About Our Children: Boko Haram's war on education in Nigeria
It was the headline of every newspaper, TV broadcast and social media post concerning Nigeria in early 2014. With over 276 girls kidnapped and numerous families torn apart, it was the largest mass kidnapping to ever reach the world stage. 4 years later, the nation is still reeling from its effects as 112 of these girls remain missing and the unrelenting violent reign of Boko Haram in Northeastern Nigeria continues to grow.
To the horror of both Nigerians and sympathisers of the cause worldwide, on February 19th, 2018 another 110 girls were kidnapped from Dapchi, a town only 275 km away from Chibok; the symbolic birthplace of these tragic events. However, on March 21st, the government released news that the majority of these girls had been rescued and were on their way back to their families. This prompts two crucial questions: if they could be recovered then what does this signify for terrorism in northeastern Nigeria? And most importantly, where are all the other boys and girls who have been kidnapped by the group in the region?
The Stolen Generation
Boko Haram child soldiers (Source: Financial Tribune)
As a result of the Chibok kidnappings, much media attention was given to the cruel acts of violence committed by Boko Haram against girls and women across Northeastern Nigeria. However, they are not the only children who suffered as a result of the insurgent groups' ideologies. Many boys have also been kidnapped and forced to join the group’s troops, with even those as young as five years old being armed and trained. The Human Rights Watch reported in 2016 that over 10,000 boys had been abducted in the span of 3 years (not only from Nigeria, but also neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger). These boys not only replace soldiers but help in raising toddlers to become jihadists. As put by Wall Street Journal reporter Drew Hinshaw, it is a situation of “children raising children to be terrorists.”
Filled with fear and indoctrinated by Boko Haram's violent and radical ideologies, many of these impressionable children assume the role of human shields on the front line or suicide bombers with a promise of martyrdom, meeting an unfortunate end as collateral damage in encounters between the Nigerian Army and Boko Haram. These children are forgotten victims, reduced to mere names among the many taken by Boko Haram, with their faces only remembered among the relatives they left behind. But on occasion, returning to their homes can be an ordeal even worse than death as they are traumatised by the acts they have seen and committed while being shunned by members of the society they used to know.
An Attack on Education
Fear is a powerful emotion. It can strip people of their reason, beliefs and sense of being, making them defined solely by that emotion. Boko Haram, whose name figuratively translates to “Western Education is forbidden”, thrives on its ability to instil fear in the public. Such power leads not only to the loss of children who are abducted by them but a loss of future leaders as constant intimidation and abductions lead parents to withdraw their children from schools and teachers to flee. Local schools which should be a beacon of hope and liberation are rather a painful memory of death and destruction. According to figures provided by The Human Rights Watch, between 2009 and 2016, Boko Haram killed more than 600 teachers and destroyed around 900 schools, causing an additional 1,500 to close. One school owner claimed that after a Boko Haram attack, teachers had to flee to their native or neighbouring states while he temporarily left the country.
A destroyed computer room at Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, following the 2014 attack (Source: Getty Images)
Nevertheless, the attack on education not only comes from Boko Haram, but is heightened by the government’s own strategic response to the terror attacks by commanding some closed schools. Schools do need to be protected but in a method that ensures continued learning for students. The taking over of schools to be used as military bases can make the individual school and those in neighbouring areas higher priority targets, contradicting the aim of The Safe Schools Declaration and the guidelines on protecting schools and universities from military use during armed conflict that is endorsed by the nation. Rather, military efforts should focus more on stationing troops at schools working with and protecting students and teachers from attacks intimidation.
Dapchi, A Chibok Déjà vu
Released Dapchi schoolgirls at the Nigerian Army Base in Maiduguri (Source: pulse.ng)
“The entire country stands as one with the girls’ families, the government and the people of Yobe State. This is a national disaster. We are sorry that this could have happened and share your pain. We pray that our gallant armed forces will locate and safely return your missing family members.”
This quote, taken from the Vanguard, was made by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari immediately after the attack, ordering 24 hours surveillance to recover the girls. However, despite this pledge having been largely fulfilled with the return of 104 of the girls, the attack exposed the defects within the Nigerian defence system. Although this cannot be seen as the primary cause of the event, it remains a fact that schools such as the Federal Government Technical College were left vulnerable, due to Nigerian troops being redeployed shortly before the kidnapping to reinforce another area. This implies that Nigeria is still not fully equipped to deal with the threat of Boko Haram, and is still at as great a risk as a nation as we were in 2014.
The security lapses continue to grow when examining the miscommunication between the Yobe State government and other security agencies. For example, the release of a false report which stated that many of the girls had been freed by soldiers, echoing the numerous claims of false abductions and ceasefires between the government and Boko Haram. Such reports leave the media and public confused, trying hard to piece together the events. The situation in Dapchi is not the same as Chibok or the kidnappings it triggered - it is a statement of Boko Haram’s ability to rock the nation with ease and leave fear in its wake.
The rescuing of the Dapchi girls does represent an important step forward for Nigeria, restoring hope in families that one day their children too will return. However, Boko Haram’s constant targeting of children as a whole is a war on the nation’s education system which extends beyond one successful recovery operation. The Nigerian government must also work to re-establish schools, reassure intimidated teachers and most importantly, regain the trust of parents in the safety they can provide for their children. This begins with returning military occupied schools to their intended purposes and expanding security in the region to prevent a lack of troops in one area from causing a vulnerability at educational institutions.
As the Minister of Information Lai Mohammed said regarding Boko Haram - “their oxygen is publicity”. The increase in sensationalist media due to the government’s own mismanagement continues to fuel this already blazing fire, with the greatest victims being our children.
Abducted by Boko Haram: One Boy's Ordeal (Wall Street Journal video)
"They set the classrooms on fire" - attacks on education in Northeast Nigeria (Human Rights Watch)