In Nigeria, a war on schools

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On the night of Thursday to Friday, armed men raided the dormitories of a secondary school in northern Nigeria. They then took away more than 317 teenage girls, according to a police count. This is not the first time that schoolgirls have been targeted in this country, the most populous in Africa, whose Muslim north is in the grip of growing instability. This kidnapping provokes the exasperation of the local population, who attacked government officials who arrived there.

In the past, these kidnappings were carried out by the terrorist sect Boko Haram, active in the northeast of the country. But attacks on schools have spread oil beyond the traditional Islamist stronghold. At this stage, the authorities do not accuse the jihadist group but incriminate “bandits” who roam the state of Zamfara, where this secondary school reserved for girls is located.

This region is the regular scene of mass kidnappings for ransom. Looting of villages and theft of cattle are also frequent. This new mass kidnapping comes a week after a similar event further south, in the state of Niger. Dozens of students – this time boys – have been kidnapped. Relatives have since had no news of their children.

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In December 2020, armed groups abducted hundreds of boys from a school in Katsina state, also in the northwest of the country. Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari was just visiting his native region and the affair had created a national outcry, symbolizing the powerlessness of the central state. Boko Haram claimed to have ordered the kidnapping, but the authorities denied. The students were quickly released following negotiations by the local authorities. This Friday, several voices denounced the payment of ransoms, which encourage the next kidnappers.

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Nigeria remains haunted by the kidnapping of high school girls in Chibok, in the northeast of the country, by Boko Haram in 2014, which sparked a worldwide stir. Of the 276 girls kidnapped, around 100 are still missing. The leader of Boko Haram said in a video that his captives would be enslaved, sold or forcibly married.

Schools and education are crucial issues in northern Nigeria, a poor and traditional region predominantly Muslim, where girls’ education is not a given. Government schools there compete with Koranic establishments.

“Global trend”

The battle for education is also taking place in other African countries in the region, also destabilized by the violence. In Cameroon, English-speaking separatists regularly attack schools, accused of indoctrination in the service of the Yaoundé regime. Jihadists in Mali or Burkina Faso also prevent official education in areas they control.

“Like hospitals, schools are no longer spared in today’s conflicts. It’s a global trend, laments Karl Blanchet, director of the Geneva Center for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (Cerah). These attacks undermine the morale of the populations and force them to flee the combat zones. ”

Less publicized than the assaults on health structures, those against schools are beginning to be recorded. Between 2015 and 2019, 11,000 attacks took place in 93 countries, according to a Global Coalition to Protect Education (GCPEA, its acronym)

At the instigation of Switzerland, a network to promote education in countries at war has just been created in Geneva (Global Hub for Education in Emergencies). It brings together academic institutions, donors and several international organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations High Commissioner for
refugees. “Education is often the poor relation of humanitarian responses, in relation to health or the distribution of food”, argues Karl Blanchet, who is a member of this network.

The battle for education

Switzerland also supports schools in the Sahel, like several of them recently visited by Federal Councilor Ignazio Cassis accompanied by Time, in Sikasso, in the south of the country. The region hosts thousands of displaced people driven out by violence in central Mali. Uprooted children are educated in classes of around thirty students, which allows them to catch up with the school program normally provided in rooms accommodating around one hundred children.

In central and northern Mali, Switzerland and its partners are dealing with the jihadists. “We have to, because they are the de facto authorities,” explains Giancarlo de Picciotto, the head of Swiss Cooperation in Mali. They only tolerate Koranic schools but recognize the need for children to learn to read and write. ” To prevent the conflict from spreading throughout the country, continues the Swiss official, “the role of classrooms is crucial. The Malian state can protect its future citizens by educating them and preventing them from being recruited into armed groups. ”