The Cronenberg at Number 12: A story about child abuse in Nigeria (2)
The reality: Nigerian children are not human beings
Theo’s story, horrifying as it may be, could be written off as a statistical outlier. The perfect storm of circumstances that enabled such extreme and prolonged abuse, including economic privilege, geographical isolation, total family dysfunction, religious fundamentalism and a completely deranged authority figure who was answerable to no one, probably don’t come around very often. Despite how sad his story is, Theo’s experience is hardly representative of the Nigerian childhood experience after all.
Or is it?
While picking through Theo’s memoirs to put this story together, I realised that a significant part of the audience that will read this has perfected the art of minimising problems relating to abuse of vulnerable people. Whether it is child abuse or gender-based violence, there is always that smug person whose default answer is a dismissive “Sorry about what happened to you, but not all…” These voices sometimes go on to effectively blame the victim by inferring that they did something to deserve it, they could have done more to prevent it or seek justice, or that they are simply cursed and to be despised.
When it is not possible to blame the victim or minimise the perceived severity of the abuse, these voices then move on to what I call “forgiveness blackmail,” chorusing the “F word” as though it were a public obligation that the victim owes the abuser, as against a completely personal decision that is nobody else’s business. This creates an interesting catch-22 for the conversation around child abuse. If the victim says, “I do NOT forgive,” the conversation shifts to how “bitter” and “burdened” the victim is, and how they need to “let go of it for their own good.” The victim – not the abuser – thus becomes the bad person. If the victim says, “I forgive,” then hooray! The problem is solved, the beef is squashed and everybody can go home. Normal service resumes.
I decided that the most scientific way of establishing the severity of Nigeria’s child abuse problem would be to get a legal and statistical angle on the problem. To this end, I gathered up some interesting UNICEF data on child abuse in Nigeria and I spoke with legal practitioner Solomon Igberaese on the subject. He informed me that despite the existence of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Nigerian Child Rights Act, which is based on it, this Act has not been domesticated around much of the country.
Statistically and anecdotally, Nigeria is by some distance, the child abuse capital of the world. We can hide from this as we tend to do, or we can commit to recognising, calling out and amending abusive behaviour against society’s most vulnerable people
According to UNICEF, six out of every 10 children experience some form of violence. I suspect that the broken down data on physical violence within this number is simply impossible to collect – much like attempting to dam the ocean – so the available data only goes into specifics about sexual violence. One in four girls and one in 10 boys in Nigeria have been victims of sexual violence. Nigeria also has roughly 29 million victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – the highest number in the world.
Technically, every Nigerian child has these rights – in practise, not so much. By nature of the subject, reliable research on child abuse in Nigeria is very difficult to come across. There is however, such data available in countries that have similar socially conservative attitudes to those of Nigeria. A 2013 Iranian study titled Maternal Child Abuse and its Association with Maternal Anxiety in the Socio-Cultural Context of Iran (Google it) provides the closest thing to a rough approximate picture of how severe and far reaching the problem really is.
Bear in mind that Iran has a Human Development Index (HDI) score of 0.798, which places it in the high human development category. Nigeria in contrast, has an HDI score of 0.534, putting it firmly in the low human development category. Even without accounting for child marriage and FGM, we can only speculate about how bad Nigeria’s child abuse problem must be even in the supposedly educated urban south of the country.
Or maybe we don’t, because we all have stories that we are in fact, repressing.
I just told mine.
Explanations and recriminations
As I am sure you have figured out by now, “Theo” and I are one and the same person. Every event, image and person depicted above is real and personal to me. I have sat on this story for years, not just because I did not feel ready to tell it yet, but also because I have come to understand that there is always fierce backlash whenever someone says a truth that people do not want to hear. Out of a certain sense of “Family Business,” I have been instructed by family members to drop the topic and never talk about it publicly again. I understand where they are coming from, but I must politely disagree.
There are three reasons I have finally decided to put this out. The first is that no matter how it intersects with other people, my story remains my story. A story only has any value if it is told. If I sit on it because of how other people will react or judge me for it, I am denying my instincts as a storyteller, and I am doing a disservice to those whom my story might help. That brings me to the second reason. A few years ago, I received this in my inbox:
“Hi David, thank you so much for tweeting and writing about JW. I found the courage to leave my long-term relationship after your tweets. He wanted me to get baptised first before even meeting his parents and this was weird to me. I remember reading your article and realising I’d be doing my generation a disservice by converting to JW. Sincerely appreciate you for speaking out.”
This is just one of dozens of messages I have received over the past few years from people whose lives have been impacted positively by something I put out. The common recurring theme across these messages is a sense of relief that they are not alone and that they are not insane for feeling a certain way, as well as a feeling of being seen and heard because someone has given voice to the questions and pain that Nigerian society has designated taboo.
When I was 10 years old in the middle of my ordeal, my sister sent me a book called “A Child Called It” by Dave Pelzer. That book saved my life because for the first time, I saw someone with an experience I could completely relate to. It helped me realise that I was not the insane person and that my mother’s extremely divergent treatment of me in comparison to my younger sister, for example, was a common abuser’s tactic, not because something was wrong with me.
If there is even the slightest chance that a child somewhere is going through some of the outrageous things that I went through, and they might come across this story and understand that nothing is wrong with them and it is not their fault; that they are simply victims of unfortunate circumstances they could not control; and that there is light at the end of the tunnel, then whatever fallout may come afterward is worth it.
My final reason for writing this is to intentionally trigger thousands of readers who are in denial into opening their own memory banks and admitting to themselves that they are also in fact abuse victims. This is important because often it is the abuse victims who parrot the “I turned out fine!” line loudest who turn out to be the worst abusers themselves. A child is like a blank slate, so a consequence of an abusive childhood is often underdeveloped empathy and lowered aptitude for anything but animal survival.
I believe that the Hobbesian state of Nigerian society can be traced in large part to a widespread culture of wanton and gratuitous child abuse, because damaged children almost inevitably grow into damaged adults. The hope is that by reading this story, people can introspect and admit to themselves that just because they see certain behaviours everyday, that does not make them acceptable.
The lady in your compound who constantly beats her children at every opportunity is a child abuser. She cooks great Jollof Rice, she sings in the church choir and she has great gossip, agreed. She is still a child abuser who should be in prison. The man next door who stripped his under-age housemaid naked as “punishment” for something she did is a child abuser. He gives you a lift to work, he has a great sense of humour and he told you not to bother repaying the money he spotted you last month. By all accounts, he is a great guy. That does not change the fact that he is a child abuser who should be facing criminal charges. There is no sliding scale of child abuse. It is absolute – you are or you aren’t.
Statistically and anecdotally, Nigeria is by some distance, the child abuse capital of the world. We can hide from this as we tend to do, or we can commit to recognising, calling out and amending abusive behaviour against society’s most vulnerable people. If it is too late for us to fix our damage, it is not too late for us to help the next generation avoid becoming like us. If there is the slightest chance that putting myself out there will help this process along, then by all means, I am happy to be the sacrificial lamb.
That will be all.
Dedicated to Matthew Adebayo (14 years old), Toheeb Olukoya (16 years old), Azeem Olufowobi (5 years old) and Chibuike Egeonu (11 years old), some of the child abuse victims in Nigeria who were beaten to death by their mothers and step-mothers over the past three years.