- - Tuesday, July 25, 2017

GOMBE, Nigeria — Sitting with a metal bowl in his hands, 7-year-old Isiaka Ibrahim begged for food outside the entrance of a bus station.

“I was brought to Gombe to learn the Koran,” said Isiaka, who comes from Kona, a town in northwestern Nigeria about 280 miles away.

But his teachers wouldn’t provide him with room and board, so he took to the streets. “On nights that people don’t give me food, I sleep on empty stomach,” said the shoeless boy.

It’s a cruel irony: Africa’s wealthiest and most populous country, an energy superpower, is having trouble feeding its own people.

Children like Isiaka have come to symbolize Nigeria’s plight as chronic corruption, declining oil production and falling global prices, and the fight against Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram and other militants and separatist movements exacerbate the country’s year-old recession.

“This is not the best time to be born in Nigeria,” said Betty Abah, executive director of the Center for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection in Lagos. “We just have to face the reality.”

Children younger than 15 account for about 45 percent of the country’s population, a UNICEF report shows, and more than 10.5 million of them are not attending school. The majority of unschooled children are girls.

Nigeria is the richest country in Africa but has more girls out of school than any country in the world,” said education activist Malala Yousafzai.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate recently visited Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, where she met with girls displaced by the Boko Haram crisis.

Those dismal numbers bode ill for the country’s future, said Nigerian Senate President Bukola Saraki.

“Having 10 million children out of school is literally a ticking time bomb for our nation,” he said. “An uneducated population will be locked in a cycle of poverty for their entire lives. These children could constitute the next generation of suicide bombers and militant terrorists.”

There are few signs that the Nigerian economy will improve to accommodate the young anytime soon.

More than a year after economic growth went negative, the unemployment rate in Nigeria stands at 14.2 percent, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. The inflation rate is more than 17 percent. About 1.7 million people remain displaced because of Boko Haram-related violence.

The United Nations has estimated that 20 million people in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen are on the “tipping point” of famine. Drought conditions extend to Uganda and parts of Tanzania. The last famine in Africa was declared in 2011 in Somalia. An estimated 260,000 people died.

President Muhammadu Buhari has health issues and is on a prolonged medical vacation to London. A photo released by the government Sunday, showing Mr. Buhari convalescing in his hospital room, is the first view ordinary Nigerians have had of their president since he left for treatment in early May.

In his absence, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is governing an increasingly unruly country.

“We present a general picture of a nation that is fragile,” said Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Catholic archbishop of Abuja. “There’s the need to seriously address certain undermining and abiding causes of disturbance, dissatisfaction amongst our people.”

Corruption’s legacy

Analysts blame Nigeria’s woes in large part on decades of unfettered corruption. Transparency International last year ranked Nigeria as the 28th most corrupt nation in the world. In a closely divided country, politicians appeal to Christian, Islamic and local religious and ethnic voting blocs to win elections but enrich themselves once in office, said Gombe State University political science professor Abdulkadir Saleh.

“The political elites always use religion and tribe to manipulate the masses while looting away resources,” said Mr. Saleh. “Institutions are not working because of the high level of corruption among the elites. In Nigeria, we only have influential personalities and not institutions.”

That cynical political strategy might be backfiring as those same voting blocs lash out against the central government while living conditions decline.

Although decimated by years of fighting Nigerian troops and other armies in the region, Boko Haram still manages to hold sway in parts of the north where Islam is the majority faith.

Female suicide bombers linked to Boko Haram have been blamed for an attack Sunday on a camp for internally displaced people in Maiduguri that killed at least eight and wounded 15. It was the first major attack on a refugee camp in Maiduguri, Boko Haram’s birthplace.

The Indigenous People of Biafra, a group representing the Igbo-speaking community of Biafra in southeastern Nigeria, are seeking an independent state and threatening civil war — a chilling echo of the devastating clashes of the 1960s. Another group, the Coalition of Arewa Youth Groups, has been threatening Igbo in northern Nigeria and demanding that they return to Biafra in the south.

Militants called the Niger Delta Avengers have sabotaged oil pipelines and demanded that more oil money be spent on the poor. Their attacks have reduced oil and gas exports that comprise 70 percent of government revenue.

All the internal strife is scarring the nation’s youngest and most vulnerable generation, said child rights activists. Six out of 10 Nigerians suffer some form of physical, emotional or sexual violence before they turn 18, according to a 2014 survey by the National Population Commission.

Another street beggar in Gombe, 7-year-old Musa Haruna, illustrated the survey’s sad findings. He said his parents also sent him to Gombe to study the Koran, but his teacher forced him to beg for food and money.

“I will receive the beating of my life if I go back empty-handed,” Haruna said, sobbing.

Activists in Nigeria said the government wasn’t doing enough to protect children.

“Government must look into the affairs of our children nationwide with a view to addressing the teeming issues that have left Nigeria without a future in its children,” said Inime Aguma, the Lagos-based country director for the International Federation of Women Lawyers.

She and her fellow activists were organizing a campaign to draw attention to the suffering. Children’s Day 2017 is “another opportunity for us to call upon federal and state governments” to do more, she said.

Isiaka wished the government could provide him with basic amenities so he could grow up like a normal child.

“I have no clothes to wear and cannot afford to visit a hospital when sick,” he said. “Most nights I am so hungry that learning becomes impossible.”

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