Abuja hosted an important international gathering last week. I am sure you were not unaware of it. It was the fourth International Conference on the Safe Schools Declaration with the theme: “Ensuring Safe Education for all: From Commitment to Practice.”
The Safe Schools Declaration is a UN initiative. Some 112 countries, including Nigeria, are signatories to it. It commits the signatories “to protect students, teachers, schools and universities from the worst effects of armed conflict.”
There are pockets of armed conflicts by both state and non-state actors in various parts of the world, including our own country. The declaration was well-intentioned. A global initiative such as this commits nations collectively to the same cause, in this case the cause of the future of our children and young people, often the canon fodders in conflict situations.
An important even at the conference was the launch of the Children’s Manifesto written by 300 children from ten countries. In it, the children gave us a glimpse into their world ruled by fears and trauma. In all conflict situation, children and women are in the first line of innocent victims. It is good to see that the children are taking up their problems with the adult population.
They were compelled to write their manifesto to make our political leaders and the rest of us adults listen to their fears for their future. We have legal and moral rights and obligations to protect the children and ensure a better future for them. Part of the manifesto quoted in media reports on the conference dwelt on what children caught up in conflict situations face. They wrote: “Children are scared when armies come to schools, arrest children or fire live or rubber bullets at them and when tear gas is used. Children are scared when there are no shelters in their schools or when they are not big enough to protect everyone.
“Children are scared when military equipment passes outside the windows of their of their schools or houses, and when they hear the sounds of explosions and gunfire. Children are scared when educational institutions are used for military purposes, subjecting young boys and girls, teachers and technical staff at school to constant danger.”
It should tug at the strings of your human and humane heart. For fear of their safety, they absent themselves from schools. Without education, their future is bleak. What is even worse is that criminals now prey on children as never before here in our country and some other parts of the world. President Muhammadu Buhari admitted the seriousness of this when he told the conference that frequent attacks on schools and the abduction of children and teachers have forced some 12 million children out of school in the country.
In a speech delivered on his behalf by his chief of staff, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, Buhari said: “The incessant attacks on the country’s education system, such as kidnapping, abduction of pupils/students, increased activities of insurgents and general insecurity in our schools have exacerbated many factors responsible for the growing number of out-of-school children.”
The UNICEF representative in Nigeria, Peter Hawkins, has said that “about 1,436 school children and 17 teachers were abducted from Nigerian schools between December 2020 and October 2021.” About 16 children were killed in the process of abduction. He also told the Nigerian Economic Summit Group that 1.3 million children “whose schooling was disrupted and learning severely impacted in the 2020/2021 academic calendar, were directly affected by the closure of 11,000 schools.” According to him, “the prevailing security situation across Nigeria remained volatile and uncertain, especially in the North-East, North-West and North-Central and pockets of insecurity across other parts of the country.”
The three geo-political zones in the north bear the brunt of the worsening security situation in the country. Insecurity has horrendous ramifications in every society. Human development and progress are impossible without adequate security. People need to feel safe to carry on with their legitimate means of livelihood. FAO has repeatedly warned of the looming famine looms in Nigeria and in much of the West African sub-region. Farmers cannot produce food when insecurity makes it impossible for them to farm. Food is now priced out of the reach of many a struggling family. The woman who was recently reported to have been arrested for trying to sell her child to raise money to feed the family, acted out of pragmatic desperation. It was better to sell one child to feed the rest rather than allow the entire family to perish.
Education in the northern states has been a major problem long before now. The old region still lags behind the other former regions in education. It is nothing to be proud of. Before the nation was driven into this sorry insecurity pass, there were 13 million out-of-school children in the country. Most of them are in the same three geo-political zones in the north. If we add the new number of 12 million out-of-school children to the current number we would be talking of 25 million out-of-school children. This huge number is a huge and intimidating problem for the country, its leaders as well as the lead.
This has severe implications for the Nigerian state. It affects every facet of our national life. It arrests our educational progress and adds more children to the already disturbing number of illiterates in the country. Unemployment is a serious problem even now. The children who are out of school through faults not entirely theirs and their parents’ will join the growing number of the unemployed and the unemployable. In their desperation to survive in the harsh economy, crime offers itself as a viable option. This will only worsen the security situation and make all of us sitting ducks in our homes and on the road. We have no choice but to wake up. World history has no known record of sundry criminals of defeating a government instituted by the people for themselves.
The federal government is the chief security officer in the land. Our security and safety are its primary responsibility. But it is still in motion not on determined movement. Buhari has vowed a zillion times to tackle the security situation which has become progressively worse under his watch. But each time he made the vow, it immediately morphed into a promise unkept.
Speakers of the 36 state houses of assembly met under their umbrella body, The State Legislators of Nigeria, in Katsina last week and called on the federal government to declare banditry and kidnapping as acts of terrorism in order to take unusual measures to contain it without further delay. At the same even, the governor of Katsina State, Alhaji Aminu Masari, called on the federal government to declare a state of emergency on national security to tackle the security situation. They echoed the views and the voices of other groups in the past that were ignored. The situation continues to worsen.
The Children’s Manifesto is a call to action on all nations, particularly those that are signatories to the Safe Schools Declaration. The children’s call is loud and clear: make us safe and secure in our schools and our homes; take our secure future seriously. It is a plea that Nigeria cannot ignore or pretend to ignore. Let Nigeria, a signatory to the declaration, heed the call to action. We cannot build a great nation with Chinese-financed infrastructural development if the classrooms are deserted by our children for fear of criminals. Traumatised children live with the damaging psychological effects of violence, fear and deprivation. The security of our children is the best guarantee for the security of our nation’s future. If we fail to provide and guarantee that now and choose to commit to motion rather than movement, we imperil the future of the giant of Africa trying to stride ahead with short legs.