One million children across North East Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad will grow up without the love and steady hand that is the best gift a parent is capable of giving. They will emerge from this devastating conflict, unsure of their place in the world, not as ‘Sadiq’ or ‘Jonah’ or ‘Aisha’ with varying personalities and dreams; but as Refugees, Survivors and Internally Displaced Persons, with no guiding voice to reassure them that all is well. That they can be children again, for a little while longer. But that is hardly the worst of it.
The nightmare scenario in the North East isn’t that we will fall short in the armed conflict against Boko Haram, but that having defeated the insurgents; we will fail to make the investments in developing human capacity that is the only proven bulwark against an ideology that invites people to annihilate themselves in pursuit of an uncertain paradise. This isn’t an unfounded fear: we’ve been here before when the Mujahideen, with aide from the Americans successfully expelled the Soviets from Afghan territory. The U.S declared mission accomplished, and the attention of the world moved to other matters. In the interim, the Taliban emerged to occupy the vacuum created by lack of investment in reintegration programmes, in education and in providing opportunities for economic advancement. A country already scarred by armed conflict became a terrorist training ground and two decades later, the Americans were forced to come back to a baptism of canon-fire and blood.
We can avoid the same mistake. Victory in the North-East will only be attained when we recognise that the origins of Boko Haram are directly traceable to the three decades prior; when we allowed the region to suffer debilitating under-investment in education, social welfare and economic opportunities – resulting in the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy of any region in Nigeria. Some of the world’s poorest communities are forced to shelter ninety percent of displaced families and today, nearly three million children have had their education cut short, and their promise compromised. If we fail to build schools where these young people can be rehabilitated first, then empowered with the training they need to better their present circumstances, we will have done them a great disservice, and by our own hands guaranteed a future conflict in the region more devastating than anything we have witnessed thus far.
Peace-building demands that we look beyond we beyond artificial solutions and prepare to ask difficult questions so as to develop a coherent understanding of how we got here. We must appreciate that education is the silver bullet that resolves most, if not all the development issues currently facing the region and be prepared to meet the pressing need for a reconstruction and development programme focused on capacity building; to enable displaced persons become active participants in building a society that works best for them. The task of implementing the most adequate 2 curriculum will be difficult. The language of instruction, remuneration, child-specific learning needs are just some policy issues that need to be recognised and addressed. Reducing those affected to mere beneficiaries of external aid will only contribute to their marginalization. We must empower them to hold government to account and most importantly, to be able to marshal an alternative argument against religious extremism in their communities. In this alternative theory of reconstruction, particular emphasis must be placed on aiding those who are most at risk of abuse and indoctrination. Women and children are the first to be subjugated in times of conflict. De-normalizing violence against these groups is a step towards de-normalizing violence as a tool.
We must build a healthcare system that is capable of helping the physically wounded to heal, but also as importantly, helping those whose wounds are too deep to bleed. We should work towards ensuring regular assessments of the psychosocial health of those who still experience constant fear and have little hope for the future; those who feel disconnected from the world. Already; rescued young women are treated with suspicion when returned to their communities in the North-East. The world will be watching how we achieve reintegration of the North-Eastern region. In this, and most of all; let us uphold the rights that were so rudely stripped of our own. We cannot restore lost innocence, but we can help set these citizens on a path towards normalcy, and give them faith that this time around, they’re not alone. This is our duty and if we fail to right the devastation wrought by the insurgency, ensure access to better education, build the infrastructure necessary to facilitate economic advancement and provide better protection against sexual exploitation; we will create fertile ground for poisonous ideology to take root again and next time around, the price of this failure will be much too high. As the Nigerian military claws-back territory lost to the insurgents, we must move quickly to address the many developmental issues plaguing our most vulnerable communities. Issues that are wound intricately together and demanding of holistic measures: education, health, poverty. The call to action is not limited to Western Africa. The solutions for North-Eastern Nigeria can form the basis of a replicable template for other parts of Africa, from Libya, Yemen, Mali and Central African Republic, to every place on this great continent where our brothers and sisters are this moment engaged in conflict between the forces of future good and those whose vision is restricted by fidelity to redundant norms and ancient practices.
Let us never forget that achieving a lasting peace is an ongoing battle which in the words of Bill Clinton, must be “waged with a warrior’s resolve: bravely, proudly, and relentlessly, secure in the knowledge of the single greatest difference between war and peace: in peace everybody can win.” Killing terrorists is not enough. There can be no lasting peace without justice; and neither of the two without upholding the rule of law and respect for human life.
Photo Credit: Emily Nkanga