Gambians want to enact justice against former president Yahya Jammeh

BANJUL, The Gambia – It’s been more than a year since voters rejected Yayah Jammeh after living under his oppressive rule for almost 23 years.

Lamin Fatty is one of the thousands of Gambians who fled his country while Jammeh’s security forces began targeting dissidents, journalists, homosexuals and others. The climate today under current President Adama Barrow is totally different, he said.

“I can see smiling faces of fellow Gambians interacting freely, mot like before when secret agents were suppressing people’s views on politics and even religion.” said Fatty, who lived in neighboring countries for 10 years. “Freedom is back.”

But now Fatty and others are now demanding justice, too, as they ask what might become of Jammeh and his associates who are now living in exile in Equatorial Guinea.

“We want Jammeh to be brought to Banjul,” said Yusupha Mbaye, 36, who has been confined to a wheelchair since police shot him during a student protest in 2000. “Fourteen of my colleagues were killed as well. I want to know why he ordered his boys to shoot and kill my colleagues. Until that is done, our minds will not be at peace. We need justice and we need it now.”

President Barrow and lawmakers have set up a Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission to compile the testimonies of those whose rights were violated under Jammeh and discuss ways to potentially redress those crimes.

“It is important to have an accurate and impartial historical record of the violations [and] document them for posterity to ensure that never again do we encounter a reoccurrence of such abuses,” stated the legislation that created the commission.

Human rights activists applied the move. “The victims have been patiently waiting for this for long,” Sabrina Mahtani, an Amnesty International researcher based in West Africa. “It’s a positive step towards ending impunity.”

But Mahtani and others were concerned that the commission, which should begin work in the coming months, can pardon those found guilty of crimes during Jemmeh’s presidency if they tell the truth about their actions. Mahtani believed murder, rape and torture were too serious to merit absolution. The commission cannot pardon crimes against humanity.

American lawyer Ruud Brody of Human Rights Watch is working with victims who expect to appear before the commission, said he was sure he could prove a long list of atrocities during Jemmeh’s reign.

“I am working closely with the victims,” said Ruud Brody, who helped prosecutors evidence to convict Chadian dictator Hissane Habre of summary execution, rape and torture in 2016. “We are documenting series of human rights violations perpetrated by the former president and his close aides. This has given us a clear picture of what happened and how we can achieve justice for the victims.”

The process has already started. Last month, President Donald Trump froze Jammeh and his affiliated company’s assets in the US, saying Gambian officials had listed $50 million he’s absconded in public funds. In announcing the move, the U.S. Treasury cited a string of human rights abuses under Jammeh, including using his elite force, the Junglers, to assassinate enemies and sow terror.

It’s not clear if Gambians will ever get closer to Jammeh than his bank accounts, however.

The president of Equitorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, is a ruthless dictator who has been in power for 38 years. His country never joined the convention that accepts jurisdiction of International Criminal Court, so he has no obligation to extradite Jammeh.

Amadou Scatred Janneh, 55, a leading member of the #Jammeh2Justice campaign that advocates for bringing Jammeh back, said he and his supporters would still try to convince other regional leaders to put pressure on Obiang to send their former president home.

“Yayah Jammeh must be charged and tried for the gross violations of human rights committed under his direction,” said Janneh. “We will not rest until Jammeh gets a fair trial, something he denied us his victims for 23 years. We will continue to mount both political and legal pressure to see him extradited to face justice. Putting Jammeh on trial is the only way to end impunity in The Gambia and Africa as a whole.”

Mohamed Sandeng, a college student, agreed. His father, political activist Solo Sandeng, died in detention in 2016 after he was arrested at an opposition rally in Banjul. The family exhumed Sandeng last year. A medical examiner determined that state officials tortured and murdered him.

The younger Sandeng believes some of the men who killed his father are now due to appear before the commission. “My family is still trying to accept the reality of living without the head, my father,” said the 20-year-old. “He needs to face justice for the soul of our father to rest in peace.”

An alternative version of this story can be found here.

Cape Town dangerously close to running out water

SA131209aa002JOHANNESBURG – Murad Ebrahim turned on the shower in his gym locker room. The newly-installed showerhead delivered a gentle stream, then shut off shortly after.

“Two-minutes showers,” said Ebrahim, 39, a publishing house executive. “You barely get to soap your body.”

In his and the other shower stalls in his Cape Town gym, buckets catch any excess water that doesn’t go down the drain. When they fill up, the gym gives them to customers for flushing toilets.

Cape Town and the surrounding region of South Africa is suffering from a severe drought. Three years of low rain levels and an unseasonably dry winter means that average dam levels are hovering just over a quarter full. The metro area of 3.7 million has less than 90 days’ worth of water in its reservoirs.

