Attacks on schools and students in the northern parts of Nigeria continue to cast a bleak shadow on the fate of education in the country’s most educationally backward region. Already, Nigeria’s northern half is trailing its southern counterpart across all indices of human development. According to UNICEF, 8 out of the more than 10 million out-of-school children in Nigeria are found in the North.
In the past few years, Northern Nigeria has made significant progress in expanding access to education by rapidly increasing enrolment rates, even though issues of quality and standards still remain. The rising incidences of attacks are, however, reversing those modest gains, with far reaching consequences on the region’s economic and social development.
The North faces the triple challenges of illiteracy, poverty and insecurity. Those challenges are mutually reinforcing. Lack of education prevents our children from reaching their potential, exposes them to poverty, and makes them vulnerable to recruitment by Boko Haram and other terror franchises. Only education can break this vicious cycle of poverty and reverse this declining trend.
Yet, Nigerian authorities have responded in predictable fashion. Some state governments have elected to negotiate with bandits by paying huge amounts of ransom in order to free students and prevent attacks on schools. Others did by shutting down schools. None of the two responses is sustainable.
Paying ransom and negotiating with bandits incentivize criminality, while shutting down schools is akin to capitulating to Boko Haram’s objective of ending western education in the country.
It is on record that the Federal Government has ruled out negotiations or any form of appeasements, preferring the hard approach of deploying the military might. But military force alone cannot bring an end to this situation, especially when Nigeria’s military is overstretched putting off fires in more than 30 States. We need a comprehensive approach, one that seeks to address the underlying factors behind this ugly trend and develop appropriate strategies to mitigate them.
Attack on education is a global challenge, especially during periods of conflicts. According to the Safe Schools Declaration, an intergovernmental approach to strengthening the protection of schools from attacks, over 22000 students, teachers, and academics were either injured, killed or harmed in 2019. The Declaration, signed by 107 countries, including Nigeria, seeks to provide global response to issues of attack on education.
Therefore, Nigeria has a lot to learn from countries that built extensive capabilities in dealing with similar emergencies. In the wake of the scandalous Chibok girls kidnap of 2014, Nigeria launched the Safe Schools Initiative to protect our schools from similar attacks in the future, but the fact that cases of school attacks have continued uncontrollably means such effort is grossly inadequate, necessitating a new approach.
At the heart of this new approach is the need for effective collaboration between federal and state governments, local vigilantes and community leaders. The fact that federal and state governments are pursuing different strategies does not augur well for our collective peace and stability. And more often, lawlessness and arbitrariness at the hands of local vigilantes only serve to exacerbate the crisis.
In the short term, authorities should consider merging schools in conflict areas for easy surveillance and protection. Given the overstretched nature of our security resources, it is impractical to protect every school. Merging or moving them to urban areas will make them easy to protect. No doubt implementing those measures will come at great cost and inconvenience, but there is no cost too big to pay to keep our children in school.
In the medium term, the government must invest in acquiring unrivalled deterrent and offensive capabilities by building an efficient early detection and warning system. The government must also develop other measures aimed at preventing those attacks before they occur. These measures should include disrupting the terrorists’ operational and financial infrastructure, and identifying and flushing the criminals out of their hideouts. Long-term measures would then aim at providing economic and social opportunities to our teeming youth and creating a system of safety nets to provide adequate social protection to the poor and vulnerable in our society.
Achieving these will require mobilization of resources at all levels, coupled with their effective utilization. Nigeria’s culture of corruption and mismanagement provides little hope or optimism. But the choice before us is clear, that in this era of relentless attack on education, it is the future of northern Nigeria that is at stake, and we cannot afford to let the bad guys win.