I received a plaintive note last week from a young man who seemed rather shocked that I had not written about Nigeria’s scandal of the moment—the harrowing story of a 14-year old girl named Ese Rita Oruru, abducted from her home in Bayelsa State, transported to Kano by a 22-year old drifter, Yunusa (alias Yellow), who contrived her conversion to Islam and then made her his bride. My young correspondent then pleaded with me to write about the Ese matter, as if the burden of rendering whole again a world turned on its head rested with whatever I was going to say.
The matter of Ese, even the fragment of it sketched out above, is a tragic story. But what makes the story truly, deeply tragic is far less the specific details of what happened to a solitary young woman than what the Ese Affair says about Nigeria, its institutions, its attitude to children, and the vexed subject of religion.
In short, the tragedy lies in the fact that Nigeria is a country at war with its most vulnerable, weak citizens. It is a country at war with its poor, its workers, especially those of them who are minimum wage earners, its womenfolk, especially those of them who are, in every important sense, children.
Speaking to a reporter, one of Ese’s best friends at school in Bayelsa State disclosed that her friend’s dream was to become a nurse. According to this friend, Ese excelled at math, integrated science and English. In her first interview with reporters, Ese corroborated the account of her dream. In a child-friendly society, Ese would have received encouragement to enable her to achieve her professional aspiration. But this is Nigeria, a country that’s turned into a killer of dreams, if not of the dreamers. Instead of being on her way to a nursing career, Ese, who is now five months pregnant, must become the charge of nurses as she, a mere child, prepares to bring a child into the world.
How did the young man who abducted Ese manage to pull off his crime—for crime it was—in broad daylight, without anybody, civilian or uniformed, to stop him? How was it that several adults presided over the farcical conversation of the young woman without one of them pausing to ask, one, whether she was competent to voluntarily understand said conversion and, two, whether she understood the implications of what was to follow?
In her interview, Ese described the process of her ostensible conversion. “They took me to one place. Before they took me from the house to Kura, they put me in hijab, then we went to Kura. When we got there, they went to one place, and one old man came there and he would say something and they would say I should repeat. Then I would repeat. If the man said something again, they would say I should repeat and I would repeat just like that.”
A conversion indeed, just like that!
I am for the freedom of religious practice. But it’s pathetic when children are brainwashed, compelled to repeat words they don’t—and can’t—understand, and then that whole mystifying process is deemed to constitute evidence of conversion. I’d expect true Muslims to be appalled by this predatory practice in the name of their faith. There’s no universe of logic where it makes sense that somebody would convert to something they have absolutely no understanding of.
Ese’s odyssey was a tragic drama of abduction, mental exploitation, and sexual enslavement. She was a victim of a legion of crimes. Here’s a girl whose expectation was that society would give her the tools to actualize her ambition to be a nurse. There’s a chance, yet, of there being some sort of twist of fate in which Ese achieves fame as a nurse. That prospect lies in the womb of the future. What we know now is that she’s become a household name in Nigeria on account of a script she did not choose. And this happened because Nigeria provides a social atmosphere in which the abduction of children is as easy as their rescue is difficult.
Ese’s story points up the broader malaise of a society in which the police cannot be counted on to do the right thing. Had the police moved with alacrity, Ese might have been rescued sooner from her randy, pedophilic captor. But the Nigerian police stood pat, emasculated by fear, as a poor captive went through a harrowing experience.
Ese’s saddening drama is the more tragic because it is far from exceptional or unique. Since her story broke, parents of numerous other underage victims have come forward with their own heartrending stories. In case after case, the details are eerily similar: some girl lured away from her parents’ home, “converted” to Islam, and thereafter married off to an adult male who keeps her away from her parents.
What happened to Ese and her family is a case of poor-on-poor crime, with the apparatuses of the state looking on, unconcerned. It reminds me of the horror visited on defenseless children in some Niger Delta states after an irresponsible female pastor declared a war on “child witches and wizards.” In that case, too, no instrument of the government raised a finger to protect the victims, some of them thrown away in the bushes to die. Instead, one state government hounded officials of a non-governmental organization that carried out the humanitarian task of rescuing the savaged children.
If anybody doubts that Nigeria is a country at war with its future, such a person need only visit what passes for classrooms in many Nigerian states. Public officials who send their own children abroad for studies have bequeathed on other people’s children classrooms that can get near as hot as ovens, much of the furniture in a shambles, toilets sometimes non-existent. In many degree-awarding academic institutions, students are condemned to live in conditions so squalid they don’t befit human habitation.
If you ask me, I’d say that Ese must be seen as a quick glimpse of a greater, festering project of dehumanization of Nigerians. For many Nigerian men, the possession of any form of power is the ability to regard and treat women, including teenage girls, as play things, mere objects that exist to service all kinds of male fantasies. Many female undergraduates have stories of some male lecturers who’d use every means to force them to submit to illicit sexual advances. Students who spurn such demands are often made to pay a stiff price, vindictively failed in their exams.
What happened to Ese should provoke outrage, but it should be a broader outrage, not merely directed at the experiences of one girl. There are many Eses out there. They suffer daily, mostly in anonymity and silence, besieged by manipulators who invoke the name of God or some other ruse to rationalize the evil they do. Ese is back with her family, but there are many other families whose woe may never make it to the pages of newspapers, much less the TV screen, whose daughters are being kept in captivity.
No end is served by outrage that is fleeting—an all-too brief emotion before we order that next round of beer and pepper soup. Ese has held up a mirror to our faces, reminding us of the great work we need to do to save children like her, to save our future, from perdition. She and victims like her remind us that we must work towards creating an enlightened society where children are able to nurse their best dreams into fruition, not captured and criminally bamboozled into motherhood.
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