As we remember the girls captured in Chibok three years ago, we must remember that they constitute only a fraction of the victims of the Boko Haram insurgency.
I would urge Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG), while you keep this issue of Chibok on the table, to broaden your message to cover all girls and boys abducted by Boko Haram, and also draw attention to the condition of girls and women in our society in general.
To give you an idea of the extent of this problem, as at today, in Dalori 2 IDP camp near Maiduguri alone, there are over 1,500 Boko Haram abducted girls who are either pregnant or carrying babies, and who have been freed by the military.
Hundreds of orphaned children are being carried away to unknown destinations and they are all gone into oblivion due to society’s neglect.
It is therefore critical for the BBOG movement to gain much broader support in the populace and be more effective, to use the dramatic case of the Chibok girls as a referent and a plank, but not the exclusive focus of its struggle.
Our interest should be in bringing back all our girls. But after these girls are brought back, shall we ask ourselves as well: where are they being brought back to? What kind of society?
How much better is the “normal” environment we all take for granted than Boko Haram camps? These questions ultimately force us to face the reality that the kind of society we have created in fact is the root cause for the emergence of groups like Boko Haram and occurrences like the Chibok tragedy.
All my life, I have been engaged deeply with the question of women and the oppressed and marginalised groups in our society. I have come to accept, like you, that remaining committed to this discourse is a risky and potentially costly venture in this environment.
The elite consensus is about a culture of silence and complicity, where everyone remains in his or her comfort zone, and where the voiceless majority are allowed to remain where they are.
The argument, it seems, is why should you care about poor rural women when you are able to educate your own daughters in the best schools in the world? Why should you hold up a mirror to our faces, expose our unclean underbelly and remind us of the brutish life to which, over many decades, we have subjected a large mass of our population? Our colleagues and compatriots among the elite do not like statistics.
Numbers are disturbing. I recently gave a speech in which I said the North-East and North-West of Nigeria are the poorest parts of the country. This simple statement of fact has generated so much heat, the noise is yet to die down.
But what really are the facts? The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) and the UNDP in 2015 published data on the incidence of poverty in Nigeria showing that, on average, 46 per cent of Nigerians are living in poverty.
This is based on the UN’s Global Multi-Dimensional Poverty Index which focuses on education, health and living standards. Although this average is in itself bad, it masks even more serious internal inequalities and incidences of extreme poverty by region and gender.
So, for example, the South-West of Nigeria has less than 20 per cent of its population living in poverty, while the North-West has more that 80 per cent of its population living in poverty. In the North-East, the figure is 76.8 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the people in Yobe and Zamfara states are living in poverty, compared to 8.5 per cent in Lagos and around 11 per cent in Osun and Anambra states.
The response to this speech has been a barrage of personal attacks and insults aimed at silencing any voice that dares shine the light on the society to which we are saying ‘Bring Back Our Girls’.
There are those who believe these attacks are aimed at discrediting me personally but even if that is the objective it will not work. I can only be discredited by what I have done and not by insults and lies on the social media. And in any event, personal criticism has no impact on issues.
These attacks are aimed at diverting attention from the issues raised and all of us who are involved in this struggle must remember a few things. We are dealing with an antiintellectual environment, and with people whose failure has bred a sense of insecurity, which leads to incomprehensible, almost insane, reactions to simple advice. Second, that these problems are deep-seated and have been there for a long time, so that changing mind-sets will be a difficult and painful process.
Finally, we must never succumb to the temptation to join our opponents in the gutter. You may say what you like about me for as long as you like, so long as you address the issues. As Michelle Obama famously said: “when they go low, we go high”. Instead of hiding these statistics and being scared of repeating them, what we need to do is bring out even more of these data.
These are already published and easily verifiable but not often discussed in the public space. But these data help us understand what poverty means for girls and women. According to published research:
1. Over 70.8 per cent of women in the North-West are unable to read and write, compared to 9.7 per cent in the South-East zone;
2. More than two-thirds of 15 to 19-year-old girls in the North are unable read a single sentence, compared to less than 10 per cent in the South;
3. In eight Northern states, over 80 per cent of the women are unable to read and write;
4. Only four per cent of females complete secondary schools in Northern Nigeria; 5. 78 per cent of adolescent girls are in marriages in the North-West, 68 per cent in the North-East and 35 per cent in the North-Central.
These numbers clearly mirror the poorest regions in the country. The statistics in the other zones are 18 per cent in the South- South, 17 per cent in the South-West and 10 per cent in the South-East.
6. Apart from the huge loss of productivity and incomes caused by the lack of focus on education, especially for girls, adolescent marriages have led to serious social and health outcomes. One Nigerian woman dies in childbirth every 10 minutes.
The North-East has a maternal mortality rate of over 1,500 per 100,000. This is more than five times the global average. I can go on and on. These statistics are not flattering. And they speak to a truth that is inconvenient to most of us. But the culture of silence must end. We have a problem.
In fact, we have an existential crisis. And all of us in this country – politicians, intellectuals, Emirs and traditional rulers, religious leaders, businesses, NGOs – have to come together to solve this problem.
The real patriots in the North are those who are honest enough to accept this reality and insist on change. The consequences of ignoring this crisis are unimaginable. And I wonder if the public generally recognises this.