Locals and visitors to South Africa’s most popular city for tourists can only use 13 gallons of water per day starting in February. For those who consume more, the city’s water utility will charge a special levy that is three times higher than the current rate.

The average American uses 88 gallons of water per day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Residents here are awaiting “Day Zero,” or the day when water supplies in Cape Town’s reservoirs drop below 13.5 percent. Mayor Patricia de Lille estimated recently that Day Zero will likely be on or around April 21. Low rainfall and high consumption, despite the city’s best efforts to promote conservation warn the public, are taking their toll, she said. 

“We have reached the point of no return. Despite our urging for months‚ 60% of Capetonians are callously using more than the 87 litres [23 gallons] per day,” De Lille said in a January 18 news conference. “It is quite unbelievable that the majority of people do not seem to care and are sending all of us headlong towards day zero. At this point we must assume that they will not change their behavior.”

The city has already designated 200 collection point where Capetonians will stand in line, under army and police supervision, to collect 6 gallons of water daily meant for washing, cooking and personal hygiene. Each collection points will accommodate around 20,000 people per day.

The city has options to address the crisis, said Kevin Winter of the University of Cape Town’s Environmental and Geographical Science Future Water Institute. “There’s an extraordinary amount of commitment from city officials and they will be really unlucky to get to day zero,” he said.

Winter has been working with the city to find alternative water sources, most of them aquifers, or water saturated in rock deep in the ground. Millions of gallons of water could be in the region’s aquifers, he said.

“We know where the high storage of water lies. We know how far to dig. We know the amount of water that is stored there,” said Winter.

Digging for water doesn't come cheap, however. The Cape Town water utility’s deficit has ballooned to $138.3 million, or more than half the total budget for the year. based on the latest consumption figures for October 2017, said officials. That number is widely expected to rise further.

There have been calls from the public that the city should have had better contingency plans for a drought, given the Western Cape is a water-scarce environment with a Mediterranean climate. But Winter explained that the chance of the region experiencing a three-year drought, given the historical data was one in 1,000.

Cape Town even received a C40 Cities Bloomberg Philanthropies Award in 2015 for its conservation program, beating 91 cities.

In the meantime, many Cape Town residents are making do.

Roxanne Josephs, 29, and her dog, Ruby, have both cut down on their shower time. She washes Ruby only once or twice a month.

“I’ve started using baby powder on her because we walk, run and hike a lot,” said Josephs, a law student at the University of South Africa. “I also only take her out when it’s cool outside, so she doesn't need as much water and the same applies for me.”

As Josephs’ experience illustrated, the silver lining is that during crises like these, people and cities change the way they think about how they interact with the environment and how we become more water efficient, said Winter.

“Sometimes you need a crisis to become a reality to see a change,” he said.

Another version of this story can be found here. 

Female genital mutilation condemned by teenage girls and activists

Iten, Kenya – A Pokot woman sits with others at Kaptul village in northwest Kenya. Many here have been forced to undergo FGM per local customs. More than 2,000 girls from the community are still recuperating in the bush out of fear of being arrested by authorities. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo)ITEN, Kenya –Rachael Chepsal, 14, clutched her Bible as she recalled her terrifying ordeal of undergoing female genital mutilation without anesthetic last month.

“I’m still feeling the pain,” said the girl, who lives in Kaptul, a village in northwestern Kenya. “The old woman used a sharp knife that was not sterilized. When I was cut the blood flew. I was terrified because it was not something I chose.”

Chepsal is among more than 2,000 girls from the ethnic Pokot community sent to this remote town by their parents to lay low while they recuperate from the procedure, which has been illegal in Kenya since 2011, said village elders and others.

The surgeries normally take place in August and December when schools are closed.

Chepsal is in seventh grade. Her aunt made arrangements for traditional women circumcisers to abduct her from a local market last month They bound her legs with ropes and forced her to succumb to the operation. “I was in great pain,” she sobbed. “I cried until I passed out. I bled profusely. I was thereafter treated with herbs, salt and water.”

FGM is a global problem. More than 200 million girls and women around the world suffer the consequences of genital mutilation, according to estimates by the United Nations. The agency predicts that if the current trends continue, 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be subjected to FGM by 2030.

In Kenya, 21 percent of women admit that they are circumcised, according to Plan International, a humanitarian organization. The prevalence of female circumcision varies widely by background characteristics. Eleven percent of women aged between 15 to 19 years are circumcised. More than 40 percent of women between the ages of 45-49 years are circumcised.

“FGM is illegal in Kenya, yet the problem is not widely enforced,” said Lindsey Pluimer, founder of With My Own Two Hands, a non-governmental organization that provides education to Maasai girls. “These communities live in rural parts of the country and it is hard to enforce since they reject the modern aspects of Kenya society.”

