Why target innocent schoolchildren when your gripe is with the government?
Nigerians are again asking this question after another devastating attack on a school in Yobe state in northeastern Nigeria, in which at least 47 boys were killed.
A suicide bomber entered the Government Comprehensive Senior Science Secondary School in the town of Potiskum on Monday, apparently carrying a school rucksack, which was detonated while the schoolboys were holding assembly.
This is just one in a series of attacks by Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful”, roughly translated from Hausa.
Attacks on schools increasing
New data on conflicts in Africa collected by the Sussex-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled) show that “deliberate and recurrent attacks on schools and education” are increasing in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent.
Boko Haram and al-Shabab in Somalia are by far responsible for the highest number of deaths of schoolchildren in Africa.
The situation in these countries seems to be spiralling out of control and human rights activists are at the end of their tether.
Apart from the trauma and the large number of casualties caused by these attacks, in many cases, as in Nigeria, schools are closed down or children don’t attend school out of fear of being targeted. This has a negative impact on education.
“Whatever grievances they have, we don’t see how killing children follows this goal,” says Mausi Segun, Human Rights Watch researcher and author of a recent report on the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria.
Segun says her organisation is calling on the Islamist group to stop attacking civilians, particularly vulnerable groups such as women and children.
“To the state, we say they must fulfil their duty to protect citizens. There was again a clear failure to prevent the attacks.
“Boko Haram continues its attacks because it knows it can get away with it,” she says.
The list of terror attacks by Boko Haram grows almost by the day and it now occupies 15 towns in northeastern Nigeria.
Acled figures show that there have been on average 156 school-related deaths a year in Nigeria between 2012 and 2014 and most of these are linked to Boko Haram.
“Strategies of targeting schools can disrupt pupils, affecting their educational attainment through fear of attacks from both militant groups and security forces,” Acled says in an article on the impact of violence on education in Africa.
The Boko Haram attacks on schools do not only affect Nigeria. School attendance in Cameroon has dropped in the border regions with Nigeria out of fear of attacks.
“Military and state forces that are stationed near schools and university premises are not only subject to attacks but can also create a repressive atmosphere,” Acled says.
Overall figures of education-related violence in Africa show a dramatic increase in incidents and fatalities since 2009, rising from an average of about 30 incidents in the first quarter of 2009 to 330 in the first quarter of 2014.
The only other country in Africa where schoolchildren are targeted on such a large scale is Somalia, where al-Shabab has been wreaking havoc for years.
In Somalia, as elsewhere in Africa, it is not only the militia groups that target schoolchildren, but children also suffer because they are caught up in battles between the military and rebels.
The researchers say that “67% of battles involving schools or educational facilities in Somalia involved state forces, who frequently use schools to establish military bases”.
Generally, conflict affects schools badly when war breaks out. According to the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs, 1?188 schools have been closed in South Sudan, for example, because of the war that broke out at the end of 2013.
In Nigeria, the Safer Schools Initiative, set up by former British prime minister Gordon Brown, now the UN special envoy for education, with the Nigerian government, is said to have collected more than $20-million.
But people on the ground say they can’t see where the money is being spent and the recent attacks could reverse the few gains made by the campaign.
Following this week’s attack, the governor of Yobe announced that schools in the immediate vicinity would be closed.
Asked about this, Segun says the closing of schools is “heartbreaking” as it will affect the already disastrous state of education in the state.
“Already only one out of four children in Yobe state goes to school, so this will aggravate an already dire situation.” She says it is a catch-22 situation when a child’s “right to life” has to take precedence over his or her right to education.
As the attacks continue, there is still no word of the 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in Chibok in April this year.
On October 17, the Nigerian government announced that a ceasefire had been negotiated with Boko Haram and that the girls would be freed, but it appears that the announcement was premature.
The Boko Haram leader, Aboubakar Shekau, has since denied that he was negotiating with the government about the schoolgirls.
But President Goodluck Jonathan again stated this week that his government was convinced that it would “win the war against terror” and that the Chibok girls would be freed.
He launched his campaign for the 2015 presidential elections in Abuja on Tuesday and drew harsh criticism for going ahead with it so soon after the Potiskum attack. – Additional reporting from AFP