have been killed. It’s a huge part of the story.”
The abduction of women and girls was a tactic employed by Boko Haram even before the group snatched 276 schoolgirls in the remote town of Chibok in Borno state on April 14 and threatened to sell them as slaves.
Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report based on interviews with women who said they had been abducted and forced to marry militant fighters before managing to escape.
Eleven girls were also abducted last weekend in Borno state, the epicentre of the increasingly deadly violence that has claimed more than 1,500 lives this year alone.
But boys are also frequent targets, most recently in February, when heavily armed gunmen stormed the dormitories of a boarding school in Yobe, slaughtering scores of students as they slept.
The abduction has led some to fear that Nigeria and its Muslim-majority north is on the brink of a Taliban-style crackdown on education for girls.
But Ensign disagreed, arguing that from her experience working in the insurgency-hit area, most people recognised the importance of education — and the “Western” curriculum to which Boko Haram so vehemently objects.
“We’re up in the northeast, we’re in one of the poorest parts of Nigeria and we’re in a state of emergency and there are girls being educated,” she said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on Africa in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
“Eighty percent of the people up there can’t read, so the issue is not just girls’ education. It’s just getting people literate.
“We’re using technology and after-school programmes with girls, boys and now parents who are coming back to learn how to read.
“There’s a tremendous hunger for education. I don’t see people keeping their girls away.”
- Wider problems -
The abduction and international pledges of support have dominated discussions at the economic summit, which the government had hoped would showcase Nigeria’s growing economic clout and investment potential.
Bineta Diop, the African Union’s special envoy on women, peace and security, said the girls were being denied their “fundamental right” to education and no resource should be spared to find them.
The United Nations special envoy for global education, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, announced a “Safe Schools Initiative” to help make Nigerian schools in the restive north more secure.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said he hoped the international attention would spur efforts to end the insurgency once and for all.
Ensign said the focus on Nigeria should also concentrate on tackling the growing humanitarian crisis that has seen tens of thousands of people forced from their homes in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.
The AUN, set up in 2003 by Nigeria’s former vice-president Atiku Abubakar to train young people to tackle the many problems facing their countries, has been called upon to help the internally displaced, she said.
But the situation should also serve as a wake-up call to improve education in Nigeria, which has been hit by wider issues of mass unemployment, poor governance, corruption and poverty that have been seen as drivers for extremism.
The west African giant has some 11 million children out of school — the most in the world. Buildings are crumbling, textbooks lacking, sanitation non-existent while teachers often go months without being paid.
“It’s more complex than just nobody wants to send girls to school,” said Ensign.