So far this year 14 schools have been burnt down in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, northern Nigeria, forcing over 7,000 children out of formal education and pushing down enrolment rates in an already ill-educated region.
In a video posted on YouTube in February, Boko Haram, the Islamic jihadist group based in Nigeria, called on their followers to destroy schools providing Western education.
School enrolment is already lower in Borno - 28 percent - than in any other state in Nigeria, according to the Nigeria Education Data Survey 2010. The recent attacks are making it even harder for teachers and aid groups to persuade parents to let their children stay on at school.
“We are appealing to parents to keep their children in school and not to be intimidated,” Musa Inuwa, the Commissioner for Education in Borno State, told IRIN. State officials are assuring parents that it is still safe to send their children to school, and Inuwa has begun visiting schools more frequently to give motivational talks to pupils and staff.
Eric Guttschuss, Researcher on Nigeria for the watchdog organization, Human Rights Watch, told IRIN: “It’s not just the students at the targeted schools that end up being affected. Targeting of schools can lead children in neighbouring schools to stay home or drop out completely for fear of further attacks.”
The authorities have responded to the crisis by pledging to rebuild all state schools that have been burned or bombed. Five private schools were also destroyed and a teacher at the Success Stars Secondary School, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals by Boko Haram, said his school deserved state funds for rebuilding. “Many of our students enrolled with us because the state schools are full - but where is the state now?”
Staff attendance has also dwindled, said Suleiman Aliyu, headmaster of the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation, a private school offering both Islamic and Western education, which opened to cater for the growing number of orphans in the state. “It happens almost every week that a teacher calls in to say they are staying at home because there is shooting in their area,” he told IRIN. So far, the school has not been targeted by Boko Haram, but the headmaster fears that “it’s only a matter of time”.
The Joint Military Task Force deployed to Borno State to enforce Operation Restore Order in 2011 has stepped up patrols around state schools.
Out to beg
Most of the schools targeted by suspected Boko Haram members provide Western as well as Islamic education, sending a message to parents that they must choose only Islamic education for their children.
Although Islamic schools have a long tradition in the region, they are not regulated by the authorities and graduates have no formal qualifications. The system is known locally as Almajari, and boys as young as six are sent to live with a religious teacher, or Mallam, who teaches them how to interpret and recite the Koran for a period of up to 10 years. The system also permits Mallams to send the children in their care out to beg on the streets.
“Young people should be employable. Having only Islamic education will not make you employable, which is why we need to encourage parents to choose Western education for their children,” says Inuwa.
Some Maiduguri residents say Boko Haram has been infiltrated by criminals, and it is they who are behind the school attacks.
Aisha Alkali Wakil, a lawyer who defends Boko Haram suspects, openly admits that Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, was “a personal friend” before he died in police custody in July 2009. “He wasn’t against Western education, and nor are his followers. What he was against is the influence of Westerners on our culture…The leaders all have Western education, and their children too are all in Western education,” she told IRIN.
However, most people feel that it is Boko Haram who must bear responsibility for the attacks on schools. “We know there are people who feel aggrieved,” said Inuwa, “but everybody knows burning schools will not solve anything.”