Joseph Lorot, 70, a Pokot elder, said the cutting wouldn’t stopping because it’s deep-rooted in the African culture.

“Some parents still believe that their uncircumcised girls will not be married,” said Lorot, who hosts five girls who are recovering from the procedure in secret. “Men from these communities are making the situation worse by shunning these girls. Men who decide not to marry uncircumcised women are rejected by the community and denied inheritance.”

Traditional women circumcisers, who are paid at least two goats or $30 dollars to perform the ritual, maintained that FGM was the only rite of passage into womanhood and the procedure also controls sexual arousal outside marriage.

“I don’t think anybody can stop the practice,” nodded Lucy Chenagat, a traditional circumciser. “It’s our culture. We cannot live without it. Some of the people who are telling us to stop the practice are already circumcised and their daughters have been cut. Why shouldn’t they allow others to be cut?”

However, experts have warned locals of the dangers associated with FGM.

“There are risks of infection and the possibility of bleeding to death,” noted Pluimer. “This procedure has been done on pregnant women as well. Women who have had FGM are significantly more likely to experience difficulties, including high rates of c-section, during childbirth, and the babies are more likely to die as a result of the practice.”

Meanwhile, members of the ethnic Samburu community in northern Kenya are giving up the long-practiced tradition of circumcising girls as a rite of passage. Local Samburu schools now offer alternatives to female genital mutilation, like coming of age ceremonies. Samuel Leadismo, a Samburu warrior, is leading the fight against the practice.

“I’m helping my community to ensure there are no cases of early marriages, female genital mutilation and also school dropouts,” said Leadismo, the director of Pastoralist Child Foundation. “FGM in Samburu community has gone down. I will not allow the practice to continue in my community because I know the effects of FGM.”

Some girls in the Maasai, Pokot and other ethnic groups hope that open-mindedness would come to their communities soon.

“It was a bad experience for me,” said Chepsal.“I don’t want my sisters to go through the same experience. FGM can kill. I saw young girls crying in pain and no one could assist them. This practice should be stopped.”
Another version of this story can be found here.

U.N. staff still rape despite pledges by U.N. leaders to end the abuses

CAR20160323CL002BANGUI, Central African Republic — The United Nations became embroiled in one of its worst scandals in 2014 when shocking allegations surfaced that U.N. peacekeepers were raping women and children in this impoverished, war-battered nation.

Today, blue-helmeted soldiers and U.N. staff still rape with impunity despite pledges by U.N. leaders to end the abuses, victims allege.

"I am ashamed of the so-called international community," a tearful Marie-Blanche Marboua said as she described how a U.N. soldier raped her 10-year-old son a year ago in Bouar, 300 miles from this capital city. "My son is still traumatized."

"I have realized that nothing must be expected from these white people," she added. "Now, I put everything in the hands of God.”

The U.N.'s international peacekeeping forces were sent to Central African Republic to stabilize the country after more than a decade of civil war. While there, soldiers sexually abused hundreds of boys, girls and women, according to child rights organizations and the U.N.'s own records.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged the exploitation and pledged when he took office a year ago to crack down. In August, he appointed a victims’ rights advocate.

“Sexual exploitation and abuse have no place in our world,” Guterres said in September. “It is a global menace, and it must end.”

Last year, U.N. officials pledged to improve funding and staffing for sex abuse cases. Atul Khare, under-secretary general, said those efforts have led to a 50% drop in assaults on children by peacekeepers across the globe during the first 11 months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016.

"We believe our new strategy is bearing some initial fruit," said Khare, who conceded that "even one allegation is one too many."

Uwolowulakana Ikavi-Gbetanou, a spokeswoman for U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bangui, said abuse cases have declined in this country because of new steps, such as more training of personnel and aggressive investigations of allegations. She said the U.N. also is increasing outreach to local communities to help them report abuses and provide immediate assistance.

Even so, the U.N.'s own watchdog said in a June report that while progress has been made, much improvement is needed, including recording complaints and following up on accusations.

Human rights groups dispute claims of fewer assaults, saying the U.N. still does not have an accurate account of abuse victims.

"The U.N. is claiming things are getting better, but it is in complete control over the assessments of people coming forward, said Paula Donovan, a former U.N. official who is co-director of AIDS-Free World, which tracks peacekeeper abuses. "They are police, judge and jury."

The number of victims is far higher than the U.N. reports, said Remy Djamouss, president of the Center for the Promotion and Defense of the Rights of Children in Bangui. His group takes the testimonies of children abused by peacekeepers.

Some victims and their families fail to report assaults because they don't know how to file a claim, believe there won't be an impartial investigation or fear reprisals. "So people are not coming forward," Donovan said.

