Boko Haram violence keeps 1 million kids out of school

People in Gambaru, Nigeria, stand outside burnt houses following an attack by Boko Haram in May 2014. (AP Photo/Jossy Ola, File)

Violence wrought by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria has closed more than 2,000 schools and kept 1 million children out of class for more than a year, according to UNICEF. The deadliest terror group in the world has attacked schools, places of religious worship and marketplaces, and has forced people from their homes, dramatically disrupting children’s lives in the region.

“It’s a staggering number,” Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s west and central Africa regional director, said in a statement. “The conflict has been a huge blow for education in the region, and violence has kept many children out of the classroom for more than a year, putting them at risk of dropping out of school altogether.”

The problem extends beyond Nigeria. UNICEF officials said that some of the 2,000 closed schools are in Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Boko Haram has carried out attacks along the northern borders of Nigeria and people fleeing violence are entering those countries to find safety. Some 135 schools in Cameroon closed in 2014 because of the violence – only one has reopened so far.

Groups like UNICEF are trying to help get kids back into the classroom. It says more than 170,000 children went back to school in northeastern Nigeria with support from partner organizations. But that is only a fraction of the total and the schools face lack of resources and are overcrowded. The agency worries of the long-lasting negative effects of so many children staying out of school.

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“The challenge we face is to keep children safe without interrupting their schooling,” Fontaine said. “Schools have been targets of attack, so children are scared to go back to the classroom; yet the longer they stay out of school, the greater the risks of being abused, abducted and recruited by armed groups.”

The name Boko Haram is a Hausa phrase. Translated it roughly means “Western education is forbidden” or against “Western fraud.” It started in 2003 as a sort of separatist movement that clashed with Nigerian authorities. Its surge in 2009 was followed by a crackdown and eventual re-emergence. That return was marked with more brutality. The 6,664 deaths attributed to Boko Haram in 2014 made it the deadliest group in the world – worse that the Islamic State.

It was the kidnapping of more than 250 school girls in the town of Chibok that brought the group international attention. Then-President Goodluck Jonathan increased the country’s military response, one that was characterized by human rights abuses against civilians and members of Boko Haram. He was defeated in an election this year by Muhammadu Buhari, due in part to Jonathan’s inability to control the insurgency. In his inauguration speech in May, he called Boko Haram the “most immediate problem” facing the country.

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“My appeal for unity is predicated on the seriousness of the legacy we are getting into. With depleted foreign reserves, falling oil prices, leakages and debts, the Nigerian economy is in deep trouble and will require careful management to bring it round and to tackle the immediate challenges confronting us, namely; Boko Haram, the Niger Delta situation, the power shortages and unemployment especially among young people,” said Buhari.

The effort is struggling to put an end to Boko Haram attacks. A trio of child suicide bombers were stopped at a security screening late Sunday. One detonated his bomb, killing himself, the other two bombers, and six more people. Boko Haram has quickly turned to deploying children for its suicide missions, an overall tactic it favors to maximize casualties.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.