Schools under siege in northern Nigeria

Schools under siege in northern Nigeria

Nigerian sisters Hafsat, 14, and Aisha, 13, were asleep in their dormitory when gunmen overran their school in a remote northwest village and snatched them along with 250 other students.

After a week in captivity, they were freed in early March after a truce with their abductors. But that was just the beginning of their ordeal.

Already traumatised, now they fear their chance of an education is slipping away as hundreds of schools shut across northwestern Nigeria following a spate of abductions of students.

"My daughters are worried the continued closure of their school means the end of their education and their future," said Mustapha Muhammad, the girls' father in Jangebe, Zamfara state.

Since late last year, Nigerian gangs have increasingly targeted schools and colleges for kidnap attacks, hoping to squeeze ransom payments out of authorities.

Disruptions to classes in the northwest are compounding education woes in Nigeria, where a jihadist insurgency in the northeast has already curtailed teaching.

In the latest incident last month, gunmen kidnapped 39 students from a college outside the northwestern city of Kaduna. Most of those students are still being held.

"Education is under attack in northern Nigeria," said Osai Ojigho, head of Amnesty International in Nigeria, in the wake of a December abduction of 344 schoolboys in the town of Kankara in Katsina state. 

Northwest and central Nigeria are now a hub for heavily armed criminal gangs of cattle thieves and kidnappers who raid villages, killing and abducting residents after looting and burning homes. 

Schools targeted in the north are usually in remote areas where students stay in dormitories with only watchmen for security, making them easier targets.

Recent abductions by gunmen, known locally as bandits, have prompted six northern states to shut public schools to prevent further attacks.

- Deeper mess -

Since December 2020, some 730 students have been abducted, disrupting the studies of more than five million children, UN agency UNICEF said. 

"With increasing incidents of school attacks and kidnapping of students, the education system will ultimately collapse if nothing is done urgently," UNICEF said. 

The more-than-decade-long Islamist insurgency in northeast Nigeria has also impeded education in the region where literacy rates and school enrolment were already very low. 

According to a 2018 UNICEF report, jihadists killed at least 2,295 teachers and destroyed more than 1,400 schools in the northeast, with most of the schools yet to reopen due to "extensive damage or ongoing insecurity." 

More than 120 students have been killed in jihadist raids on schools in the region, according to an AFP tally. 

Boko Haram was behind the 2014 abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok in Borno state while rival group Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) led another kidnapping of more than 100 schoolgirls in Dapchi in nearby Yobe state.

The abductions and deadly school attacks shocked parents and students, leading to a drastic drop in school enrolment. 

Partly in response to the Chibok kidnapping, in May 2014 Nigeria launched a $20-million Safe Schools Initiative with support from the Global Business Coalition for Education.

But that project lost steam as soon as it took off.  

With UNICEF estimating the north accounts for 60 percent of the 10.4 million out-of-school children in Nigeria, school attacks risk worsening education in the region already struggling to catch up with standards in the more prosperous south. 

"We are already in a deeper mess considering the number of schools closed and the huge number of children staying at home," Mustapha Ahmad, a teacher in northern Nigeria's largest city of Kano, told AFP. 

In February, Kano shut down a dozen boarding schools and sent students home for fear of attacks.  

Those shut down were public schools attended by students from poor families, while children from richer homes attend private schools, said Yusuf Sadiq, a teacher.

"This further deprives poor children's education, the only vehicle for social mobility," he said. 

- Undoing successes -

According to UNICEF, girls account for 60 percent of the six million out-of-school children in mostly Muslim northern Nigeria, where early marriage due to religious and cultural practices often deprives girls of education opportunities.  

Aggressive education campaigns for girls and free school meals have helped to shore up enrolment in the north, but the rising kidnappings were "undoing all the successes recorded", Ahmad said.  

"If the girls' stay-at-home is prolonged due to the state of insecurity, the next option of parents is to marry them off," he said. 

Father of the two girls Muhammad agrees, saying five parents in Jangebe had been approached to marry off their daughters since their release last month. 

Authorities in Zamfara asked the Jangebe schoolgirls to transfer to any day school in their locality, but schools have refused to take them in due to lack of space, said Muhammad.

"Girls are more affected by this sad development," he said. "Because many will be married off by their parents who can't keep watching them at home doing nothing."