Boko Haram insurgents operating in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger are so committed to keeping children from attending school that their Hausa name translates to “Western Education Is Forbidden.”
And a new UNICEF report released Tuesday claims they are achieving that goal: More than 1 million children in the Lake Chad region have been kept out of school by the group. Across the four affected countries, 2,000 schools have been closed and hundreds more have been attacked or burned by the group, which wants to establish a caliphate in Nigeria’s northeast and surrounding territory.
These numbers are particularly alarming because Boko Haram, which gained notoriety in the West after militants kidnapped more than 260 girls from their boarding school in the Nigerian town of Chibok last year, has survived in large part by preying on the poor and disaffected.
While other terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, have profited by kidnapping Western aid workers and journalists and then negotiating large payments for their release, Boko Haram has often targeted local communities by kidnapping the poor for meager ransoms. More than 10,000 are thought to have been killed by the group.
Boko Haram’s very emergence can be credited in part to the Nigerian central government’s failures to provide economic opportunity in the country’s northeast, with many children living in the region lacking access to schooling even before the group began to gain strength six years ago.
According to UNICEF, the 1 million now kept out of school by the group adds to a total of 11 million children from the four countries who were out of primary school even before the group launched its war against government structures. Some 600 teachers have been killed by the insurgents in Nigeria alone. Many classrooms are severely overcrowded, and other school buildings are now being used to house the displaced.
And now the United Nations is warning that unless the group is defeated, the next generation of children from the Lake Chad region will be at risk for radicalization or other social unrest.
“Schools have been targets of attack, so children are scared to go back to the classroom,” Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s West and Central Africa regional director, said in a written release accompanying the report. “Yet the longer they stay out of school, the greater the risks of being abused, abducted and recruited by armed groups.”
Earlier this year, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who beat out incumbent Goodluck Jonathan last March after running on a campaign of increased security, gave his military a December deadline to beat back the group.
But even with some assistance from the United States, United Kingdom, and France, that goal looks increasingly unrealistic. A multi-regional military task force has dismantled some of the group’s strongholds, forcing the extremists to rely on asymmetric tactics. Those attacks, in turn, are increasingly involving children: On Monday, two teenage girls detonated themselves in a bloody suicide attack, killing nine and injuring dozens in the northeastern Nigerian district of Benisheikh.
Photo credit: AFP PHOTO/OLATUNJI OMIRIN