So far this year 14 schools have been burnt down in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state, forcing over 7,000 children out of formal education and pushing down enrollment rates in an already ill-educated region. The Islamic Boko Haram group is widely blamed for the attacks - but the reality seems to be more complex.
In a video posted on You-tube in February, Boko Haram called on its followers to destroy schools providing Western education in retaliation for the alleged targeting of Koranic schools by the military.
At 28 per cent, school enrollment is already lower in Borno than in any other state in Nigeria, according to the Nigeria Education Data Survey 2010. The recent attacks are making it even harder for teachers and aid groups to persuade parents to let their children stay on at school.
We are appealing to parents to keep their children in school and not to be intimidated,â€ť explains Musa Inuwa, Borno state's commissioner for education. State officials are assuring parents that it is still safe to send their children to school and Inuwa has begun visiting schools more frequently to give motivational talks to pupils and staff.The authorities have responded to the crisis by pledging to rebuild all state schools that have been burned or bombed.Five private schools were also destroyed and a teacher at the Success Stars Secondary School, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals by Boko Haram, says his school deserved state funds for rebuilding.â€śMany of our students enrolled with us because the state schools are full - but where is the state now?â€ť he asks.Staff attendance has also dwindled, according to Suleiman Aliyu, headmaster of the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation, a private school offering both Islamic and Western education, which opened to cater for the growing number of orphans in the state.â€śIt happens almost every week that a teacher calls in to say they are staying at home because there is shooting in their area,â€ť explains Aliyu.
So far the school has not been targeted by Boko Haram, but he fears that â€śitâ€™s only a matter of timeâ€ť.The Joint Military Task Force deployed to Borno State to enforce Operation Restore Order in 2011 has stepped up patrols around state schools.Most of the schools targeted by suspected Boko Haram members provide Western as well as Islamic education, sending a message to parents that they must choose only Islamic education for their children.
Although Islamic schools have a long tradition in the region, they are not regulated by the authorities and graduates have no formal qualifications. The system is known locally as Almajari, and boys as young as six are sent to live with a religious teacher, or Mallam, who teaches them how to interpret and recite the Koran for a period of up to 10 years. The system also permits Mallams to send the children in their care out to beg on the streets.
â€śYoung people should be employable. Having only Islamic education will not make you employable, which is why we need to encourage parents to choose Western education for their children,â€ť says Inuwa.Some Maiduguri residents say Boko Haram has been infiltrated by criminals, and it is they who are behind the school attacks.Aisha Alkali Wakil, a lawyer who defends Boko Haram suspects, is one of the few people ready to go on record talking about the group.Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram, was â€śa personal friendâ€ť before he died in police custody in July 2009.â€śHe wasnâ€™t against Western education, and nor are his followers. What he was against is the influence of Westerners on our cultureâ€¦The leaders all have Western education, and their children too are all in Western education,â€ť she says.However, most people feel that it is Boko Haram who must bear responsibility for the attacks on schools.â€śWe know there are people who feel aggrieved,â€ť says Inuwa and she concludes. â€śBut everybody knows burning schools will not solve anything.â€ť