MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — As a result of the current protracted conflict between Nigerian security forces and Boko Haram, a militant group that was recently classified in 2013 as a “terrorist organization,” education in Northern Nigeria is currently in shambles.
The official name of Boko Haram is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which translates from Arabic as, “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teaching and Jihad.” However, this name in the international media has been superseded by Boko Haram, given to the group by residents of Northern Nigeria. In the local language of Hausa, this translates roughly as, “Western Education is Forbidden.”
This designation is in response to the highly repressive and radical version of Islam which the group espouses, a version which forbids any social or political actions associated with Western Society.
Arising out of the intense poverty and wealth disparity which characterizes modern day Nigeria, the group’s main goal is to create an Islamic Caliphate in Northern Nigeria. Since 2009, it has embarked on a violent campaign to achieve that goal, bombing and attacking security forces and civilian villages alike.
Its most infamous action to date is the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in April 2014. These girls have, to date, still not been freed, with both the current President Goodluck Jonathon and the Nigerian security forces proving insufficient for the task.
In Borno State, a Nigerian state in the northeast, public schools have been shut down entirely, due to the widespread conflict and insecurity in the region brought on by Boko Haram. Education was already poor in the state, which, according to a national 2010 literacy survey, had the 6th worst rating out of Nigeria’s 36 states.
The responsibility of providing education for Borno State’s children falls to only a smattering of private schools that are attempting to stay open in the face of the violence. One of these is the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School.
Opened in 2007, the original aim of this school was to provide a sound education for needy children in the area. Since 2009, however, this original purpose has been drastically expanded as they now attempt to provide educational services for the multitudes of children orphaned by the conflict.
The school is based in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, and provides free primary education for orphans and children made vulnerable by war, the inevitable tragic results of the prevailing conflict dominating the region.
The school’s founder Zannah Mustapha worked previously in mediation attempts between the government forces and Boko Haram, and while the efforts inevitably failed, his resolve to find common ground between these two enemies has not abated.
This resolve is reflected in the student enrollment policy at the school: no differentiation is made between the children of Boko Haram fighters and the children of government forces. Inside the school, the children of both learn side by side in the classrooms.
Mustapha, speaking on this, said, “We are trying to avoid a catastrophe. We want the two sides of the divide to grow as friends, not a case of ‘You killed my father, you killed my mother, I must have revenge.’ No. They must learn together. We are providing them that security.”
A seven classroom school, it provides a synthesis of religious, Islamic education and the state curriculum, which is typically identified with “Western” education. Mustapha, however, challenges this common perception.
“English is just a language, many British people are also Muslims. And mathematics, how is that western? It was invented by Arabs.”
The school, in addition to providing free education to the children in the area, also provides free food in the form of breakfast. Typically consisting of rice and beans or moi-moi, a protein rich bean-based spongy food, they are filling meals providing nutrients and calories to those in desperate need of them.
As a result of the protracted five year conflict between the government and Boko Haram, malnutrition and food insecurity have gone up dramatically. According to a 2013 Demographic Health Survey, 42 percent of the children in the northeast of Nigeria have their growth stunted by malnutrition.
In response to this, many register their children simply for the free breakfasts, with the education simply coming as a accompaniment.
In addition to providing food and education, this school also has created a widow’s organization for those in the area. This widow’s association has monthly counseling services at a local hospital and a credit fund to provide business capital to the most vulnerable families.
Currently, most of the funds for the school come from individual donations, community contributions and Mustapha himself, who has used much of his own money to finance operations.
Foreign assistance to the school has been virtually non-existent. Currently, the extent of international support has been the U.S. Agency for International Development providing some desks and the Swiss Embassy paying for trauma counseling for the widow’s association.
However, with overcrowding occurring due to the persistent conflict and its constant creation of more strife, more wounded, more dead and more needy children, the wait list for the school has currently grown to over 2,000 students. If operations are to be sustained in the face of the constant conflict and the accompanying constant creation of refugees, then international assistance is needed.
– Albert Cavallaro