Is education Boko Haram’s biggest victim?

Boko Haram translates as “Western education is forbidden,” so it is perhaps unsurprising that a disproportionate number of teachers become victims of the Nigerian militant group. Hundreds have been killed, while many more have fled the violence.

A UNICEF report in mid-September revealed that Boko Haram attacks had displaced 1.4 million children across the region. Meanwhile, girls as young as 11 have been employed as suicide bombers, sent into crowded market places or mosques to blow themselves up, instructed to take as many others with them as they can. Boko Haram only came to many people’s attention when it kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a secondary school in Chibok.

See: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

But while the mass abduction, the millions displaced, and the relentless suicide attacks have received most of the headlines, the exodus of teachers and the disintegration of the education system could be a longer-lasting legacy of Boko Haram that sets northeastern Nigeria back a generation.

Teachers in the crosshairs

Schools and universities have been particular targets of the Islamist militant group since it began its insurgency in 2009.

More than 1,100 schools have closed or been destroyed since the start of 2015 across the Lake Chad Basin region, which also encompasses parts of neighouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Northeastearn Nigeria has been worst hit. Many of the abandoned buildings now shelter the internally displaced.

Between 2009 and October this year, Boko Haram murdered more than 600 teachers in northern Nigeria, according to the Nigerian Union of Teachers. Another 19,000 teachers have fled their posts because of the violence. About half of the deaths occurred in Borno State alone. Countless more teachers have been threatened, injured or kidnapped.

“Don’t forget, in the northeast, there was a shortage of qualified teachers before the crisis,” stressed NUT President Michael Olukoya.

Living in fear

“I have been a teacher for 20 years now, but I’m always afraid to attend class,” 42-year-old Ahmadu Abba, who works at the Jajiri Government Day School in Maiduguri, told IRIN. “Most of our colleagues have been killed or injured.”

Classes are held just two days a week now, and when school is in session armed guards stand at the entrance.

“If you are inside the school, you feel safe,” Abba said. “But outside school premises is always dangerous because you don’t know what will happen next or if you are being trailed. Many times I have felt like quitting my job because of my safety.”

Government officials declined to comment directly on the security situation but said they had been meeting with community leaders and local “vigilante” groups, urging them to report any suspicious activity.

A spokesperson for Kaduna State’s police command said the unit had organised a series of security workshops with schools and had deployed additional officers to patrol school grounds.

But Olukoya, the head of the teachers’ union, called for more to be done, telling IRIN: “To check further bloodshed and loss of teachers, the federal government must beef up security around public schools across the country.”

Hadiza Bashir, a widowed mother-of-seven, works at a primary school in Maiduguri.

“As a teacher, I’m always concerned about my safety because the insecurity is a thing of worry for all of us in the city,” she told IRIN. “The school I teach [at] has no fence or guard to check those going in and out… anybody can just go in and plant anything.”

Many teachers refuse to even consider working in the northeast until things improve.

“I recently rejected an offer to work at Gashua, the federal university in Yobe State, because of the security situation,” said Shehu Ahmed, a professor who currently works in the northwest. “I felt it would be too risky for me to work there.”

Doctors too

It is not just teachers who have fled the conflict zone. Many doctors have gone too.

Nigeria and India together accounted for more than one third of all maternal deaths in 2015. Nationwide in Nigeria, for every 100,000 live births, 814 women die, according to the latest figures from the United Nations Population Fund. 

There are no figures for maternal mortality rates in the northeast, but they are likely to be disproportionately high, as an estimated 61 percent of global maternal deaths happen in places where there is a humanitarian crisis, according to the UNFPA.

The Nigerian Demographic Health Survey found that 90 percent of women in the northeast who conceived between 2009 and 2013 didn’t have pre- or post-natal check-ups, citing fears of Boko Haram attacks, intimidation by security agents at checkpoints, or destroyed local clinics.

Kabir Muhammed Abdullahi is the Nigerian Urban Reproductive Health Initiative’s team leader for Kaduna State. He told IRIN that if a maternal and newborn mortality study was “thoroughly carried out” in the northeast, the numbers would be even higher than feared.

“This is because people ran away from their livelihoods,” he said. “They are denied access to health services.”

Ninety percent of people who flee have taken refuge outside the camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), making it more difficult for the government and aid workers to reach them with services. Even within the camps, the maternity situation is worrisome.

“There are women delivering in IDP camps without necessary health support,” Abdullahi told IRIN. “These IDP camps don’t have the capacity to provide skilled birth attendants. The government must… intervene to provide effective services so as to save women and children’s lives.”

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