By Ugoji Egbujo
An unwanted pregnancy is an exceptionally gruesome burden. In a 14 year old it isn’t just a blemish, it is a blight. The medical and social complications of childhood pregnancy are potentially grave and crippling. We have collectively failed that child, severally. We must begin to mitigate the proliferating consequences of our degenerate system. We must now envelop her with comprehensive perinatal care. Because she lacks the psychological maturity to be a mother, because the pregnancy was forced on her, we must not let her lose her mind. Tomorrow is in the stranglehold of pedophilia, it must be rescued. Accepting the child by all around her, and cushioning her life back onto an educational track will go a long way in keeping the demons away. While our focus rests on her well-being, we must scan this tragedy and cure sick minds. And let many culpable heads roll.
Big heads must roll, more for deterrence than retribution. Yinusa’s is too small, too small to shoulder the weight of this atrocity in which many conspirators, aiders and abettors abound. But if any heads must be spared, it must not be the cowardly heads of those in whom we vested the powers to check crime; who attended to the helplessness of Ese’s parents with confounding gross negligence and criminal cowardice. The extent to which law enforcement deferred to cultural and religious institutions must be determined. What should not happen however is, the demonization of any culture or religion and the fanning of the embers of bigotry.
Ese is important beyond her particular and exceptional agony. She has exposed, scandalously, the lack of functional youth protection and justice structures in this country. The rights of the child are enshrined in our domestic laws and in international conventions in which Nigeria is a signatory. They should be enshrined in our hearts .The child’s primary protection and guidance is offered by the parents/guardians and relatives but every child has a super-arching protection of the state. Because every child should be in school, the teachers who see the child every day are additional eyes of the state on the child. The criminal justice structures- youth social workers, police and the courts are the last line of defence for the child. In Ese, everything failed, fell apart.
It is difficult to assess the quality of care she received from her grieving parents. Parents’ right to the custody of their children is qualified. They must be willing and able to render proper parental supervision. But where the state is dysfunctional children are imperiled, stuck with unfit parents. Children can help their parents but children aren’t supposed to be exposed to strangers and dangers in the manner that selling in a public canteen after school would. But realistically, no one would blame any poor parents who got helping hands from a 13 year old in a roadside canteen after school hours in Nigeria. But the parents should have been much more careful, much more vigilant. Allowing a 13 year old girl play with a 25 year old man and achieve a familiarity that can harbor so much evil isn’t just reckless , it is patently stupid. Nothing here seeks to be accusatory. Nevertheless, there is almost no doubt that Yinusa was given more than enough room to lure that child and impose on her devilish imaginations. Ese’s parents may have provided lax supervision but should be spared accusations of damnable negligence. Pedophiles are dangerous snakes. Having reported to the police, could they have done more? Yes. In Kano. It’s shocking the mother found the energy and sanity to leave Kano without her child. Nigerians should learn to stand and fight for moral causes and parents should learn to surrender even their lives for their children.
The school community is an important part of the child’s life. And the school authorities have the duty to notify the relevant agencies of any signs or events that pose a threat to the well being of the child. How did the school treat Ese’s disappearance? Did they respond as one who owed the child a protective duty or as just a sympathetic third party? Reports suggest they showed concern, prayed and perhaps cried. Was that enough? No. The school authorities should have written to the ministry of education and the commissioner should have orchestrated the political pressure needed to force action. The school in being a public institution located in a state capital has more gravitas than a couple handicapped by poverty. They could have done much more. But do schools in Nigeria know their duties towards their pupils? Have the ministries of education provided the right orientation? This scandal should not blow over without raising the right consciousness.
It is difficult to understand how this didn’t end when the police intervened in August 2015. This spectacular failure was, even by their unenviable standards, a bit strange. The suspect is poor, lacks the capacity to entice; the offence is so grave , morally and legally, it didn’t leave room for ambivalence; the victims – parents of the child were desperate, so the police had sufficient pressure and motivation. So how did the police get to Kano, see the abducted child, the tears and pleas of a distraught mother, and not effect a retrieval? How did those officers from Bayelsa fail to take the child and arrest the taxi driver? Dwelling on the woefulness of the police may not yield more than devastation and hopelessness. Interrogating the factors that lent mundanity to this evil , stripped it of repugnance, would help the society better. And perhaps the police’s despicable conduct may become less inscrutable.
