Dapchi and Boko Haram’s Continued Assault on Education
The recent attack suggests that, despite having lost much of its territory, Boko Haram’s assault on education continues.
On February 19, gunmen – presumably from the jihadist group Boko Haram – kidnapped an estimated 110 girls from Government Girls Science and Technical College in the town of Dapchi, Yobe State, Nigeria. The kidnapping showed disturbing parallels with Boko Haram’s April 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, a town in the neighboring Borno State. These parallels include authorities’ initial reluctance to acknowledge the kidnapping; reports that security forces were unable or ill-equipped to prevent the kidnapping; and the deceit practiced by the kidnappers, who posed as friendly saviors.
There are multiple ways to contextualize this kidnapping. First, it is part of broader, gendered dimensions of the Boko Haram conflict – women are crucial for the movement in a variety of roles, including as physical and symbolic targets of violence. Second, the incident follows a wider pattern of rural insecurity in northeastern Nigeria, with Boko Haram’s various factions rendering many towns and remote areas highly dangerous and difficult to secure. Third, it may be part of a bid for continued ransom payments, given the large reported sums that the Chibok kidnapping has brought to Boko Haram. Fourth, and the topic of this post, the violence reflects an epidemic of assaults on education. Alongside the Chibok and Dapchi kidnappings, there has been a wider campaign of murder, intimidation, and destruction targeting teachers, students, schools, and universities. This recent attack suggests that, despite having lost much of its territory, Boko Haram’s assault on education continues.
Education as a Target
Why does Boko Haram target schools and universities? The immediate answer is that opposing Western-style education is one of the group’s core messages. The group’s very name – a nickname given by outsiders, but one that stuck – means “Western-style education (or culture, civilization, etc.) is forbidden under Islamic law.” In the 2000s, the group’s founder, Muhammad Yusuf, made a name for himself by preaching against Western-style schools, arguing that they corrupted the minds and morals of Muslim children. In the years leading up to Boko Haram’s mass uprising in 2009, after which Yusuf was killed by police, stories circulated about members burning their diplomas and dropping out of school.
After the 2009 uprising and Yusuf’s death, Boko Haram went underground and transformed itself into a clandestine jihadist movement. In summer 2010, the group began staging regular attacks, which began as assassinations, but soon progressed into prison breaks; assaults on churches and bars; and suicide bombings of government targets, including in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, in summer 2011. However, schools were something of an afterthought for Boko Haram in its early days.
That changed as the group’s confidence and ambitions in northeastern Nigeria grew. The year 2013 proved a tipping point. By that year, Boko Haram lost ground in northeastern cities to a powerful enemy – the Civilian Joint Task Force, a local, government-backed vigilante force – especially so in the movement’s original stronghold in Borno State’s capital Maiduguri. Responding to these setbacks, Boko Haram deepened its presence in smaller towns and in the countryside and schools became alluring targets.
Attacks in Yobe
Many incidents occurred in Yobe, a heavily rural state and the birthplace of both Muhammad Yusuf and his successor Abubakar Shekau. Presumably many Boko Haram members hail from Yobe as well, making the state familiar ground – and a site Boko Haram has targeted from its early days. The school attacks in Yobe in 2013-2014 included the assault on a school in Mamudo, in July 2013, the storming of the Yobe State College of Agriculture in September 2013, the murder of fifty-nine boys at Federal Government College at Buni Yadi in February 2014, and the bombing of Government Comprehensive Senior Science Secondary School in Potiskum in November 2014. As Boko Haram carved out territory from 2014-2015, Borno was its epicenter, but Yobe was a zone of significant violence.
Schools as a Symbol of Authority and Privilege
Attacking schools serves several purposes for Boko Haram. Schools represent not just the form of education Boko Haram abhors, but also the presence of the state. Destroying schools undermines state authority. Each school attack brings ripple effects – teachers and students flee, other schools close, and authorities are left scrambling to respond with limited resources.
Schools also symbolize privilege: it is noteworthy that Boko Haram’s highest-profile school attacks have been against secondary schools (particularly boarding schools) and to a lesser extent universities. Secondary schools are out of reach for many young Nigerians – across the country. UNICEF estimates attendance at only 54% in secondary schools during the 2008-2012 period. In Yobe, the figures are likely much lower. The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics estimates in its report “Education Statistics 2014-2016” that there is a steep drop-off between primary school enrollment and secondary school enrollment in Yobe – in 2014, nearly 700,000 pupils attended public primary school the state, whereas only 127,000 attended senior secondary school (public and private). In any case, Boko Haram’s violence drove a rapid fall in secondary school attendance in Yobe State. By 2016, only around 43,500 students were enrolled in secondary school in Yobe, whereas public primary school enrollment only decreased slightly.
The students Boko Haram often targets are those who come from relatively more privileged backgrounds, and in contrast to its effort to entice and coerce young men into joining in other settings, it is striking that Boko Haram often chooses to simply slaughter the young men it finds in boarding schools. If Boko Haram’s treatment of the Chibok girls is any indication, the group relishes having power not just over girls in general, but particularly over girls from families with means and mobility that are poised to go on to university or to independent careers.
High Stakes as the Struggle Continues
While efforts to rescue the schoolgirls taken during the Dapchi attack continue, powerful questions about Boko Haram’s continued assault on education in northeastern Nigeria remain. Future efforts to prevent such attacks exist not only in the security realm, but in further understanding the longevity of the group itself, the factors – be they related to education, gender, or social class – motivating those who join it, and the tactics it continues to employ. At stake is not just the future of schooling in the region, but also a broader struggle to control the trajectory of the society as a whole.
Alex Thurston is Assistant Professor of Teaching at Georgetown University and a 2017-2018 fellow with the Wilson Center and the American Council of Learned Societies. He is the author of Boko Haram: The History of an African Jihadist Movement (Princeton University Press, 2017) and a forthcoming paper for the RESOLVE Network on education and extremism in the Lake Chad Basin.
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