It is a vicious cycle. Children of educated mothers are 50 per cent more likely to survive beyond the age of five, and educated mothers are more likely to send their own children to school. Meanwhile, every extra year of education for the girl child could increase her earning capacity by 10 per cent. Infants born to mothers under 18 suffer a 60 per cent higher risk of dying in the first year of life when compared to infants born to mothers aged 19 or older.
Girls who become pregnant below the age of 15 in poor countries have double the risk of maternal death and obstetric fistula than older women. In addition, girls under age 15 are five times more likely to die from maternity related causes than women under 20.
The statistics that are provided therefore represent the tragedy in the lives of real human beings. This problem is most severe in the North-West and North-East but the North-Central also fares worse that the three zones in the South. Let me state, at this point, that the issues faced by women go beyond girl-child education, early marriage and poverty. Educated women still have to deal with issues of equal opportunities in the work-place, and unwritten but no less real gender discrimination. As governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Chairman of the Bankers’ Committee, I forced the question of addressing the gendered work-place to the fore.
We officially adopted a policy of aiming for at least 50 per cent of employees of banks and the CBN being female by 2014. Also to address glass ceilings, we pushed for at least 40 per cent of senior management in the CBN and banks, as well as 30 per cent of the Board of Directors being female.
By the time I left Central Bank, I had en-sured that the myth that women were only good enough to run Human Resources and Medical Services departments, which are more suited to what is called, rather condescendingly, their “nature”, was annulled. In addition to these two departments, I appointed women as directors in charge of core technical areas in the Central Bank, including Banking Supervision, Risk Management, Consumer Protection, Internal Audit, Branch Operations and the Governor’s Special Adviser on Environmental, Sustainability and Governance Policies. By deliberately pushing for the promotion of outstanding and highly competent female staff, we showed the industry what could be achieved by women.
We also developed and launched a N220 billion MSME development fund in 2013, with a condition that 60 per cent of it is to be devoted to female entrepreneurs and businesses.
I declared 2012 as “the year of women’s economic empowerment” and trained Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) and CBN employees and management staff on sustainability and gender. Also, in collaboration with International Labour Organisation (ILO), we launched the FAMOS (Female and Male Operated Small Business) toolkit specifically to measure how financial institutions serve their female clients.
I am going over this now to make the point that my engagement with issues of gender and opportunity for women did not begin when I became Emir, and my current engagement with forced marriages, domestic violence, arbitrary divorce, property and maintenance rights for women etc. is not new. It is also not a politicallymotivated attack on any group.
The point I seek to stress is that BBOG needs to transform itself from a group defined by the narrow focus on an incident, to one that addresses the broader social reality of African women, and particularly women in Nigeria, especially the North.
We all claim to be horrified by what Boko Haram has done. We all call this primitive and barbaric. They forcefully took young girls out of school, forced them into marriages without their consent or love, impregnated them and turned them into mothers at young ages and exposed them to serious health risks, and maybe inflicted beatings and verbal abuse on them. We are all horrified. Really. But let us pause a little.
These things that horrify us, do they not happen every day in every village in Northern Nigeria and some parts of the South? Do these girls complete their education? Do they all grow up and give their consent to marriage when they are old enough to? Does domestic violence not happen? It is often not the fault of the girls or their parents.
What do they do if there are no educational and health facilities made available to the poor? So the discourse on gender has to be looked at in the context of the discourse on poverty and governance. And this is why many people are not comfortable.
The fact is that poverty in the North and in Nigeria is not inevitable but a result of decades of failed social policy. It is only by recognising this and accepting it that we can even hope to make progress.
If we do not, then the society to which these girls are brought back will be no better than where they are now. Anyone who challenges a system or fights for the voiceless must be ready for a serious backlash.
Character assassination, slander, blackmail and intimidation are the normal tools employed by those who defend and profit from the status quo. The poor people for whom you fight are voiceless by necessity.
Those of us who are fortunate to be part of the elite and who choose not to speak for them are voiceless by choice. We want to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the pain of being insulted and abused on social media. We want to hold on to the small comforts of our status. We want access to power and to be seen as friends of those in power and members of our inner circle. We are afraid of being destroyed by ruthless state machinery.
We have a morbid fear of being isolated, of not belonging to an exclusive club close to power. The reality is that everything in this world is fragile. Life itself will come to an end and we will lose money and position and loved ones all the time.
The only thing we have control over is who we are, what we stand for, what we represent. Being a coward or a sycophant will not add one day to your life or one day to the term of any of the things you hold dear. The worst silence is that which happens in the face of injustice. Do not be intimated. Do not be silenced. Do not betray your conscience or sell your soul.
Do not fear any human being. Stand up and take all the bullets that are fired at you but never kneel down. If you have to die, please die standing and not on your knees. Most important, ignore the noise. Do not defend yourself too much against personal attacks because they want your person, not the issues you raise, to be discussed.
I know it is tough, I go through this every day, but I have learnt that after all the insults and blackmail the issues remain and will not disappear until they are addressed. That is your task, put these issues on the table and do not walk away until they are resolved. We pray that Allah return all our girls and boys safely to a better society.
• Sanusi II (CON), a former CBN governor and Emir of Kano, gave this speech given at the 1st Chibok Girls Annual Lecture held in Abuja on April 14.