Betrothals of girl children to adult men are common in northern Nigeria and permitted by Islam. And the Nigerian police are always wary of crossing certain religious lines. That is not to suggest that any cleric obstructed them. We must never be in a haste to suggest that other cultures are barbaric. Islam makes parental consent mandatory in these circumstances, but the fact of the existence of such a cultural practice must have made this less of pedophilia and less of an abduction from a certain perspective, which may include Yinusa’s. If this wasn’t so, that Yinusa’s long process of marital approval that reached the Emir’s desk would have attracted moral outrage and curses at its very first mention. No one thinks that these traditional child marriages have anything to do with love, at least not from the child’s view. And that is why the absence of parental consent in all circumstances must render any such dealings with a child abominable. If the cross cultural context of Ese’s case is appreciated then you have to wonder how she ended at the sharia council? Kano may not have domesticated the Child Rights Act but we have laws that prohibit abduction and sexual exploitation of children. It is important that in a plural society common protocols of association are not made subservient to customary or religious laws.
If any one was made numb to this atrocity by any cultural practice, the arrival of Ese’s parents to retrieve their daughter should have pricked them back to consciousness. If any was conflicted, the appearance of a desperate and weeping mother should have presented the stark criminality of taking away a 13 year old child in all its nakedness. If anyone doubted the age of the child , and was stupid enough to doubt the mother, the fact of Ese being a JSS student should have confirmed the girl’s child status.
If it isn’t moral wretchedness then it must be pitiable, breathtaking , ignorance that allows the entertainment of the possibility that Yinusa and Ese were love birds. It is cruel to imagine that a 13 year old girl child can fall in adult love; can fall in love with a scheming and lecherous taxi driver? The very idea that a 13 year old can elope with an adult is utterly reprehensible and shameful. And that ludicrous thinking perhaps informs why many have failed to see this as a grave crime but as reckless amorous escapade. Any child can be easily lured by foolish promises. A child is in no position to understand her situation and the implications of her choices. And that is why the society denies their consents legitimacy. This society is filled with wolves. The wolves include those in high places who think Ese is a Julliet and Yinusa her Romeo!
Some conclude that Ese’s initial reluctance to return to Bayelsa corroborates a love story. That’s preposterous. She, rightly, feared rejection at home. Let’s assume Ese fell for the paedophilic seductions of an adult. Ese would feel she has committed an unpardonable evil, even 3 year olds have such sense of shame and responsibility. Ese would naturally be worried about her safety at home. If she was already pregnant at the time , she would see Bayelsa as extreme hopelessness. The police was rightly hesitant about returning the child to a place she was resolutely paranoid about . But the police’s decision to let strangers of the sharia council keep the child for months is not made less sacrilegious by Ese’s fears. The police should have called in a child psychologist. And Ese could have been in temporary custody of the state. A return to the sharia commission was not an option.
Scandals are important tools in societal reformation. They generate sufficient public consciousness and opprobrium to allow an auditing of moralities, policies and processes. A national enquiry through a televised public hearing must be instituted. The hearing won’t be to meet the cravings of the drama loving, Nollywood would definitely quench that thirst. But a hearing will review this calamity holistically, undermine unhealthy assumptions, expose egregious lapses and reform the society. Hopefully bigotry and misconceptions would be cleared. A public enquiry would inform and mollify a suspicious and divided polity. Justice rendered manifestly helps the course of peace immeasurably. So much could turn on Yinusa’s age. The importance of a reliable national data base could be made palpable. A routine police investigation will be too narrow, too superficial, too opaque. The failure of the police was systemic and the audit of their processes must be external. Criminal prosecutions can begin after the hearing. Such a public enquiry would take complaints from other victims of other such abductions.
Only the institution of a televised public enquiry would turn this into a reformation opportunity. A criminal trial of Yinusa and another at large will yield too little.