Nigeria schoolgirls just part of Africa's cruel history of child soldiers, enslavement

Angola, Congo, Mozambique. Bloody insurgencies have left a deep gash of broken childhoods across Africa, Don Murray writes. Nigeria's kidnapped schoolgirls are different only in that the world has suddenly taken notice.

Bloody insurgencies have left a swath of broken childhoods across the continent

Nigerians take part in a protest in the capital Abuja demanding the release of the high school girls abducted from the remote village of Chibok in April. On Tuesday, U.S. surveillance aircraft began flying over remote areas of northeast Nigeria as part of the international hunt for about 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants (Reuters)

A surreal 17-minute video begins with strained faces and voices, more than 100 girls dressed in black and grey Muslim hijabs chanting verses from the Koran, and then switches to a harangue by a smiling and supremely confident guerrilla leader cradling his AK-47 and pointing directly at the camera.

What is the world looking at here? Several things, depending on who you are.

For millions of us it is another chapter in an ongoing repulsive drama. The villains are Boko Haram, the Islamist guerrillas in northern Nigeria who kidnapped some 273 schoolgirls in Chibok in mid-April and forcibly converted many of them to Islam.

Their leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened to sell them as slaves in an earlier video. In this newest one he says he and his men have "liberated" them.

This drama has mobilized millions in the West right up to and including Michelle Obama who see nothing liberating about the girls' ordeal, and demand their release.

The Nigerian government now finds itself looking at an offer to negotiate — Shekau dangled the girls in exchange for Boko Haram prisoners held by the state — an offer Nigeria quickly rejected, or not, depending on which government official was speaking.

One anonymous official said that every option was on the table. But the Nigerian interior minister Abba Moro said, "it is unacceptable to exchange the girls for prisoners who had rejected the law of the land."

For the people of Nigeria the reference to the law of the land is laughable. This is a country sitting on an ocean of oil but where most of the population live in abject poverty, poorer on average than Nigerians in 1960.

Ordinary Nigerians are "victims of rampant, entrenched corruption," according to a report by the International Crisis Group just last month.

The elite simply ignores the law of the land as it enriches itself. And Boko Haram is one consequence of that disconnect.

A history here

The guerrilla insurgency Boko Haram has waged for most of a decade (the group's name translates roughly as "Western education is forbidden") has resulted in more than 4,000 deaths, the displacement of more than half a million people and the destruction of hundreds of schools. 

Women throughout Africa and much of the Western world, like these in France, have been holding almost daily demonstrations urging governments to find and return Nigeria's kidnapped schoolgirls. (Reuters)

But it is this particular crisis that has mobilized Western powers, notably the U.S., which considers Boko Haram a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda.

The U.S. has sent 30 advisers to Nigeria, and its experts are poring over satellite and aerial photos for clues to the girls' whereabouts.

The French president, François Hollande, has called for a meeting in Paris to bring together leaders of neighbouring countries such as Niger, Chad and Cameroon as well as French, British and American leaders.

One of the reasons is because he has troops in those neighbouring countries, as well as in Mali, and is worried that Boko Haram will stir up other extremist groups in the region if it is perceived as being successful. 

The sheer effrontery of the mass kidnapping has shocked the world. But Boko Haram had kidnapped girls before and talked of selling them as slaves.

Which may help explain why the Nigerian government did nothing for three weeks in this instance. In its battle with its extremists, kidnapping teenage girls and boys was nothing new.

Nor, sadly, is it anything new in the bloody modern history of Africa.

Mozambique, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo — these were savage wars that killed millions. And during them tens of thousands were forcibly taken to become child soldiers and sex slaves.

One of the longest of those wars was in Angola. It lasted 27 years and finally ended in 2002 with the defeat of the UNITA guerrilla army.

As the war ended, the UNITA soldiers and their women and children came out of the bush. Most were emaciated, many to the point of death.

I met some of them as they were being treated by doctors and nurses from Doctors Without Borders. Their bodies were skeletal, their stories harrowing.

One woman spent nine years in captivity, foraging for food, not eating if she didn't find enough, and giving birth to three children by different UNITA soldiers.

In the closing weeks of the war they all died. She carefully noted the dates of their deaths, composing in memory headstones they would never have.

Dreams of school

That war ended with four million people displaced, one-third of Angola's population. Yet the world barely noticed.

In 2002 its mind was elsewhere, focused on Afghanistan, and on weapons of mass destruction and the buildup to the invasion of Iraq.

In the cities of Angola former child soldiers begged, washed cars and scrounged for food.

A child soldier known as "Kadogo," meaning "small one" in Swahili, is shown here near the front lines in eastern Congo, in November 2008. Snatched from their homes by armed men who force them to carry ammunition, fight and kill, beaten if they refuse, east Congo's child soldiers are teenage victims of an unforgiving war. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters )

Manel Kasumbo, a young boy I met then, thought he was 17. His parents died when he was 12 and he was seized by UNITA.

For five years he fought and starved. "I was forced to shoot," he said. "I suffered too much."

His dream, and this was echoed by several other former child soldiers, was to go to school. School, they thought, would free them from the nightmare of war and enslavement.

That dream would hardly be enough though, a local psychologist said. These were children who had lost any perspective of a happy future life.

Cruelly, it was school that led to this current nightmare for the girls of Chibok. Unless they are freed soon, they too will lose any idea of a happy future life.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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