In northern Nigeria, attacks on schools threaten children’s right to education

UNICEF is working with government and other partners, including the Education Above All (EAA) Foundation, to ensure learning continues despite the serious security challenges in north-west Nigeria.

Samuel Kaalu, Communication Specialist, UNICEF Nigeria

Kano, Nigeria, 3 September 2021 – If Ibrahim Mustafa could change the events of one day in his life, it’s likely he would choose June 18th of this year. That was the day his only daughter, Fatima 18, was brutally abducted by gun-toting men at her school in Kebbi State, where she has been studying in the last six years.

“What hurts me and my wife most is that Fatima was abducted on the last day of term, just when school was about to close, and we were already expecting her arrival home,” said Ibrahim, 45.

More than two months after her abduction, Fatima remains in captivity.

“The most painful thing is that we’ve not been able to speak with her since her abduction,” said Ibrahim.

Like the other 200 senior secondary students kidnapped and herded into the bush with Fatima, she had dreams of a future made possible through education, now put on hold.

"When my wife got the news, she fainted,” said Ibrahim. “She’s been in and out of hospital since then. She does not eat. All she asks me every day is, when is her only child coming home? I wish I had an answer,” he said, fighting back tears.

“We want Fatima back. I don’t think we did anything wrong by sending our daughter to school.”

At the time of the attack on Fatima’s school, nearly 1,000 students had been abducted at schools across northern Nigeria, most of them from the north-west region, which has recently been the epicenter of school attacks in Nigeria. Zubairu Hassan a father of six from Zamfara State, went through a similar trauma when his ward Hauwa was kidnapped at school in March this year.

“It was about midnight when we started hearing gunshots in town. We were confused and nobody knew what was going on. But I felt it was bandits because we had been hearing about how they operate,” he said.

“In my house, we could not sleep. At dawn we went to the mosque and heard that students at the school where Hauwa was studying had been kidnapped,” said Zubairu.

Hauwa and the other students abducted during the attack have since returned. However, Hauwa’s school and other schools in the area remain closed due to fears of more attacks - meaning Hauwa’s education has been put on hold.

“I think parents should send their children back to school when they reopen,” said Zubairu, who thinks the government should provide security measures at the schools, including perimeter fencing. “Education is the right of every child and also their future and the future of our country.”

The first known abduction of school children in Nigeria took place in 2014, when 276 girls were taken from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State, north-east Nigeria. Since then, attacks on schools and abductions of students have grown in number and spread across the northern part of the country.

“These horrific abductions often result in the immediate closure of all schools in the affected states - putting an abrupt halt to the education of affected students,” said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Representative in Nigeria. “Even when schools re-open, it discourages parents from sending their children to school and leaves children traumatized and fearful of going to classrooms to learn.”

UNICEF is working with government and other partners, including the Education Above All (EAA) Foundation, to ensure learning continues despite these attacks. The EAA’s Educate A Child (EAC) programme ensures child education is ongoing in the states of Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara, despite the serious security challenges in north-west Nigeria.

“With increasing incidents of attacks on schools and kidnapping of students, the entire educational system in northern Nigeria is at serious risk if nothing is done urgently to put a halt to the attacks and abductions.” - Peter Hawkins

Nigeria currently has more than 10 million children out of school - most of them in the north, and most of them girls - and the school attacks and kidnappings have only made the situation worse.

Fortunately, both parents and the survivors themselves have emphasized the importance of ensuring children continue to learn.

“When my school reopens, I will go back there to continue studying science because I want to be an engineer,” said Hamidu Isyaku, 17, a survivor of abduction at a boys’ secondary school in Katsina State in December 2020.

“After the horrific experience of being kidnapped, I was afraid of going back to school, but I will resume learning when my school reopens,” said Amina Abdullahi, 15, a student who dreams of being a medical doctor.

The Nigerian Government has expressed a desire to address the issue. Earlier this year, the country’s Minister of Finance, Budget and Planning, Zainab Ahmed, convened a conference on financing safe schools in Abuja. The conference was attended by ministers, governors, security chiefs, traditional leaders and development partners, who all committed to concerted action to change the situation.

As the International community prepares to mark the second International Day to Protect Education from Attack on 9 September - and Nigeria set to host the Fourth International Conference on the Safe Schools Declaration on 25-27 October, with a theme of “Ensuring Safe Education for All: From Commitment to Practice” - parents, communities, students and stakeholders are all calling on the government of Nigeria to ensure that Nigerian children are not denied their fundamental right to education by making schools and places of learning safe.

*Some names have been changed to protect privacy