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The 27th of May marks the celebration of another Children’s Day in Nigeria…another day of wasteful, yearly jamboree without lasting impact on Nigerian children.
The truth is that no amount of Children’s Day celebrations can make up for the fact that successive governments since Independence have basically ignored the plight of Nigerian children. Year in, year out, new issues are arising that help to further complicate day-to-day living for the average Nigerian child. Perhaps one of the most devastating news to come out of Nigeria in early 2015 was the report of a 10 year old girl-child strapped with explosives and made to blow up herself and other people in a market in Maiduguri. This terrible act of using children as suicide bombers is a new dimension in the catalogue of abuse and exploitation that children in Nigeria experience on a daily basis.
Yet, in almost all of the manifestos of the key political parties that contested the recent general elections in March 2015, very little mention was made of the welfare of the child and what concrete steps would be taken to make Nigeria a better place for children. Nigeria remains one of the few countries in the world with a near absence of structures and effective systems to ensure the safeguarding and protection of children. Nearly all institutions that deal with children in loco parentis – schools, hospitals, the criminal justice system – have little or no structures at all for ensuring the safety and protection of children who come to their attention and care.
Yet in other countries around the world, the notion of child safeguarding is a key agenda pursued and implemented in the best interests of children. By this I do not mean countries in the West alone.
Many African countries are making strong efforts to domesticate and fully implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by creating local laws and regulations, effective structures and systems to ensure they are able to meet their obligations towards children. Nigeria too has made some efforts in enacting a Child Rights Act in 2003. Some of the states have domesticated the law locally. However, unfortunately only 26 out of 36 states in Nigeria have passed this law. For those who have passed the law, there is minimal evidence on the ground of any strong efforts at implementation.
So what impact does this have on children in Nigeria? According to the UN, Nigeria is one of the worst places on earth to be a child. There are more children out of education than in any other country in the world. Nigerian children, more than other children in Africa are at risk of human trafficking and exploitation. We are of course still reeling from the shock of the abduction of over 200 school children in Chibok, Borno State. Other children have been abducted by terrorists in this area. Terrorism poses a special threat to Nigerian children – they are indeed the worst victims. They are orphaned, made homeless and displaced. They are sexually abused and exploited, with many falling pregnant as a result. They are unable to attend school and are left psychologically traumatised by the effects of the violence and devastation they have experienced and see happening around them. They are victims in other ways too. So many children have been attacked and killed in their own school dormitories by the terrorists. The mantra: “Western education is a sin” means schools are targeted by Boko Haram – leaving many children injured, harmed and killed.
Of course there are many other indices that show the Nigerian child in dire strait. Education standards are falling and very poor; yearly examination results are a key indicator of this. Many children cannot attend school because their parents cannot afford to send them hence they are engaged in street trading and other forms of hazardous labour – which can also lead to them being abused in other ways. The health care system is obsolete in many parts of the country – meaning children needing medical care might not have access to it. Early marriage continues to be a problem in some parts of the country. Girls who should be at school learning and playing like other children are being sexually and emotionally abused as “wives”. Harmful cultural practices like branding children as witches are a problem – exposing children to unwarranted abuse and harm. Child poverty is a major challenge in the country and while the incoming government of Muhammadu Buhari has promised free school meals to all children in primary schools across the country, it is not clear if this electoral promise can be fulfilled with the dwindling income accruing to the federal government from the sale of oil. With his government due to take over power in a couple of days, one would hope that buhari’s government will give some priority to the issue of children. If this does not happen, and the government chooses the path of past regimes, then it would indeed be a missed opportunity to move forward and be on a par with the rest of the world, where children are concerned.
Nigeria does not need to hold tokenistic events every year to celebrate its children. Rather, more concrete efforts should be put in place to ensure their welfare, protect their innocence and secure their future. Only then do we merit the right to celebrate each and every Nigerian child, be proud of who they are and encourage them to be prepared to contribute their quota to the betterment of their country.
This article is an edited version of the one published by The Sheet online newspaper on 19 January 2015 titled: “Cry The Beloved Children”..
Ariyo OBE is Chief Executive of AFRUCA UK (www.afruca.org) a charity promoting the rights and welfare of children, and a postgraduate student in public administration at the London School of Economics and Political Science.