One 17-year-old girl said she did not report being raped at gunpoint in June by two peacekeepers in the city of Bria because sexual assault by U.N. soldiers is so common. She said many friends and neighbors ended up having children as a result of being raped by peacekeepers.

“I did not tell people that I was raped by the peacekeepers because they would make fun of me," said Merveille, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy as a sexual assault victim under USA TODAY's policy.

Another young victim is still waiting for justice. The 13-year-old girl said she was attacked two years ago at Camp M'Poko near Bangui’s international airport.

"Three white soldiers told me to come get candies and cookies," recalled Joanna, whose last name also is being withheld. "One of them covered my mouth with his hand and then the two raped me. I want these people to be punished.”

Peacekeeping soldiers, who come from dozens of countries, usually are sent home when they face sexual abuse allegations, as required under U.N. rules. That policy has become a shield for alleged abusers, according to child advocates.

For example, after France withdrew its troops from a non-U.N. peacekeeping mission here in 2016, French prosecutors declined to file charges against soldiers accused of raping six children, ages 9 to 13, in 2013-14.

"The victims come to tell us how a white soldier did this, another did that,” said Claudia Toussonekeya, an attorney with the Central African Women Lawyers Association, which records dozens of complaints of sexual abuse by soldiers and other foreigners in the country.

“We tell them that we can do nothing, and that even (Central African Republic's) justice system cannot do anything. They take it badly, but we cannot do otherwise," she said.

In fact, several peacekeepers have been punished, according to Nick Birnback, chief of public affairs at the U.N. peacekeeping unit.
He said U.N. records show six soldiers serving here were jailed for abuse or sexual exploitation and one was dismissed by his government from 2015 through 2017.

Yet during the same period, according to the U.N.'s own records, there were 255 alleged victims of abuse, 141 of them children.

Birnback said abuse charges against peacekeepers across the globe are handled more aggressively now, with 92% of participating countries looking into allegations, up from 42% five years ago. The average time it takes a country to appoint an investigator has fallen from 79 days in 2012 to eight days currently, he said.

In addition, the U.N. has set aside $1.7 million to compensate victims. "We are witnessing a change in the mindset of both the member states and the U.N. itself," Birnback said.

While soldiers who are accused are sent home, U.N. staff members can be tried locally because most don't have diplomatic immunity. Still, the U.N. doesn't deal with them harshly enough, complained AIDS activist Donovan.

"If you rape a child, you might get investigated, but that is an investigation that will lead to demotion or getting fired, not jail," she said. "They don't want their people spending time in a jail in Central African Republic."
U.N. figures for 2015-17 show that one civilian working for the mission here was sanctioned with a contract termination because of abusive behavior.

AIDS-Free World and other groups are pushing for an independent court modeled after the International Criminal Court in The Hague to handle these cases instead of the U.N. That's because the U.N. often hides information and pretends investigations have already been carried out when they haven't been, children's advocate Djamouss charged.

The local groups want to name and shame accused rapists by publicizing their identities and possibly deter other soldiers from committing assaults. But the U.N. won't reveal identities because it says alleged perpetrators have a right to a presumption of innocence, Djamouss said. To date, not a single convicted rapist has been publicly identified in Central African Republic, according to Djamouss.

Local officials remain silent because they are embarrassed about the scandal and view the peacekeeping mission as a powerful force that provides desperately needed foreign currency for a barely functioning economy, said Pierre Marie Kporon, a researcher at Bangui University who specializes in child rights violations.

"When you touch the international community that pays the salaries of civil servants, you risk having problems even with the government,” Kporon said.

As allegations of rape persist, many people here feel betrayed by an organization that sent troops to make life better for the country's citizens.

"We were told that (the peacekeepers) came to protect us,” said Beatrice Mokoyo, 45, a farmer and mother of seven near Bangui. "Instead, we see that it is the (peacekeepers) who cause the rapes. It makes me sick."

Photo: March, 23, 2016. Gadzi, CAR - Soldiers from Minusca, which in French stands for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Central African Republic, on patrol in Gadzi, a town located 400 km from Bangui.
Credit: Christian Locka/ARA Network Inc. (03/23/2016)

Story/Photo publish date: 01/16/2018

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Legacies of The Nigerian Civil War still stand as Igbo people yearn for new nation

NGR170904AA002ABUJA, Nigeria – During the opening match of the qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup, Chinedu Gabriel, 27, refused to stand in honor of Nigeria's national soccer team.

"I'm not a Nigerian," said Gabriel, a motorcycle parts dealer in a suburb of Nigeria's capital, Abuja. "I'm a Biafran."

