Hundreds of teachers have been murdered and millions of pupils terrorised in central Africa.
Children are the hidden victims of Boko Haram’s violent campaign to create an Islamic “caliphate” in Nigeria. A million youngsters have been forced out of school by terrorist attacks on civilians in the northeast of the country, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
“It’s a staggering number,” said Michael Fontaine, Unicef’s West and Central Africa director. “The conflict has been a huge blow for education in the region. Violence has put many children out of the classroom for more than a year, putting them at risk of dropping out of school altogether.”
A Unicef statement said before the Boko Haram attacks started, 11-million children of primary school age were already denied education in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, the countries affected by the conflict.
Unicef said that more than 2 000 schools in the four states remained closed because of Boko Haram-inspired violence, some for more than a year, and that hundreds had been attacked, looted or set on fire. In the far north of Cameroon, only one of the 135 schools closed in 2014 had reopened.
Boko Haram regards Western-style education as contrary to the dictates of Islam, and has specifically targeted schools, schoolchildren and teachers. Its name is usually translated to mean Western education is a sin.
In April 2014, it shocked the world by storming a school in the town of Chibok, in the remote Nigerian state of Borno, and abducting 276 schoolgirls who were preparing for end-of-year exams. It later announced they would be forcibly converted to Islam and enslaved.
Since the insurgency started in 2009, it has killed an estimated 20 000 people and displaced 2.3-million from their homes.
In March last year, it announced its allegiance to the Syrian/Iraqi extremist group Islamic State.
Outlining its efforts to re-establish schooling in the crisis-hit region, Unicef said it had helped 170 000 children restart schooling in safer areas. But many classrooms were severely overcrowded, as some school buildings were still being used to house large numbers of refugees from the conflict.
Some displaced teachers who had themselves fled the fighting were involved in providing schooling and were working double shifts to increase pupil numbers.
Unicef said it had trained teachers in how to give children psychosocial support and provided 132 000 uprooted children with learning materials. But many teachers were too frightened to resume teaching and in some areas parents did not want to send their children back to school.
In Nigeria alone, the agency said about 600 teachers had been killed since the start of the insurgency.
“The challenge we face is to keep children safe without interrupting their schooling,” said Fontaine. “Schools have been targets of attack, so children are scared to go back to the classroom; but the longer they stay out of school, the greater the risk of being abused, abducted and recruited by armed groups.”
Unicef complained that funding shortfalls were also affecting its ability to provide education and deliver emergency schooling materials. To date, it had received only 44% of the funding required in 2015 to meet the humanitarian needs of children in the four violence-plagued countries.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has highlighted the detrimental effect of the violence on human rights in Cameroon, calling on the authorities to “come clean” over the fate of 130 people rounded up and detained by Cameroonian forces a year ago following security operations against Boko Haram.
Amnesty said more than 200 boys and men were arrested in the villages of Magdeme and Doublé on December 27 2014, in an operation in which at least eight were killed, including a child, more than 70 buildings were burned down and “many possessions were stolen or destroyed by the security forces”.
The government has admitted that 70 suspected Boko Haram members have been arrested, 25 of whom died that night in custody. The where-abouts of at least 130 others are still unknown.
“One year after they went missing, the families of these boys and men are still waiting to discover their fate,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty’s Central Africa researcher.
“Similarly, the identities of the 25 detainees whom the authorities claim died in a cell at the gendarmerie headquarters in Maroua have not been revealed.
“The fight against Boko Haram should not serve as a pretext for enforced disappearances. The families of those who died and those whose fate is still unknown must be informed.”
A 51-year-old woman, whose house was looted and burned down by security forces in the December 2014 raid, told Amnesty that seven family members were arrested and driven away in trucks. “Since that day, I have not seen or heard from my husband, my two sons, my two brothers and my two sons-in-law despite all my efforts to find them,’’ said the woman, who was not identified.
Last September, Amnesty documented how Boko Haram has killed more than 400 civilians in northern Cameroon. In response, the security forces raided villages, destroyed homes, killed civilians and detained more than 1 000 suspects.