On the night of January 13, 2017, eight people were kidnapped at gun point in the Ogun State of Nigeria, by masked members of a group calling itself “The Delta Militants.” Those kidnapped were students and employees at a private school run by Turkish immigrants located near Lagos. These include three female students, aged eleven, fourteen, and fifteen years, who were seized from the girls’ dormitory. The five women included two supervisors, one headmistress, one cook, and a teacher, and all are Nigerian, except for the teacher, who is Turkish. Beaten and threatened with their lives, the victims were released relatively unscathed twelve days later, and all of the girls returned to their school within days, as did their teacher. I was able to meet all of the children and their teacher only a month after their ordeal, during a visit to their school, and over a meal at the teacher’s home.
When the girls sat shyly in front of me, two of them wearing green and pink skirts and the third dressed in grey, purple and white, I took a deep breath, shocked, and thought, “These girls are way too young to have experienced what they went through.” One, with enormous sad eyes, and a solemn, yet stunned expression, sat silently and did not answer any of my cautiously-framed questions, but occasionally nodded in agreement, or smiled briefly. The other two did speak to me, but were understandably reticent. After telling them I thought they were brave survivors, I asked where they had slept while in the forest, and whether or not they were bothered by insects. The silent one nodded, affirming that insects had pestered her at night. Another girl, the fifteen-year-old, explained that after being led out of the compound at night, the students and teachers just had to sleep either on the forest floor, or squashed together on an old mattress. I asked her if there was any silver lining to her ordeal, and her answer surprised me. She replied earnestly, “I learned that some people are really poor and that makes them do bad things,” a lesson she should not have had to learn at that age. All of their faces lit up with smiles when I asked them if they had wanted to bathe after they were released—after an exuberant and emotional meeting with their family members, it was the very first thing they wanted to do.
In order to feel safe after the kidnapping, they pray, keep the lights on at night, and sleep with others in the room. The youngest explained that her mother was going to purchase a “Sadness” doll for her, a figure from the Disney film Inside Out, to help her feel safer as she tries to cope with her emotions. All three conveyed that they had really, really wanted to return as soon as they could to their school, which they did only a few days after their release. While I avoided asking the children questions about the worst parts of their ordeal, the Turkish teacher explained that during the first few days of the abduction, the militants hit them and constantly threatened to kill all of them. Mercifully, none was sexually abused. Prayer and the responsibility of caring for children during the painful experience helped the teacher keep her strength, although she was almost certain she would not survive. Like the children, she returned to her school only five days after the attack.
Their own school negotiated to pay their ransom, saving eight lives. Sometimes, kidnappers sell their victims to other more brutal militant groups; these eight survivors were indeed fortunate they were released alive. Here I shed light on the mission, reception, and challenges of these schools, and offer greater context for why the kidnapping occurred.
The school is affiliated with the Hizmet Movement (also known as the Gülen Movement). Hizmet is a civil society organization, inspired by Sufi Islam, which was founded in Turkey around the ideas of an Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gülen (b. 1941), and participants began to launch businesses, as well as educational, and interfaith projects, in Nigeria in the 1990s.
Hizmet is the Turkish word for “service,” and indeed, this school’s mission is to “produce intelligent, enlightened and highly socialized individuals (youths), who are fit to pursue higher education and become effective, integrated and productive members of the society.” Towards that goal, Hizmet schools in Nigeria provide instruction to around 5,000 students, regardless of their religious, ethnic, or tribal affiliations (there are over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria). The movement has also established other partnering institutions in Nigeria, including a university, hospital, consulting agency, examination preparation center, and a dialogue foundation (which hosts interfaith dialogue events). All of these are located in Abuja, but representatives from these institutions are found across Nigeria.
The schools are widely lauded for their academic success, and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari thus far supports their presence in Nigeria. After the July 15, 2016, attempted coup in Turkey, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoǧan blamed the plot on Hizmet. He did so without evidence, scapegoating participants and labeling them traitors and terrorists, apparently in order to increase his own authority. While Hizmet has over 2,000 schools around the world, Erdoǧan has recently pressured foreign governments to shutter these schools, in some cases succeeding. However, Nigeria’s Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu, has stated that given the frivolity of the request and the lack of evidence confirming any complicity on the part of Hizmet in the plot, the schools, which employ around 2,000 Nigerians, would remain open.