Almost 50 years after Nigeria's civil war put down a secessionist movement among the nation's Igbo community – one of Africa's largest indigenous groups – sentiments like that are common among the Igbo who want a state of their own, known as Biafra.

And over the past year, the uptick in armed robbery, ritual killings, kidnappings and separatist agitation have sent tremors across the country as deep-seated frustrations of the Igbo mount.

As a result, with the economy in crisis and the fight against Boko Haram ongoing in the north, Africa's largest nation is being stretched to the limit, say analysts.

"With the Nigerian military trying to contain Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, opening another front in the southeast may prove expensive, particularly now that oil revenue has fallen sharply,” said Jeff Okoroafor, a political analyst in Abuja and head of Opinion Nigeria, citizen's rights group.

The Igbo of southeastern Nigeria first attempted to secede back in the mid-1960s, which triggered a three-year civil war that ended in 1970 and killed more than a million people.

Beginning in the early 2000s, new secessionist calls ramped up again amid frustration over the handling of postwar reintegration efforts. But the new impetus comes from more recent grievances: The level of development in Igbo strongholds mainly in the south pale in comparison to those in Nigeria's north, say locals.

"The Igbo feel they are not part of the government, that government is too far away from them and they are not getting the dividends of democracy," said Okoroafor, who himself is Igbo as is almost 20 percent of Nigeria's 186 million people.

Most of all, with a deteriorating economy that is hitting their strongholds hard, the Igbo leadership says they are driven to fight due to a bleak future outlook for their children.

"Under the present Nigerian government, the Igbo are staring face to face with the brutal reality that the full energy and potential of their youth will never be realized in Nigeria but only in Biafra," said Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, leader of Biafra Independence Movement.

The latest surge in pro-independence centers around Nnamdi Kanu, a Nigerian-Briton, who in 2015 founded the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) to rally independence supporters. He was arrested soon after on charges of treason and spent 18 months in jail before being released on house arrest.

He is taunting the federal government from his stronghold in the south, and inciting unrest, say military officials.

To quell the dissent, the Nigerian government began launching military actions in the region over the past year – especially targeting Kanu: Imposing dusk to dawn curfews in Igbo strongholds following clashes involving the military and members of IPOB, also at his residence.

Known as Operation Python Dance, the military says the operations were training exercises meant to "sharpen the skills of participating troops," according to Army Chief of Training and Operations, Major General David Ahmadu.

But the Igbo disagree.

“The invasion of Nnamdi Kanu’s home was brazen show of military (highway robbery and plunder) and sheer prostitution of power without authority,” said Prince Uche Achi-Okpaga, spokesperson for Ohanaeze Ndigbo, a socio-cultural Igbo organization. “Operation Python Dance is a deliberate ploy to (tie up) the southeast like a conquered territory.”

Peter Okpara, director of internal conflict prevention and resolution at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution in Abuja, says the government is just doing its job by quelling dissent and keeping the peace.

“If care is not taken, it may lead to something much more sinister,” said Okpara.

Some believe all this will come to head as the country heads for elections in 2019. President Muhammadu Buhari thwarted a boycott of local elections in Anambra state in the Igbo south in November: A candidate from the opposition All Progressive Grand Alliance was elected governor.

"After Anambra 2017, in 2019, there’ll be no elections on Biafra land,” said Kanu in November. “My message is that there’ll be no elections in Biafra land ever again until they give us date for referendum (on independence)."

Some say that while the pro-independence fight is localized, it is having an impact nationally.

“It was because of the IPOB agitation that the issue of restructuring (Nigeria) is now a national debate – people are now asking for resource control, that power should not be concentrated at the center but with the federal states," said Okoroafor. "Politicians are now bringing up the issue of restructuring as part of campaign promises as they seek to win elections. In a year or two, (there will be more pressure to) devolve of power in a bid to make the states stronger.”

Meanwhile, people worry about the insurgency's current impact on the country. Combined with an ongoing battle against Boko Haram in the northeast, a global fall in oil prices that has led to mass unemployment and a rise in crime and unrest, they say the government is falling behind.

“There are structural challenges that are leading to some of this,” said Okpara. “The hope is that the nation will address those structural problems…and come up with solutions.”

Some believe there is a good chance Nigeria will come out stronger.

“At the end of the day, it is about leadership – I see a prosperous nation that has the capacity to advance, that has the ability to move ahead in terms of development," said Okoroafor. "But we need leadership that can give the people that sense of belonging.” 

On the street, though, there is doubt.

“The way things are going in Nigeria, I’m afraid we may experience another major conflict,” said Chukwudi Abel, a civil servant working in Abuja. “The government needs to act fast to stop the drift toward anarchy.”

An alternative version of this story can be found here. 

