Why Boko Haram Targets Nigerian Schools
The militant group’s attacks and kidnappings bring it publicity and riches while weakening state security forces.
Boko Haram was once largely unknown outside of Nigeria until its militants infamously abducted 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state in 2014, triggering the viral hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The global campaign was embraced by prominent celebrities and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, at last drawing international attention to the militant group’s insurgency in the country’s northeastern region. While 82 girls were released in May 2017, 112 abductees have still not returned home. Some are presumed to be dead. And efforts to propel the kidnappings into the global limelight haven’t slowed the jihadist group down.
Just recently, the kidnapping of approximately 300 girls in Nigeria’s northwestern Zamfara state on Feb. 26 and the abduction of 27 students from an all-boys college in north-central Niger state one week earlier, was attributed by regional governments to criminal gangs or “bandits”—but the attacks bear all the hallmarks of Boko Haram abductions. The group is likely to continue targeting schools because the attacks help it weaken state security forces while gaining publicity and funding in the form of ransoms.
Boko Haram began its uprising in 2009 in an effort to build an Islamic state in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria and has repeatedly targeted educational institutions, particularly those teaching a secular curriculum. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, Boko Haram fighters have slaughtered at least 2,295 teachers and destroyed around 1,400 schools mostly in northeastern Nigeria since the uprising began. Insurgents have kidnapped hundreds of students, among thousands of other civilians.
Boko Haram’s brutal leader, Abubakar Shekau, has never hidden his disdain for formal education. Before the group even began kidnapping students, he warned they “will not allow adulterated conventional education (Boko) to replace Islamic teachings,” and he reinforced those words during a statement claiming responsibility for the 2014 Chibok abductions when he said, “Western education should end.”
The group’s attacks on schools with ill-equipped government personnel show its targeting of educational institutions is also motivated by its passion for attacking security forces whenever it can. Indeed, the jihadist sect in recent months has also stepped up its attacks on military bases.
In the most recent kidnapping of students at the Jangebe school, which is close to a military checkpoint, the attackers reportedly targeted security officers deliberately, killing at least one police officer. As long as education authorities continue to employ poorly equipped police officers who rely on support from inadequate military personnel mounting checkpoints nearby, Boko Haram and the so-called bandits that liaise with the group will continue to keep their eyes on institutions of learning.
What’s more, attacking schools is undoubtedly a huge economic benefit to these militants. Boko Haram and its affiliates now see the act of kidnapping schoolchildren as an effective way to raise money for their broad operations across northern Nigeria, due to gains in widespread media coverage and the way it puts federal and state governments under pressure to secure the release of the victims at any cost.
But as long as desperate federal and state governments get involved in negotiations and give in to demands—as state governments are believed to have done to secure the release of victims in the December 2020 and February 2021 kidnappings—these militants and their allied groups will be encouraged to target new schools just to have an opportunity to garner millions of dollars in ransom payments.
“Boko Haram benefits from instability and public anger towards the government,” said the Nigerian journalist and security analyst Okon Nya. “Many in local areas in the northwest are angered by the lack of genuine government presence in their communities, and Boko Haram could step in and fill those gaps just to gain public trust.”
In the aftermath of the infamous Chibok abduction, the Nigerian government partnered with the United Nations to launch the Safe Schools Initiative. It set out measures that included moving students in high-risk areas to schools in safer parts of the country and committing to protect schools with fences and security guards. But initial progress, including the movement of more than 2,000 students from schools in the northeast to other safer zones, stalled. Today, thousands of schools in the troubled region are left without adequate security.
“There are many schools in these areas with hundreds of students but without solid perimeter fencing and no security guards,” said Salome Gambo, a researcher at Caprecon Development and Peace Initiative, which helps out-of-school girls in northeastern Nigeria develop skills.
The lack of school safety is just one of many worries for Nigeria’s government. The Boko Haram insurgency, which has cost at least 27,000 lives since its inception, has focused its efforts in northeastern Nigeria, but the surge in violence and kidnappings indicate that the group is gaining a stronghold in the northwestern region.
If the group and its allies continue to target places of learning in the northwest, education in the region—where close to 40 percent of school-age children already don’t attend school—could come to a standstill.
The fear now is that Boko Haram’s operations in the northwest could eventually lead to a deep humanitarian crisis akin to what’s already being witnessed in the northeast region, where 1.7 million people are displaced and nearly 8 million are in acute need of help and protection—and that spells danger for the entire country.