bring back our girls nigerian kidnappings boko haram

An unidentified mother cries out during a demonstration in Abuja, Nigeria

The lives of African children matter.

Let’s begin there, with that statement.  If we accept it as fact, as an indisputable truth, then we would already be making progress. 

More than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria have been missing since April 15th.  The full details of their abduction are still murky.  Even though 276 is the figure upon which most of the media have settled, the exact number is still unknown. What we do know is that the girls, all between the ages of 16 and 18, had been recalled to their school in Chibok, a village in the northern part of the country, to write their physics exam.  All of the schools in the area had been closed because of a recent spate of terrorist attacks in which students were the apparent targets.

The men who came for the girls tricked them into believing they were in danger and being escorted to safety.  It wasn’t until they were being transported to the Sambisa forest, which is on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, that the girls realized what was truly happening.  As many as 50 managed to escape.  The rest are reportedly being sold into marriage to terrorists.

I’ve read and watched numerous reports describing the kidnapping as a gender issue, an indication of how fierce the resistance is in the developing world to the education of girls. This is not accurate. On February 25th, Boko Haram, the same extremist Islamic group that has claimed responsibility for the abduction, stormed Federal Government College, a co-ed boarding high school in Buni Yade, also in the northern region of Nigeria.  Many of the students were shot while they slept, others were hacked to death, and still more were burned alive as all the buildings on campus were set on fire.  A total of 59 students were killed during the attack, all boys.  In this instance, the girls were left unharmed.

Since the start of the year, over 1500 Nigerian citizens have been killed in numerous attacks, all attributed to the same group, whose official, yet little-known, title is “Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.”  The moniker by which they are popularly known is Boko Haram which, in the local Hausa language, means “Western education is a sin.”

Whatever ideology Boko Haram claims to espouse, there is no explanation or justification for the murder, theft and defilement of children.  They are not appropriate, humane responses to, or indicators of, poverty, political leadership, development policies or social inequities. They are acts of hatred and terror, pure and simple, and should be regarded as such. 

The rest of the world has been slow in its outrage. Is it because these children are poor? Black? Or is it because they are African, and the lives of African children seem fragile, ephemeral, predisposed to tragedy?

Yet, the rest of the world has been slow in its outrage.  Is it because these children are poor?  Black?  Or is it because they are African, and the lives of African children seem fragile, ephemeral, predisposed to tragedy?   From child soldiers to child brides, African children have become prey for rebels, religious zealots, and human traffickers.  That is because they know that Africa’s future is in the hands of our children. To steal our children is to steal our hope; to kill our children is to kill whatever possibilities of greatness they were destined to deliver.    

It is in times like these that we must define the sort of world in which we would like to live, and then defend that vision. Do we want to live in the sort of world where we can go to shopping malls and run marathons without the fear of being harmed? Or go to work, and seek solace in our place of worship trusting we will be safe?  Or send our children to school knowing they will return?  If so, then it is in times like these that we must also stand in solidarity with those who share our vision of such a world.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The international community must begin a conversation about the current scourge of terrorism on the African continent.  Not just for the sake of Africa, but for the sake of everyplace else.  At no other time in the history of this world have our boundaries been as fluid.  At no other time has technology been as sophisticated.  The access we have feels almost limitless.  Wherever you are right now may as well be next door to Nigeria—or any of the myriad other locations on this globe where terrorism is being plotted or taking place, even as I type.

So let’s begin here, with this statement:  the lives of African children matter.  If we accept as fact that these children belong not only to Africa, but also to the world, then we would already be making progress.  We would already be sharing in the pain of their loss, offering the know-how and resources needed to bring Boko Haram to its knees and to bring back our girls.

John Dramani Mahama is President of the Republic of Ghana and Chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the region’s organization to promote integration.