Nigeria‘s north-eastern Borno state is closing all high schools amid fears of large-scale attacks by Islamic extremists – an apparent victory for the Boko Haram terrorist network, whose name means “western education is forbidden”.
School officials and teachers said about 85 schools would close, affecting nearly 120,000 students in an area that has the country’s worst literacy rates.
Anger is growing at the military’s failure to suppress an Islamic uprising in the north-east, despite a massive deployment of troops and a 10-month-old state of emergency.
Islamic militants have burned down scores of schools in attacks that have killed hundreds of students. Some schools in Yobe and Adamawa states have also closed fearing attacks.
“We have run out of excuses for our failure to live up to our responsibility to protect our innocent defenceless children from gratuitous violence,” the speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, told legislators at a special session last week to mourn the latest victims – 59 students killed at a boarding school in neighbouring Yobe state on 25 February. Extremists locked some of the students into a dormitory and set it alight.
Tambuwal added that the military and government, including the legislature, must “act swiftly and decisively in the protection of the citizenry”.
The school closures could have far-reaching consequences, including ending the education of some students in a region where few ever have the opportunity to get to high school, said the chairman of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, Chidi Anselm Odinkalu.
“The average secondary school enrolment is slightly under 5% (in north-eastern Nigeria), so I think it’s easy to understand that you cannot overestimate what the consequences of this could be, given the parlous state of education in the region and the fact that, clearly, whoever is orchestrating this is focused on targeting schools, educational institutions,” he said.
The government should consider setting up well-protected camps where children can continue their education, he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Such an “extreme measure” could be justified because “the entire area is a war theatre”, Odinkalu said.
The United Nations estimates that the Islamic uprising has forced 300,000 people to leave their homes in north-eastern Nigeria since 2010, most displaced within the country and some across borders in Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
Nigeria’s military recently claimed successes in aerial bombardments and ground assaults on extremist hideouts in forests and mountain caves along the borders with Cameroon and Chad.
But they were unable to stop extremists who on Friday shot their way into the main military base in the north-east, Maiduguri’s Giwa barracks, where they freed dozens of detained fighters before soldiers repelled the attack. The battle went on for five hours, terrifying citizens who fled their homes. The defence ministry said scores of extremists were killed.
On Monday, students started leaving the University of Maiduguri, saying they feared another attack. At least one student was reportedly killed by a stray bullet in Friday’s attack on the barracks, which is separated from the campus by a riverbed that extremists use to infiltrate the city.
One school headteacher said on Tuesday: “We have all agreed to close by this Friday and see what happens next.” The head spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being fired for speaking to reporters without authorisation.
The Borno state government hopes to keep open a handful of schools in the state capital Maiduguri, where it would be possible for students from other areas to sit regional and national exams scheduled in June, said Malam Ayuba, the head of another school.
Muhammed Karage, headteacher at the Federal Government College high school in Maiduguri, said about 150 students have already been relocated to his school from Federal Government College at Buni Yadi, the school burned down in the 25 February attack. He said that students and staff from other federal colleges were being relocated to the states of Katsina and Kaduna.
The head of a private secondary school said private schools were considering holding exams this week, at mid-term, and then closing down.