A Nigerian girl recounts her horror-filled tale from Boko Haram abduction, conversion and marriage to student life at a university

NGR171201AA005ABUJA, Nigeria – Amina Ali Nkeki was calm as she recalled her ordeal in the captivity of Boko Haram terrorists.

She was 17 when she was among the 275 girls abducted from a school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria in 2014.

“They came in the night. They shot sporadically into the air. They gathered us together. They threatened to kill us if we didn’t do what they said. They quarreled among themselves. At the end, they decided to take us away.”

She suffered sexual assault and other abuse at the hands of the Islamic State-linked militants before she managed to escape last year.

“I never thought I would live to see another day,” she said. "That I am alive today is a miracle.”

Now Nkeki is preparing for another miracle. An American church has agreed to send Nkeki and four other young women who escaped from the clutches of the Boko Haram to Hope International University, a Christian school in southern California.

The Church of the Servant King in Gardena, California has agreed to pay the women’s travel expenses as well as tuition and housing costs that could amount to more than $30,000 a year, according to the university’s website.

The church similarly sponsored 35 Cambodians in the 1980s. Congregants felt like it was time to reach out to someone needy overseas again, said Senior Pastor Rich Read. “We believe Jesus is who he says he is: a man for others,” said Read. “His mandate is to love God and one another. As his followers, we’re trying to express his will. For us, faith is action.”

Nkeki is now studying at the American University in Nigeria, a private school that is unaffiliated with the U.S. government. But when she discovered her good fortune earlier this year, she instantly felt that forgetting her traumatic experiences under the Boko Haram would be easier in the US.

“I just couldn’t believe my ears,” Nkeki said. “I just can’t find words to describe how I felt. It was a message of a new life.”

Most of the Chibok girls have escaped Boko Haram but more than 100 are still missing. Despite the success of the #BringBackOurGirls movement to highlight the plight of the students, their parents are at their wits’ ends.

“We have been trying to appeal to our local leaders but no one seems interested in briefing us about any effort or action by the federal government to secure the release of our daughters,” a group of parents recently wrote in an open letter to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We feel neglected."

Since launching its military offensive in 2009, Boko Haram attacks have killed more than 20,000 and displaced more than 2 million others in Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon and Niger, according a recent United Nations report.

Boko Haram insurgents still run rampant throughout the northeastern reaches of the West African country. But Nigerian forces have been tightening their noose around the group, recently announcing that the militants had been extirpated throughout Borno.

That's cold comfort to Nkeki who hasn't been able to let go of her memories. The Boko Harm soldiers forced her to trek for three days to Mbula, a remote town under their control.

“They burnt down the school library and carted our food supplies,” she continued, recalling the first night she was their hostage. “Boko Haram forced us to trek for over two hours and to sleep under a Tamarind tree inside Sambisa Forest.”

The Boko Haram men then asked the girls to convert to Islam, she said. “They threatened to kill all of us if we refused,” said Nkeki, who is Christian. “After they left we got together. Since there was nothing we could do, we decided to go along in order to save our lives.”

Despite threats from Boko Haram, several girls who were Christian or practiced local religions refused to convert.

“They gathered us together one Tuesday afternoon,” said Nkeki, who refused to convert. “They expressed satisfaction that we have all converted to Islam. They asked us if marriage in Islam is good or not. We told them there was no way we could get married without the consent of our parents. We told them our religion does not allow such marriages.”

Punishment followed.

“For us that refused to marry, they detailed us to do menial jobs in their homes, sweeping, washing clothes and doing dishes,” Nkeki said. “They said as their slaves they can choose to sleep with us. They were passing us around among themselves. We saw it was even better to get married because only one person could be sleeping with us.”

As a result, Nkeki was forced to marry Mohammed Hayyatu in order to avoid being passed around. The son of a Muslim cleric, Mohammed Hayyatu, was disillusioned with his life of violence under Boko Haram, and confided to her that he was fed up with the group. 

He planned to escape.

After the Nigerian military sacked Njimiya, a Boko Haram stronghold, they got their chance.

“The Boko Haram were running away for safety,” she said. “My husband and I saw our opportunity to escape.”

They eventually fell in love but her parents raised hell for Hayyatu after their escape, claiming he abducted Amina. But the relented because she had a baby with him while still in captivity.

She began planning their future.

Meanwhile, Read said the church anticipated helping the women and their children come to the country, but not the husbands immediately. Years ago, they originally planned bringing a few Cambodians to the US but took more eventually as they got to know their guests, he said.

More pressingly, the church is preparing a fundraising drive to help cover Nkeki and the other women’s expenses. Read anticipated reaching their target. The church and the women found each other, he said. Providence would do the rest.