Operating in Nigeria poses Turkish Hizmet participants unique challenges, although those interviewed also spoke of their love for their students and their appreciation for the beauty of Nigeria. However, challenges include obvious and serious security concerns, and a “very high” risk of major infectious diseases including malaria, meningitis, hepatitis, dengue fever, lassa fever, AIDS, and typhoid. Participants also suffer from isolation from their families and friends back in Turkey, which has become especially acute since the attempted coup in Turkey. Since then, all affiliated with Hizmet have been widely ostracized in their homeland, and in many cases shunned by their own friends and family members. In Turkey, thousands have been detained, arrested, fired from their jobs, or forced to flee the country because of Erdoǧan’s “purge” of the movement.
Adding to this crisis, the Turkish government, according to those I interviewed, has refused to renew the Turkish passports of those abroad, or to give new passports to Turkish babies born outside Turkey. At a dinner in Lagos, one young woman laughed wryly, raising her baby up for me to see, and exclaimed, “No passport! He is a citizen of the world!” Absurdly, many of these babies do not hold citizenship anywhere. The danger of arrest and the passport issue have made it dangerous, and for many, impossible, to return home. Those few that have been able to go home for a visit spoke to me of strained relationships in their families, or of family members in jail. Without a doubt, many Turkish Hizmet-affiliated teachers and administrators in Nigeria are homesick, worried about relatives at home, and grieving for Turkish staples such as feta cheese and olives that are hard to find in some regions of Nigeria. Turkish delicacies aside, their religiously-inspired hizmet, or service, has required quite a sacrifice.
The short answer is that some poor people do carry out criminal activities to access resources, and some wealthy people do as well, in order to hoard those resources. Nigeria has suffered for decades from acute corruption, economic inequality, and state instability. Even the recently-elected President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledges Nigeria’s tradition of bribery, skimming, and overcharging, and laudably, has recently launched anti-corruption measures. With all of its human and natural resources, the West African country has witnessed its share of Christian/Muslim conflict, the violence of internal displacement, poverty, and forms of social injustice. Reflecting this, life expectancy at birth is only 52 years, and the literacy rate stands at 59.6 %. Over two million internally displaced persons languish in camps.
Oil is Nigeria’s main export, and a primary area of conflict is who will exercise control over the oil-rich delta. The self-termed “Delta Militants” responsible for the abduction are likely one of the many Niger Delta militant groups, who have stated that they are fighting to force the government to grant more resources to local communities. It is also possible that they were mere criminals, using kidnapping as a means to make easy money. It is hard to pin the blame for the abduction on any one party; the eight were kidnapped because of the instability in the country.
Political scientist William Hansen explains that for some radical extremists in Nigeria suffering from poverty and life in rural regions, violence is a form of class warfare and an expression of anger against the state. While the Niger Delta Militants may perceive themselves as “avengers” against those who have wronged them first, these militants are perpetuating, along with the state, Nigeria’s dialectic of violence which leaves the country impoverished and its people psychologically traumatized. Unfortunately, in this case, innocent young schoolgirls and their caretakers paid the price. Terrorized, the girls will likely sleep with the lights on for a long, long time.
While I will not soon be able to forget the anxious expressions and courageous smiles of those girls and their teacher, it gave me some pleasure to hear that their school recently threw them a “survivors’ party,” celebrating their will to move forward. Hizmet’s projects in Nigeria, including high quality educational institutions and centers for interfaith dialogue, are also moving forward and will contribute in positive ways to Nigeria’s future. However, Turkish participants there were shaken by the ordeal of those kidnapped, and likely concerned for their own security and that of their students in the future months. Many of the Turkish Hizmet participants with whom I spoke expressed gratitude that the Nigerian government continues to allow them to reside and work there, despite any challenges. “I am Nigerian now!” more than one Turkish person claimed during my visit.
The monstrous abduction of the schoolgirls represents only a fraction of the hundreds of abducted persons in Nigeria every year. Solving this predicament requires training the next generation to run the country efficiently and fairly, the equitable distribution of resources, and job creation. While their Turkish friends contribute modestly towards the development of Nigeria through educating some of that country’s youth, it is the Nigerians, with the support of the international community, who will have to come together to achieve this goal in their own way.
 Population 186,053,386. CIA World Factbook: Nigeria, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ni.html.
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