The 86-page report, “‘They Set the Classrooms on Fire’: Attacks on Education in Northeast Nigeria,” documents Boko Haram’s increasingly brutal assaults on schools, students, and teachers since 2009 in Borno, Yobe, and Kano states. Between 2009 and 2015, Boko Haram’s attacks destroyed more than 910 schools and forced at least 1,500 more to close. At least 611 teachers have been deliberately killed and another 19,000 forced to flee. The group has abducted more than 2,000 civilians, many of them women and girls, including large groups of students.
“In its brutal crusade against western-style education, Boko Haram is robbing an entire generation of children in northeast Nigeria of their education,” said Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The government should urgently provide appropriate schooling for all children affected by the conflict.”
Boko Haram’s initial tactics of threats and intimidation to interfere with what it sees as Western education became more severe by early 2012, Human Rights Watch found. The insurgents began to destroy, burn, and pillage school buildings and property, claiming the attacks were in response to government forces’ attacks on Quranic schools.
In late 2012 and early 2013, as Nigerian security forces expanded military operations against Boko Haram, the insurgents became more brutal, deliberately targeting and killing teachers, school administrators, and education officials. The group also attacked students to keep them out of school and forcibly recruited students into Boko Haram’s ranks. Its fighters abducted female students as “wives,” effectively for sexual slavery. As security tightened, Boko Haram adopted suicide bombings as a tactic at schools and other locations, killing increasing numbers of children and school staff.
Boko Haram’s attack on Chibok Government Secondary School has become emblematic of the group’s tactics against education. On the night of April 14, 2014, it abducted 276 girls from their dormitories, with 219 remaining captives two years later. Many have been forced to convert and marry their captors, witnesses have said. In a video released in May 2014, the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, said women and girls would continue to be abducted to “turn them to the path of true Islam” and to ensure they did not attend school
On November 24, 2014, Boko Haram attacked Damasak, a trading town near the border with Niger, taking more than 300 elementary school students captive. They used the school as a military base, then escaped with the captives as soldiers from neighboring Chad and Niger advanced on Damasak in March 2015, as part of a cross-border military operation against the insurgents.
Nigerian security forces have also been implicated in crimes in its operations against Boko Haram, including the killing, harassing, and intimidation of Quranic school teachers and students. Government forces have also used schools for military purposes, which is contrary to the Safe Schools Declaration that Nigeria endorsed in 2015 and may place schools at risk of attack.
An estimated 2.2 million people, including about 1.4 million children, have fled the fighting in the northeast, according to UNICEF, which says that 952,029 of the displaced are children of school age. Only about 10 percent of the children are in government-recognized displacement camps, where some educational services are provided by volunteer teachers. The remaining 90 percent are with friends and family members, with little or no access to schooling.
In his election campaign, President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency and to develop Nigeria’s northeast, but at least 1,000 civilians have died in the conflict since Buhari took office in May 2015. Although the government said in December that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated,” attacks continue.
In April 2016, the government said that the reconstruction of the damaged northeast will cost $9 billion.
Nigerian authorities should improve security at schools in the northeast, ensure that displaced children are promptly given access to alternative schooling, and consistent with its commitments under the Safe Schools Declaration, ban the use of schools for military purposes, Human Rights Watch said. Those responsible for these attacks should be investigated for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“Boko Haram’s attacks and the government’s neglect and misuse of schools have contributed to the dismal state of education in the northeast,” Segun said. “It is up to both sides to immediately stop the attacks on education and end the cycle of poverty and underachievement to which far too many children in the region are being sentenced.”