Note to Boko Haram: Western education is NOT a sin

Al Jazeera, April 14, 2015

One year ago, on April 14, 2014, 276 teenage girls staying in the dormitories of a government secondary school in Chibok, Borno State, northeast Nigeria, were abducted by Boko Haram. Of the original total, 57 managed to escape, leaving 219 still missing. They remain unaccounted for to this day.

Several aspects of this event were profoundly shocking and disturbing: the sheer scale of the abduction; the lack of security and protection for the girls in a region where repeated attacks on students, teachers and education facilities had taken place; how a “soft target” like a girls’ school could be so easily attacked; the bravado, cruelty and callousness shown by Boko Haram in subsequent communications; and how the national government and Nigeria’s armed forces struggled to deal with this incident.

For the parents and families of the abducted girls, an unbearable situation was made worse by continuing uncertainty about whether they were alive or dead, or whether threats made by Boko Haram – not only to forcibly convert the girls to Islam but also to sell them, marry them off to fighters, or use them in attacks – had been or would be carried out. Such threats deepened the relatives’ anguish by raising the prospect that the girls may have entered the dark realm of human trafficking, one of the main themes of the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice being held in Doha from April 12 to 19.

Social media campaign

Frustrated by the initial absence of an energetic and determined response from the Nigerian authorities, parents and local activists began a campaign to “Bring Back Our Girls”. A Twitter hashtag using that slogan suddenly attracted massive attention, helping to boost the visibility of the girls’ abduction and gaining international support, including from Michelle Obama, Nobel Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai and other well-known figures.

Today, that campaign continues. Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, has witnessed a series of marches, protests and events in the days leading up to the anniversary of the kidnapping, seeking to keep hope alive that the Chibok girls will one day be rescued and insisting that they are “Never To Be Forgotten”.

Meanwhile, the abduction of the Chibok girls has become one of the high profile cases illustrating a phenomenon that has attracted increased attention and concern in recent years: violent targeted attacks on students, teachers and education institutions; most recently, the attack by al-Shabab militants on Garissa University College in northeast Kenya on April 2, in which 142 students died.

Such attacks highlight the fact that, in certain situations, going to school or university can be a high-risk and life-threatening activity. Until a few years ago, very little was known or understood about the nature, scale and impact of attacks on education but, thanks to some initial studies by UNESCO and most recently by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, it is evident that this is a global phenomenon that, along with the wider effects of armed conflict on education, is undermining efforts to make the right to education available to all.

Attack on education 

“Education under Attack 2014” shows that during the 2009-2013 period 30 countries manifested a significant pattern of attacks on education, with six countries – Afghanistan, Colombia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Syria – having been very heavily affected by attacks on students, teachers and education institutions, with over 1,000 victims or incidents. At least 40 additional countries experienced attacks of varying severity during that period too.

While not considered one of the heavily affected countries in the study’s comparative perspective, Nigeria certainly has a growing problem, especially in the northeast of the country.

Notwithstanding the fact that the group’s name is often translated as “Western education is a sin,” Boko Haram’s insurgency initially had not been strongly focused on attacking education. There had been some attacks on school buildings in 2009 attributable to Boko Haram and threats to and bombings of universities in 2011. But it was from early 2012 onwards that one could perceive a step-change in Boko Haram’s strategy through not only increased attacks on education premises but also on students, teachers, university staff and other education personnel.

The outcome was a serious destabilisation of education provision in several states in northeast Nigeria. The inability of state security forces to provide adequate protection to Nigeria’s citizens in the face of the Boko Haram insurgency served to exacerbate these concerns. It was against this background that the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls took place and that subsequent incidents damaging to education and general security in the region have occurred.  

Several features of the Chibok schoolgirls’ case and its trajectory are noteworthy. One was the rejection of the government’s and armed forces’ narrative about the event by the girls’ parents and families, who challenged the “official” estimations of the number of girls who had been kidnapped.

Another was the role of social media in picking up and disseminating this story and turning it from a soon-to-be-forgotten local incident to one that aroused interest, outrage and concern around the world. Also significant have been the periodic communications by Boko Haram itself, particularly through videos posted on social media and then taken up by mainstream media. Their brutal and uncompromising propaganda became a key part of the drama that unfolded and, in the process, showed how extremist groups are proving increasingly adept at projecting their views and messages far and wide.

Silver lining

One important outcome of the Chibok case has been the stimulus it has given to identifying practical measures for protecting students, teachers and educational institutions from violent attack. In particular, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in his role as UN Special Envoy for Global Education, has championed a Safe Schools Initiative (SSI) that, through a multi-pronged approach, seeks to generate rapid action to make schools safer.

Elements of the SSI version in Nigeria have included a transfer programme whereby students are transferred from high-risk areas to locations in safer parts of the country; a school reconstruction model that enhances the security of school premises; and a programme to strengthen school-based management committees so that there are better links between schools, communities and first-responders in the event of an actual or pending attack.

For its part, Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict (PEIC), has noted the kinds of challenges revealed by the Chibok schoolgirls incident and by attacks on education in other contexts. One major challenge is that of monitoring and reporting attacks on education. PEIC is gearing up to create a global data hub/service aimed at improving the collection and sharing of current and emerging information about attacks. Such information will serve to strengthen advocacy, analysis and response, especially through the well-informed design of policies and programmes.

It is clear that the Chibok schoolgirls have not been forgotten. Their exact fate remains unknown but, one year on, many – inside Nigeria and abroad – cling to the hope that they will be released. That hope needs to be joined with positive action to secure their safe return. But one thing we do know is that, if and when they return, the girls will have been changed by their terrible ordeal. Addressing their needs may constitute an even greater challenge than locating them and securing their freedom.


Dr Mark Richmond is the director of Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict, a programme within the Education Above All foundation, Qatar. A former director with UNESCO’s Education Sector, he was the chief editor of Education under Attack 2014.