In March 2016, two female minors who had been kidnapped and subject to forced conversion and marriage in Northern Nigeria were returned to their families after unprecedented public pressure. Their plight has put the spotlight on an issue that goes largely unremarked outside of northern Nigeria.
#FreeEse: The Abduction and Return of Ese Rita Oruru
Fourteen year-old Ese Rita Oruru from Bayelsa State in the south of the country, was allegedly abducted on 12 August 2015 by a man called Yunusa Dahiru, also known as “Yellow”. A regular customer at her mother’s food store, he transported Ese, then aged 13, over 800km away to Kano State in the predominantly Muslim north of the country, where she was obliged to change her religion and name, and was “married”.
Multiple attempts by Ese’s family to secure her freedom were unsuccessful and it was only after a social media campaign went viral that she was eventually released on 29 February 2016. In the days following her daughter’s disappearance, her mother Rose Oruru, made a perilous journey to Dahiru’s home area in Kano State to get her back but was insulted and threatened by the village chief. He told her that her daughter had converted to Islam, changed her name to Aisha, and was now “married” and in the custody of the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi II.
Despite warnings not to go to the Emir’s palace, Mrs Oruru went to petition for her daughter’s release. On at least two occasions she was insulted and assaulted by irate youth. Even when accompanied by police officers, she was refused direct access to her daughter and eventually had to return home. Efforts by her father, who also travelled to Kano, also ended in failure.
The turning point came 24 hours after local newspaper Punch launched a #FreeEse campaign that resonated with Nigerians across social media both at home and abroad. Ese was finally reunited with her mother in the capital Abuja on 2 March. Her father later revealed that she was five months pregnant. Court proceedings have been initiated against Dahiru in Bayelsa State, where the evidence will be heard in camera.
The publicity around Ese’s case also galvanised calls for the release of another 14 year-old girl, Patience Paul, who was also abducted on 12 August 2015 in Sokoto State, northern Nigeria. She was allegedly taken by two neighbours who were accompanied by the Hisba (Shari’a enforcement) group and taken to the palace of the Sultan of Sokoto, the foremost Muslim traditional ruler in Nigeria and the spiritual leader of the faith community. Her brother raised the alarm about her abduction on Facebook, but her case only gained traction in the public consciousness after Ese’s campaign went viral. As publicity grew, the Sokoto State Human Rights Commission initiated an investigation into Patience’s disappearance and discovered that she had been “married” to a man who had taken her to Bauchi State. She was traced to the home of a man named Malam Ibrahim, also known as the “king of strangers”, on the evening of 4 March and returned to her family.
These cases highlight longstanding concerns about the abduction, forced conversion and forcible marriage of non-Muslim minors, which is particularly prevalent in rural areas of Shari’a states in northern Nigeria.
“These cases highlight longstanding concerns about the abduction, forced conversion and forcible marriage of non-Muslim minors, which is particularly prevalent in rural areas of Shari’a states in northern Nigeria.”
CSW has documented cases of child abductions since 2004, and in 2010, made a submission to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child that highlighted this phenomenon.
The Complicity of Traditional Authorities
What makes Ese’s case startling is that she was effectively trafficked north from a southern state, and many question whether her plight would have made headlines had the entire event occurred only in the north, where such abductions are generally shrouded with impunity. Parents seeking the release of abducted daughters are generally informed they have converted, been married, are in the custody of local traditional rulers and do not wish to return home. Appeals to law enforcement agencies for assistance generally prove ineffective amidst assertions by abductors that the girls are not minors, and fear on the part of the police of provoking social unrest. Yet under Nigerian law, anyone below the age of 18 is a minor and cannot convert or marry without parental consent. Nigeria’s Penal Code punishes child abduction and carnal knowledge of minors with jail terms and there are also penalties for anyone involved in child betrothal and child marriage.
However, the public pressure for the release of Ese and Patience appears to have taken traditional authorities, who implicitly or explicitly sanction these acts, by surprise, forcing the authorities to tackle the issue effectively. In addition to press and public attention, local NGOs such as Muslim Rights Concern also condemned these abductions. In a tweet issued on 29 February referring to Ese’s case, Senator Aisha Jummai Alhassan, Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, insisted that “no culture, religion or personal conviction supersedes the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
These cases also appear to have emboldened several other parents who had despaired of seeing their daughters again to renew their search for redress. Six have now come forward, each demanding help to ensure the release of their daughters, one of whom was 12 at the time of her abduction.
Tackling Impunity and Legal Inequalities
As in the case of the Orurus, who struggled to get their daughter back even when accompanied by police and who were informed repeatedly to give up on their campaign by law enforcement officials, these cases suggest an inequality before the law that is unacceptable in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic nation. While Boko Haram’s abductions have rightly drawn and sustained headlines, this kind of abduction, which predate those of Boko Haram, receives insufficient coverage. The only difference between the two is that instead of trafficking girls to ungoverned spaces, these abductors attempt to hide behind traditional authorities who may or may not have condoned their actions.
Our fervent hope is that Ese and Patience’s case will spur the Nigerian authorities to be proactive in ensuring the swift return of all abducted minors and in prosecuting the individuals, local authorities or organisations that are complicit in such activity.
“Our fervent hope is that Ese and Patience’s case will spur the Nigerian authorities to be proactive in ensuring the swift return of all abducted minors and in prosecuting the individuals, local authorities or organisations that are complicit in such activity.”
No parent should have to struggle the way the Orurus did to get their daughter back. The culture of impunity surrounding child abductions in northern states must urgently be brought to an end.
By Kiri Kankhwende, CSW’s Senior Press Officer
A version of this article was first published by Christian Today