The hashtag campaign to free more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria last month has gained enormous international momentum, with everyone from Angelina Jolie and Michelle Obama to British Prime Minister David Cameron embracing the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and calling for action to free the captives. But Nigerians are quick to point out that those young women are not the only victims of the Boko Haram terrorists’ campaign against “Western” education.
Boko Haram’s core strategy is a war on learning. But in practice what that means is a savage crusade against all schoolchildren, boys and girls, and on their teachers. The group has attacked school after school, and while girls often have been abducted, the boys have been slaughtered.
In a video released by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau on Monday, he showed about 100 girls (it was unclear if they were all the hostages), claimed they had converted to Islam, and offered to trade them for members of his group who have been imprisoned. As reported in The Daily Beast over the weekend, this is likely to be a prolonged negotiation and may eventually win millions of dollars for Shekau’s war chest.
Although the name Boko Haram translates from the Hausa language as “Western education is sinful,” or forbidden, and its fighters have been terrorizing the northeastern region for the last half-decade, it wasn’t until the past two years that horrific attacks targeting Nigerian schools and students actually became the typical modus operandi.
In 2009, Boko Haram had started by murdering anyone from journalists to priests to soldiers in what many saw as a reprisal against the government for assassinating the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf.
The killers justified their attacks in the name of a jihad aimed at destroying secular institutions that supposedly prevent Nigeria from becoming an Islamic state along the extremist lines the terrorists favor. Then, in 2012, the organization’s leaders concluded that obliterating the already weak education system would be a valuable means to their end. That year, Boko Haram began burning school buildings to the ground to keep children out of school. At one point 10 schools were incinerated in as many days.
The northern region of Nigeria, where the attacks are concentrated, is home to the majority of Nigeria’s 11 million out-of-school children. There, Boko Haram found young, uneducated fighters were easy to recruit from the ranks of vulnerable street kids and Almajiris, poor boys who are sent to beg by Muslim religious leaders.
“They know that if a child is educated, he or she is likely to stand against them,” says Philip Obaji Jr., founder of 1 GAME, an organization working to expand the availability of good schooling in the northern states. “They’ve seen many educated Muslims stand against them, which is why they’ve made education their top target.”
In June 2013, the campaign against schools had turned into violence against children. “When no one took them seriously, they became very angry and so began to attack students and teachers for not listening to them,” Obaji says. Schools were no longer destroyed in the dead of night—they were attacked when class was in session.
Over the course of just two days last June, 16 students and two teachers were murdered. That summer, Boko Haram leader Shekau pledged to continue burning educational institutions and killing educators. According to an Amnesty International report, at least 50 schools were targeted in the state of Borno that year and more than 100 students were killed or wounded, with some attacks claiming dozens of casualties. The campaign seemed to achieve the terrorists’ goals of banishing education—schools closed and an estimated 15,000 children, both Muslim and Christian, were kept from attending class.
“Why are they also attacking Muslim students and teachers—shouldn’t they be the people they should protect?” asks Obaji. “You see, their focus is on those who go to school and those who teach them. They want to make sure Western education doesn’t exist at all.”
Boko Haram’s focus on children, says Adotei Akwei, the managing director of government relations at Amnesty International USA, indicates an effort to intimidate local populations and discourage support for a national government unable to protect or care for its most vulnerable people. The rebel group has quickly filled the power vacuum left by legitimate government and military forces, he says.
When the administration of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan did respond to Boko Haram’s resurgence, it waged a scorched earth campaign that resulted in many civilian deaths and allegations of human rights abuses from international watchdogs. The end result only confirmed its image as disorganized and ineffectual.
“If you’re going to have to defeat this group, are you just going to kill them, or will you prove they’re not worthy of support and [show] that what they’ve done is attack their own people?” Akwei asks. “Where do you find the moral authority of the government being enforced? There doesn’t seem to be any of it.”
In February, 59 boys were slaughtered during an attack on one school, while girls were set free with a warning to stay home and get married. Then Boko Haram’s cruel spotlight turned on the school at Chibok, where 276 girls were abducted en masse last month.
A damning report by Amnesty found the Nigerian military ignored a warning about the raid, leaving 17 security personnel to battle 200 Boko Haram militants. Some 50 students managed to escape, but a video of the group’s leader promising to sell the remaining girls into slavery and marriage was a blatant taunt to the government, says Akwei.
Clearly Boko Haram is gaining confidence. Recent weeks have seen a spate of attacks, with a string of bombings in the capital Abuja in the lead-up to a summit of the World Economic Forum there, mass killings along the border, and multiple abductions of girls. “They’ve promised to make Nigeria ungovernable, and so far, they’ve been carrying out their threats,” says Obaji.
But the audacious arrogance and cruelty of the mass kidnapping in Chibok has prompted international attention where the past killings had not, and Boko Haram’s flagrant display of strength may yet backfire. Calls for Nigerian government accountability and action have mobilized millions across the world into decrying the lack of action to prevent such attacks and the lack of response when they occur. A multinational military effort has already resulted in multiple arrests of suspected Boko Haram militants in both Nigeria and neighboring Niger.
Propelled by international concern, money is pouring into Nigeria slated for education. Last Wednesday, a $10 million school security project was unveiled at the World Economic Forum, and international efforts to put out-of-school Nigerian children into the classroom are said to be underway as well. If they come to be realized that might at least reduce the number of potential recruits for terrorism. “My mission is clear,” says Obaji, ”get every child in school, and you’ll defeat Boko Haram.”