“We think there is help that comes from places that we don’t know about,” he said. “Amazing things can happen.”

Photo: December 1, 2017-Abuja, Nigeria. Portrait of Amina Ali Nkeki, 20, at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in Yola in northeast Nigeria. Nigeria's federal government arranged for the released girls to be admitted into the AUN. Nkeki is currently undertaking a one-year preparatory course in social science. She hopes to study accounting so she can work as an accountant in the future.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Amina Ali Nkeki 12/01/2017

Story/photo publish date: 12/23/17

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

In a Refugee Camp, Classrooms Open Up to Somali Girls

DADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—“Who said girls from Somalia cannot go to school and achieve their dreams?”

Hani Abdalla, a student here who is determined to become a lawyer, posed that question as she addressed hundreds of other young female Somali students on the importance of educating girls.  

Read more at Al Fanar

Somalis Leaving Kenya Face Educational Roadblocks

b_172_129_16777215_00_images_AFR150315aa001.jpegDADAAB REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya—As students in Kenya's education system sat this year for exams necessary to advance to higher grades or graduate with a high school diploma, thousands of Somali refugees couldn't participate, even though they had also taken classes and studied hard.

"My dreams are now shattered," said Mohamed Swaleh. "I have no future right now."

Read more at Al Fanar


Muslim extremists end religious peace in Mali after appointment of Cardinal Zerbo

BAMAKO, Mali — Dressed in a white frock, the Rev. Samuel Coulibaly, a Catholic priest, smiled as he explained how religious communities have long lived in peaceful coexistence in this West African country.

“In each of our families, there are Christians, Muslims and even sometimes those who are practicing the traditional religion” — animism, Father Coulibaly said.   

Read more at The Washington Times

Zimbabweans hoping for fresh start as Robert Mugabe ends 37-year reign with forced resignation

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe's forced resignation Tuesday after 37 years in power ignited cheers from residents in this southern African nation who said the world's oldest leader had presided over a worsening economy and rampant corruption. 

"We feel very excited because we have been suffering for too long," said Victor Chirwa, 47, a school teacher. "I am happy he is gone — and he must go to prison. ... I hope we will be able to lead a better life."  

Read more at USA Today

Zimbabweans hope for fresh start as Robert Mugabe ends 37-year reign with forced resignation

HARARE, Zimbabwe — President Robert Mugabe's forced resignation Tuesday after 37 years in power ignited cheers from residents in this southern African nation who said the world's oldest leader had presided over a worsening economy and rampant corruption.

"We feel very excited because we have been suffering for too long," said Victor Chirwa, 47, a school teacher. "I am happy he is gone — and he must go to prison. ... I hope we will be able to lead a better life."

Read more at USA Today

Joy on Harare’s streets as Mugabe exit ends standoff

    Harare, Zimbabwe - It was an unexpectedly low-key conclusion to an era that many ordinary Zimbabweans were beginning to fear might never end.

Residents of this beleaguered capital took to the streets to celebrate as the news leaked out that autocratic President Robert Mugabe, the only leader most here have ever known, had resigned under pressure, bringing to an end both a weeklong standoff over his presidency and his 37 years running the country.

Read more at The Washington Times

What's next for Zimbabwe as uncertainty prevails over Mugabe's future

    HARARE, Zimbabwe — Talent Zvinorwadza, who has been unemployed for years, hopes that his life will improve following the apparent ouster of the world's oldest leader after nearly four decades of rule in this southern African nation.

"I have a family to look after and I am excited by this development," Zvinorwadza, 35, an unskilled laborer, said following news that President Robert Mugabe and his wife and intended successor, Grace, have been placed under house arrest by the military. "I am looking forward to getting a job very soon."   

Read more at USA Today

Zimbabwe grapples with new reality after military sidelines longtime President Robert Mugabe


HARARE, Zimbabwe — Residents along the streets of this capital city grappled with a new reality Wednesday after the military sidelined President Robert Mugabe, its leader for the past 37 years.

Once heralded for seizing power from British rule and the nation's white elites, the 93-year-old's tenure in recent years has been marked by human rights abuses and economic collapse in what was once one of the African continent's most promising and prosperous nations.  

Read more at USA Today

In Odinga strongholds, Kenyans grapple with frustrating election loss

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_KEN161616aa001.jpegKISUMU, Kenya — Under a scorching sun on the shores of Lake Victoria, fishmongers shout themselves hoarse to gain the attention of fishermen selling their catch. Fishing is the economic engine of Kisumu, Kenya’s third-largest city. But the waterfront has been quiet since election violence hit this opposition stronghold in the lead-up to an Oct. 26 vote that declared President Uhuru Kenyatta the winner of another term in office.

