Tuesday, 09 March 2021 04:51

[OPINION] Keeping Schools Safe in the North - Reuben Abati

On April 14, 2014, 276 Nigerian female students of the Chibok Girls Secondary School were abducted by Boko Haram terrorists. It was a very disturbing moment for Nigeria and the rest of the world. Most of the abducted girls were Christians. Six of them reportedly died. About 57 escaped subsequently, but till date, more than six years later, many of the Chibok girls are still in captivity. Four years later, on February 19, 2018, history repeated itself. About 110 school girls were abducted from Government Girls Science and Technical College, Dapchi, in Yunusari Local Government Area of Yobe State. Following negotiations between government and the abductors, 104 girls were released about a month later, on March 21. One of them Leah Sharibu, is still in captivity because she refused to renounce Christianity. She is a prisoner of faith and victim of the Nigerian problem.

 

In December 2020, more than 300 boys were abducted from the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara, Katsina State. 344 boys eventually regained freedom. The Katsina State Government had to negotiate with the bandits. There was also Kagara, Niger State. On February 16, 2021, 27 children were kidnapped in a night-time raid on a boarding school, along with 12 of their relatives and three staff members.  On February 25, 2021, the terrorists struck again. They kidnapped 317 girls from the Girls Science Secondary School, in Jangebe, Zamfara State. 279 girls have since regained their freedom.  There have been in-between many other cases of abduction of boys, girls, men and women in parts of Northern Nigeria, but the aforementioned specific examples have been cited because of the recurrent pattern that they present. Altogether, they paint a picture of anguish, and the tragedy of the failure of the state to protect young, vulnerable Nigerians, and even the old, and all citizens generally, from the menace of terrorism.

 

Boko Haram, the name by which the local terrorist group in Nigeria is known is propelled by the ideology that “Western education is a sin”. This clearly explains the focus on schools, particularly boarding schools. In each of the cases - from Chibok to Jangebe, the terrorists targeted boarding schools, and abducted young children between the ages of 11- 18. In terms of numbers, young girls have been the majority of victims. They are dehumanized, raped, subjected to the most inhumane conditions possible, turned into sex slaves or even forcibly put in the family way by their abductors. They are carted away over long distances, and security agents are unable to intercept the unholy movement by gun-wielding criminals. After a pattern, the authorities suddenly raise an alarm when the incident has occurred, only to embark on the same routine: assurances that the students will be rescued, reports of negotiations with the bandits, eventual release of some or all of the abducted students, reunion with their parents, and shallow promises that the government will take every step to keep our schools safe. Oftentimes, indeed, in virtually every case, there are discrepancies in the reported numbers. Nigeria is one country where a human being can disappear, say from a school, and there will be no record, absolutely no trace of that person’s existence on the register. I mean, yes, literally. What do you expect in a country where population data is unknown and identification is a problem?   

 

This is tragic. The North is the most educationally disadvantaged part of Nigeria. Most of the over 15 million children that are out of school, are from the North. And now the ones that are in school face the constant threat of abduction. No one should be surprised that some of the students who recently regained their freedom declared that they would rather not go back to school. They are traumatised. Their parents are scared. Boarding schools have become unattractive. School itself has become a place of fear and danger. Every school that has been a target of terrorist attack, is said to be without perimeter fencing and adequate security. Terrorists stroll in, pack the children and a few teachers like chicken and lead them into the forest. The terrorists may be opposed to Western education, but they seem to be more interested in science schools (Dapchi, Kankara, Kagara, Jangebe). In a country where science education should be encouraged, terrorists are turning science students in the North into objects of trade. No state government, not even the Federal Government has ever admitted that ransom was paid to the kidnappers, but it is very obvious that kidnapping has become a source of livelihood for those we call bandits. It is the new big business, not just in the North, but across Nigeria. Widespread unemployment, poverty, hunger and bad beliefs and choices have turned kidnapping into a lucrative option. Just carry a gun, abduct a few persons, children are easy targets because they are defenceless, then negotiate with government and smile to the bank. Official spokespersons would step forward to make the usual noises that no ransom was paid and that government will not tolerate any act of impunity. Just like that. Lori iro!

 

Governors of the Northern states, according to a report in ThisDay newspaper, March 8, are now taking steps to “tighten security to curb abduction of school children.”   In total, 11 states are said to be adopting measures including the merger of boarding schools, provision of security, perimeter fencing, operational vehicles for the police, sensitisation of school authorities to be more security conscious and so on. I am sceptical. I hope this is not one of those usual excuses to award contracts and profit from other people’s agony. The Northern elite have been holding meetings about how to develop and promote education in the North since 1959. They meet. They talk. Nothing happens. In May 2014, the Nigerian Government embarked on a Safe Schools Initiative in collaboration with the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Global Business Coalition for Education and another NGO - A World At School. This was in response to the Chibok girls’ abduction. The Federal Government of Nigeria committed a sum of $10 million; seven years later, not much has been achieved. The schools remain unsafe. The Jonathan administration also built 165 primary schools across the North – what became known as the almajiri schools with the primary goal of getting children off the streets, and back into classrooms. Many of those schools have been abandoned by the state governments. The children are still out of school. President Buhari most recently stressed the importance of the Safe Schools Initiative. Keeping the schools safe should indeed be a top priority at all levels of government.  But is anyone doing so? If terrorists succeed in instilling fear in children who have a whole future ahead of them and drive them away from the classrooms, then they would have won a major psychological war, with far-reaching implications for the future.

 

There is a lot that government can do to provide security. But the Northern elite must embark on serious introspection. The security of the North lies in education, and that requires ensuring that the emerging generation is given every opportunity to go to school, and acquire skills that can fit into a world that has become more competitive. The Northern elite must be ashamed that right in the first quarter of the 21st Century, - the age of Artificial Intelligence, electronic vehicles, space science and high-end tech -  it is more preoccupied talking about cattle rearing and nomadism! The real revolution that the North needs is greater investment in education and the people. The Governors should stop making empty promises and get to work. Otherwise, when next another boarding school is attacked and school children are kidnapped in any part of the North, we would remind them of their own criminal negligence.

 

 

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