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Sunday, June 16, 2013 - Page updated at 06:00 a.m.

Nigerian insurgents slaying schoolteachers, children

By Sudarsan Raghavan
The Washington Post

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — At the Ali Al Yaskari primary school, the classrooms are silent. In the morning, teachers sign their names on an attendance sheet to receive their salaries, then quickly leave without teaching a single course. A few students sit under a tree, idling away their time in the sandy schoolyard.

“People are afraid to come,” said Lawana Bura, 47, the only teacher in the school on a recent day. “That’s why the classes are empty.”

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 soldiers — or outside the region if they can afford it.

The schools are being destroyed 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.”

Conflict has changed

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 conflict 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 the north, 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 Nigerian security forces. The insurgents have also kidnapped Westerners and government officials for ransom and have attacked military bases and soldiers heading to help quell the Islamist insurgency in northern Mali.

Much of the violence 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 Borno 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.”

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 Islamic name of the Boko Haram.

Daggash, a 28-year-old teacher at 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.

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.”

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.”

Emergency law

Today, Maiduguri and much of the north is under emergency law, which was imposed by the government last month. Cellphone and Internet networks 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 Nigerian soldiers.

The only schools that appear to operate without concern are Islamic schools, where students study subjects approved by Boko Haram.

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