Kenyatta skeptics here see the election as a halfhearted do-over of an August presidential election marred by charges of electoral fraud.

Read more at The Washington Times

Mugabe in custody as Zimbabweans await army’s next move

    HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabweans woke up in a state of shock on Wednesday morning as an apparent “soft coup” against longtime authoritarian President Robert Mugabe continued to unfold.

“He should have left power a long time ago when Zimbabweans were still in love with him,” said Agency Gumbo, 33, a Harare resident. “The army is merely representing the aspirations of the people.” 

Read more at The Washington Times

Senegal tried to crack down on schools forcing children to beg.

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_AFR171717aa001.jpegLooking tired and hungry, Bouba and Moussa Cisse, brothers aged 5 and 7 respectively, were begging recently near the Liberté Six street market in Dakar.

Hailing from the Senegal’s southern region of Kolda, they aren’t the only ones who have come to the country’s capital to earn a living on the street. But they are part of a particular community of mendicants known as talibés. The money they collect on the street goes to their Quranic instructors, known as marabouts, in exchange for teaching, food and housing.  

Read more at PRI

Half of Refugee Children Are Not in School, Report Says

More than half of refugee children worldwide were not enrolled in primary or secondary school last year, says a recent report from the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR.

That means 3.5 million children under UNHCR protection are out of school, says the report, “Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis.” The report, released last month, outlines the state of refugee education in 2016 compared with the previous year using data from UNHCR’s education surveys and population database and UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.   

Read more at Al Fanar

How these African leaders subvert democracy to cling to power for life

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_AFR151515aa001.jpegLOMÉ, Togo — Protesters in this west African capital have been burning tires and barricading roads to force political change in a country ruled by the same family for five decades.

“He must go! We don’t need him anymore,” demonstrator Henri Alifoe, 35, said of President Faure Gnassingbé, who succeeded his father in 2005. "We demand change. He must step down to give others opportunity.”

Read more at USA Today

Kenyan election descends into chaos as top candidate pulls out of presidential race

    NAIROBI, Kenya — Carrying a stick and placard and chanting, “No reforms, no elections,” George Nyongesa vowed not to participate in the do-over presidential elections scheduled for this month.

“I won’t vote again,” vowed Mr. Nyongesa, 27, as he held up a placard of opposition leader Raila Odinga during a recent protest. “I cannot participate in an election that has already been rigged. We have to send electoral officials home before we can go to another election. They are all thieves. They stole our elections.”

Read more at The Washington Times

A Nation Searches for Teachers

 BANGUI, Central African Republic—War made Emma Mbathas a teacher.

Four years ago, armed members of the Muslim militia called Ex-Seleka attacked the 31-year-old courthouse worker’s village of Molangue, a village south of the capital, Bangui.   

Read more at Al Fanar Media

Political divisions, corruption scandals threaten South Africa’s ANC party

The African National Congress led the fight to end South Africa’s racist apartheid regime in the early 1990s and has used that narrative to dominate the country’s politics ever since.

But now the ANC, transitioning a civil rights movement led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela to a conventional political party, is threatening to break apart at the seams amid corruption claims against its embattled standard-bearer, President Jacob Zuma.  

Read more at The Washington Times

Strife in South Sudan Puts Children at Risk

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_AFR171717aa001.jpegTORIT, South Sudan and BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – As he stood waiting for a meal at the Church of SS. Peter and Paul in Torit, a South Sudanese town near the Ugandan border, 12-year-old Teddy Kuol lamented how the civil war in his country has forced him and others to drop out of school.

“I’m not in school right now because of the war,” he said. “There is no bright future for us. There are no lessons going on because soldiers live and operate in classrooms. They have abducted many students and trained them as soldiers.”

Read more at Al Fanar

Ugandans pose as refugees for food because the drought is so bad

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_AFR171717aa001.jpegAs the intense heat of the midday sun beats down, Gladys Nekesa is often found standing in line to receive food at a refugee shelter in northern Uganda.

Nekesa, though, is not one of the nearly 285,000 South Sudanese refugees living in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp. She is a Ugandan from Gulu, a district about 100 miles away from the shelter site.   

Read more at PRI

Mugabe threatens new round of land seizures from Zimbabwe’s white farmers

b_179_129_16777215_00_images_AFR151515aa001.jpegHARARE — Land grabs of white-owned property have hit Zimbabwe for the second time as the southern African country’s strongman, 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, calls a familiar play as he seeks yet another term in office.

Ruling Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 — the country holds regular elections that critics say Mr. Mugabe routinely rigs — the president is evicting all the white farmers remaining in the impoverished nation and giving their highly productive farms to his supporters.  

Read more at The Washington Times

You are here: Home Newsroom Sub-Saharan Africa