Wielding Fire, Islamists Target Nigeria Schools

New York Times, March 24, 2012


Published: March 25, 2012

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — The teenager in the immaculate white robe stood in the ruins of what had been his school. There were no classrooms, no desks or chairs, no intact blackboards — there was, in fact, no longer any reason for him to be there.

Yet the teenager, Aruna Mustapha, and a friend had come to sign in anyway, just as they did every morning before the fire, expressing a hunger for education and a frustration with the insurgents bent on preventing it.

“We can’t stay at home any longer; we want to come to school, to learn,” explained Aruna, 16. “I’m fed up. I want to be in school.”

The insurgent violence stalking northern Nigeria has struck a long list of official targets, killing police and army officers, elected officials, high-ranking civil servants, United Nations workers and other perceived supporters of the Nigerian government.

Now it has an ominous new front: a war against schools.

Public and private schools here have been doused with gasoline at night and set on fire. Crude homemade bombs — soda bottles filled with gasoline — have been hurled at the bare-bones concrete classrooms Nigeria offers its children.

The simple yellow facades have been blackened and the plain desks melted to twisted pipes, leaving thousands of children without a place to learn, stranded at home and underfoot, while anxious parents plead with Nigerian authorities to come up with a contingency plan for their education.

Today, this dusty metropolis in northeastern Nigeria’s desert scrub is dotted with the burned-out shells of what were school buildings. The sun pours in as sheets of charred corrugated metal roof hang down into empty schoolrooms, clanging in the hot wind. In the sunny afternoons small children play in the ruins.

In recent weeks, at least eight schools have been firebombed, apparently the work of Boko Haram, the Islamist group waging a deadly war against the Nigerian government and suspected of cultivating links with Al Qaeda’s affiliates in the region. The group’s very name is a rallying cry against schools — “Boko” means “book” or “Western learning” in the Hausa language, and “haram” is Arabic for forbidden — but it has never gone after them to this degree before, analysts say.

“‘We are Boko Haram, and we will burn the school,’ ” the elderly watchman at Aruna’s school, the Abbaganaram Primary School, recounted the arsonists saying after they appeared out of the darkness, ordered him at gunpoint to lie down, doused the school with gasoline and set it on fire, lighting up the night sky.

A self-described spokesman for Boko Haram who frequently phones journalists in Maiduguri recently claimed responsibility for the school attacks. The spokesman, who calls himself Abul Qaqa, said they were in response to what he called a targeting of this city’s abundant open-air Islamic schools by authorities. Officials here have denied any such campaign. Indeed, young boys can be seen receiving Koranic lessons, untroubled, all over Maiduguri.

Around 2,600 students had gone to school at Abbaganaram, at the edge of a neighborhood considered a Boko Haram stronghold. Now, the quadrangle enclosing a sandy courtyard looks like a roofless war ruin. Fragments of a lesson, scrawled on what remains of a blackboard, can be glimpsed through a windowless opening.

A lone teacher, as eager to resume work as young Aruna, hung about in the school’s remains. “There is no public holiday. We are on duty,” said Babagana Kolo, who had taught primary school there. “We are supposed to be on duty.”

For several days after the attack in early March, students had come to be taught in the open air, under the hardy light-green neem trees in the courtyard, Mr. Kolo said. But he said the government had failed to provide materials, like chalk for a remaining blackboard, so the students had stopped coming.

“They bombed everywhere,” said Aliyu Adamu, a longtime teacher at Abbaganaram. “Everything. All the classes.”

Nobody has been killed in the school attacks, a notable exception amid a campaign of shadowy aims in which virtually anything associated with the Nigerian state is considered fair game. More than 900 people have been killed by Boko Haram in the last two years, according to Human Rights Watch.

Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Boko Haram insurgency, has become used to living under siege over the last two years. Fear and an army-enforced curfew empty the scruffy low-rise streets well before dark. Nervous public officials — prime assassination targets of the insurgents — avoid speaking the group’s name or blaming it. Army checkpoints are omnipresent. The soldiers, also a favorite target of snipers, are grim-faced and brusque.

“The Boko Haram are the ones controlling the state here,” said one of the lone human rights activists in Maiduguri, Maikaramba Sadiq of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization. Residents fear that Boko Haram and its informants are everywhere.

“They are working 24 hours, looking, observing,” said Mr. Sadiq, who has been an intermediary between suspected Boko Haram members here and lawyers willing to represent them.

Yet the destruction of Maiduguri’s schools has bewildered and demoralized students, parents and teachers here in a way that the near-daily attacks, including one on a crowded market in February that killed 30, have not. The targeting of children, even indirectly, is seen as a new and sinister twist.

“I can’t even explain this,” said Musa Adam, a teacher at the Gwange III school, which endured a firebombing attempt but was not destroyed. “Is it an act of wickedness, or what? How can somebody destroy a school where children come to learn?”

Meanwhile, thousands of parents have seen one more prop supporting the illusion of normal life here destroyed.

“No one knows what this thing is all about,” said Musa Abakar, 39, father of two boys and a girl, ages 8 to 15, who attended the Abbaganaram Primary School before it was destroyed. “Burning schools, burning markets. How can one understand these things?”

Parents also wonder what to do about their marooned children since the Nigerian government has made no provision for them. The official in charge, Abba Ali Tijjani, the commissioner of Borno State schools, acknowledged as much in an interview.

“All our children are just staying at home,” said Isa Dauda, 27, who works in an open-air mattress workshop and has four children. “We don’t know what to do now. It’s more than a difficult situation.”

Opposite the Kulo Gumna Primary and Junior day school, where eight classrooms were destroyed in the heart of a Boko Haram-infiltrated neighborhood, Mamadou Youndusa, a barber cutting a child’s hair, lamented his own children’s newly imposed idleness.

He had children in both sections of the school. Now, “They are all at home. Which means a bleak future for them.”

A few of the classrooms at Kulo Gumna were untouched, but most of the students in them have not returned.

“They are afraid something will happen; that is why they are not coming back,” said a teacher, Fatouma Tujjani. Fewer than half of her 46 students have returned, she said. “They are just afraid.”

Elsewhere in Maiduguri, though, the will to resume schooling is overcoming fear, government lethargy and the absence of a plan. Early this month, several hundred children — laughing girls in blue-checked head scarves, and some white-shirted boys as well — showed up at the Abbaganaram ruins, preparing to trek a mile or so to another school that had agreed to take them in.

One of the older students, Adam Abagana, 18, expressed outrage at what had befallen his school.

“It’s an abomination. There is no justification for it,” he said. “We never thought the excesses of the gunmen would come down to burning schools.”

He added, “The only hope is, God has destined it.”