Thousands of students and teachers across northern Nigeria have been forced to abandon their schools due to increasingly brazen attacks by radical Islamist group Boko Haram (BH), officials say.
In the latest school attack, on 29 September, BH gunmen on four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorbikes stormed student dormitories at a college of agriculture in the town of Gujba, in the northern Yobe State, opening fire on sleeping students and killing 40, according to police and government officials.
“They just opened fire indiscriminately on students in their hostels. They all wore army uniforms and were heavily armed. One of them stood by the door, shooting at students who made for the door to escape,” Musa Bade, who works at the college, told IRIN.
Officials are unable to give the exact number of students forced out of school by the attacks, due to lack of access to remote parts of Yobe and Borno states where BH insurgents are active.
However, Abdullahi Bego, Yobe governor’s spokesman, told IRIN that BH has destroyed 209 schools in Yobe. In Borno, governor Kashim Shettima said in August that the Islamist rebels had destroyed 825 classrooms. A Bono education official told IRIN in May that some 15,000 were out of school in that state alone.
In a 4 October report, Amnesty International said that at least 70 teachers and more than 100 school children and students have been killed or wounded.
“The attacks have generally crippled the education system in northeastern Nigeria. There is a lot of fear among students, teachers and parents. Teachers are not only targeted in schools, but also at home. We know of a case where a teacher was killed at home before his children,” said Makmid Kamara, Amnesty International’s researcher for Nigeria.
“Parents are afraid to send their children to school because they fear that their children may not return home,” Kamara told IRIN. “If these attacks continue, they will further cripple the education system in that part of the country.”
BH began attacking schools in February 2012, when its gunmen burned down three schools in Maiduguri town using home-made bombs. Abul Qaqa, the group’s spokesman at the time, claimed responsibility, saying it was in retaliation for the indiscriminate arrests of students in Islamic schools by government forces.
Initially, the gunmen carried out attacks on schools at night or in the early morning hours before classes so as to not “kill innocent pupils,” according to Qaqa.
But the strategy changed this year. In March, BH killed four teachers and gravely injured three students in three separate attacks on schools in Maiduguri.
On 6 July, the Islamists opened fire and threw explosives into dormitories in a boarding secondary school in Mamudo Village in Yobe, killing 41 students and a teacher. In a 16 June attack on another boarding school, also in Yobe, BH gunmen shot dead seven students and two teachers, according to Lt Lazarus Eli, the state’s military spokesman.
BH also carried out attacks on schools in Kano City, including arson in at least three schools and the targeted shooting of teachers in two others. But the Kano attacks stopped following a heavy security crackdown that drove the rebels from the city, according to security sources.
Bego said the Yobe government would not be intimidated into closing schools following the Gujba student killings, as it did following the July slaughter in Mamudo.
“These terrorists want to intimidate us into closing schools and stopping children from attending school. We will not be intimidated, and Yobe State will not be defined by criminals, insurgents or terrorists,” the governor’s spokesman said.
The government deployed soldiers to all boarding schools in the state to guard against BH attacks.
But Musa Idrissa, a school teacher in Damaturu, told IRIN the troop deployment to schools could not effectively counter the BH attacks or its emotional and psychological effects on students.
“The presence of soldiers in schools only heightens fear among teachers and students because it is a constant reminder of the danger they are in, which affects them psychologically and emotionally and negatively affects teaching and learning. No effective learning takes place in an atmosphere of fear and anxiety,” Idrissa said.
Idrissa noted that BH gunmen dress in military uniforms, which makes it difficult distinguish them from troops. “How can the students differentiate between BH and soldiers in the event of an attack on their school?” he asked.
“We are fighting an unconventional war and an unconventional enemy, which shifts form and strategy and is very mobile. We need public support in reporting any suspicious movement in the community to effectively tackle the terrorists,” Eli said.
Why attacks on schools?
In a video message on 12 August 2013, BH leader Abubakar Shekau said he backed the Mamudo school attack, but fell short of claiming responsibility.
“We did say we were going to burn down schools offering Western education because they are not Islamic schools. They are schools primarily established to wage war on Islam. We fight teachers who teach Western education. We will kill them before their students, and we will tell the students to henceforth go and study the Koran. This is what we do. We will continue carrying out such school attacks till we breathe our last breath,” he said.
However, military authorities say that BH resorted to attacking schools as soft targets following military operations launched in May of this year that they say have weakened the group. The school attacks are also an attempt to scare off youth vigilante groups fighting the Islamists, particularly in Borno State, which BH considers its stronghold and birthplace, says the military.
New military strategy
President Goodluck Jonathan said in 1 October national broadcast that the government would employ new strategies against BH following the deadly school attacks, but did not divulge details. Nigerian troops responded to the latest school raid with aerial bombardments and a ground offensive against a BH camp near Gujba where the gunmen retreated to, military spokesman Eli told IRIN.
The Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in northeastern Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states on 14 May and heavily deployed troops to neutralize BH and dislodge them from areas they had taken over, especially in northern Borno on the border with Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
The strategy has failed to stop the attacks, which have become more frequent and deadlier despite the shut-down of telephone signals to prevent BH from coordinating attacks.
“Although there is increase in troop movement and military hardware deployment in the northeast, people were yet to see the kind of action on the ground that effectively nips criminal and terrorists activities in the bud,” Bego said in a 29 September statement.
Amnesty International’s Kamara called on the Islamists to unconditionally halt school attacks and urged the government to provide better protection for schools. “Attacking schools and killing teachers and pupils is a crime against humanity. The government of Nigeria has a responsibility to protect the right to life and to education.”