It has been that way, he said, since gunmen entered the school one morning in March and fatally shot a teacher. Three other schools were attacked that day in Maiduguri, leaving a total of six teachers and four students dead.
For the past four years, the Islamist Boko Haram militia has been known to target schools, burning them down at night in its fight to install sharia law in Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north. But in recent months, the group, whose name translates to “Western education is a sin,” has escalated its campaign to cripple the region’s education system.
Militants raid schools in broad daylight, killing teachers and students. They kidnap professors and order schools to shut down, forcing thousands of children to seek an education in safe zones protected by troops or outside the region if they can afford it.
The schools being destroyed are in an impoverished, long-
neglected part of the country where children were already struggling to receive an education. Many of the schools attacked didn’t have desks, textbooks and other resources.
“The schools are the bedrock to change the minds of people,” said Babangida Labaran Usman, a senior investigation officer with Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission. “They are perfect targets for the Boko Haram.”
The assaults underscore how dramatically the conflict in Africa’s most populous nation has changed this year — from a simmering homegrown insurgency to a guerrilla war that has spread into neighboring countries and entered its most violent stage. Nigerian officials and analysts say Boko Haram militants are using more sophisticated military tactics and weaponry brought back from the battlefields of Mali.
Since 2009, militants have attacked churches, mosques, police stations and government buildings across northern Nigeria, killing an estimated 3,000 people in more than 700 attacks. During the past few months, hundreds more have died as the militants have launched bold incursions into small towns and villages, prompting retaliatory attacks by security forces. The insurgents also have kidnapped Westerners and government officials for ransom and have attacked military bases and troops heading to help quell the Islamist insurgency in northern Mali.
Much of the violence in Nigeria has occurred in Borno state. Eight schools have been burned there this year, said Musa Inuwa Kubo, the state education commissioner. Maiduguri is the state’s capital and the cradle of the insurgency.
Some Nigerian government officials say the attacks on schools reflect Boko Haram’s increasing number of recruits and shifting tactics. An overstretched government security force, which has gone after the militants in their jungle bases, has been unable to protect the schools in towns and villages.
“You cannot be everywhere,” said Isa Umar Gusau, a spokesman for the state government. “Every terrorist organization grows in strategy, they grow in tactics, and they grow in weaponry. If they adopt a strategy of launching attacks in the night and they realize that you place emphasis on targeting them at night, they will launch daylight attacks. And they know these schools are everywhere, even in the remotest villages.”
A hail of bullets at school
The text message sent to Sherif Daggash’s cellphone read: “We know you. We know your hours. You are teaching the students government subjects. We want you never to come to school again.”
The message ended with the full Arabic name of the Boko Haram.
Daggash, a 28-year-old teacher at the Sanda Kyarimi Government Day Secondary School, informed his co-workers. But most dismissed the warning. They had read similar text messages, but the militia had never followed through on its threats. “We never believed they would attack,” Daggash said. “They had never killed teachers before.”
A few days later, several gunmen entered the school. They wore no masks as they walked across the schoolyard, waving their Kalashnikov rifles. They shot a teacher in front of his office, witnesses said, and then began firing randomly at students fleeing for cover.
“When I heard the gunshots, I jumped out of the window and ran,” recalled Ali Muhammed Abdullahi, 18. “Up until now, I haven’t found my school bag.”
After the assailants fled, students carried wounded classmates to the principal’s office. Four were seriously injured and later died, students and teachers said.
“I helped carry Malam Kachala,” said Ahmed Usman, 21, a student, referring to the teacher. “He was shot in the head. His brain had burst open.”
At the Mafoni Day Secondary School, bullets are still visible in the walls, near where two teachers and an administrator were killed.
Six days later, the militants burned down three schools in a nearby town, human rights activists say.
“They want the students to go to Islamic schools,” Daggash said. “They don’t want us to teach them any forms of Western knowledge.”
In other instances, the militia has kidnapped teachers of Arabic — a subject that Boko Haram approves of — because they wore Western clothes, said Usman, the activist. Many teachers and university professors have fled the state for Abuja, the capital, or farther south to Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.
In some parts of Borno state, the militants simply tear up textbooks to shut down the schools. “They are so strong in these areas,” Usman said. “They don’t need to attack the schools.”
A region under fire
Today, Maiduguri and much of the north is under emergency law, which was imposed by the government last month. Cellphone and Internet services have been cut to prevent communication among militants. Long lines of vehicles wait at military checkpoints that have been erected across town.
In some areas, shops have closed or been reduced to rubble after attacks by Boko Haram or Nigeria’s security forces, whom human rights group accuse of committing abuses in their efforts to quell the insurgency.
Many schools close by noon. Children are taking their state and national exams at schools in safe areas, protected by troops. The only schools that appear to operate without concern are Islamic ones, where students study subjects approved by Boko Haram.
The trauma is visible long after the attacks. At Ali al-Yaskari, Zara Abubakr trembles at any mention of Boko Haram. She saw the gunmen through her classroom window as they killed the teacher. “I never heard of them,” she said, her voice quivering. And then she quickly ran away.
At Sanda Kyarimi, only a few hundred of the about 5,000 students have returned to school. Classes are being taught by inexperienced trainee teachers because most of the regular instructors have not returned. Students said many of their classmates now attend Islamic schools or have left the state. Others said they had no choice about returning.
“We just come to school because our parents order us to,” said Mustapha Bulama, a student. “In reality, we fear that the Boko Haram will attack again.”