Amid fears of reprisal attacks, Nigeria and the other frontline states fighting Boko Haram have reassured primary-school and high-school learners of their safety as they return to school this week. Despite suffering defeats on several fronts over the last six months, the armed Islamist group remains hell-bent on creating an Islamic State in West Africa and to defend its nomenclature: Boko Haram means ‘western education is sinful.’
In Niger, a country that has been relatively vulnerable to Boko Haram attacks on schools, the Minister for Secondary Education, Mahaman Sani Abdourahamane, insists that they are doing everything they can to ensure a ‘peaceful and stable’ school environment. He has promised to offer books, textbooks and stationery free of charge to students. Priority will be given to students in the volatile eastern region of Diffa, which has been the epicentre of attacks by the terror group over the last two years and where students produced the best results in last year’s middle high school exams.
In Niger’s Diffa region, more than 280 000 people have been displaced, most of whom do not live in refugee camps, but in ramshackle settlements next to a national highway.
The Minister, however, is appealing to both students and parents to remain vigilant. But civilians are unlikely to yield to Minister Abdourahamane’s plea since the death in jail of Boulama Fodey in June 2015, allegedly from an attack of meningitis. Boulama was one of the six local chiefs who had been arrested for allegedly refusing to collaborate in the fight against the terror group. Since then, rights groups have reproached the government for allegedly involving civilians and foreign mercenaries in the armed conflict.
The country’s Minister of the Interior, Hassoumi Massaoudou, has vehemently rebutted the allegations and explained that Niger only engaged other armies within the framework of regional cooperation against the terror group. A regional military cooperation structure among the frontline countries – including Benin, which has been less affected – was finalised last year, making it possible for their armed forces to conduct joint exercises against the terror group.
In June 2015, the incumbent Nigerian leader Muhammadu Buhari paid his first official visit to Niger, where he spent 48 hours fine-tuning a joint military strategy against the terror group with his counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou. The two countries share a 1 500km border and their cooperation is a necessary step to defeating Boko Haram.
The fight against Boko Haram also gained significant support from other governments in West and Central Africa, the African Union and the international community, with the United States providing technical military assistance. Analysts believe this support has paid dividends, especially over the last six months, which has seen the terror group being driven out of many of its hideouts.
Last year, Boko Haram declared allegiance to the Islamic State fighters in the Arab world. The extremist group emerged in Nigeria in April 2009 and has since killed nearly 10 000 people. Most of the victims are civilians who were killed in public spaces, including mosques, churches, market places, schools and police stations, as well during in ambushes laid along roads in Nigeria and the other frontline states.
This week, however, Al Jazeera quoted refugees in the southeastern region of Niger as saying that they no longer fear Boko Haram, but their problems are far from over. In Niger’s Diffa region, more than 280 000 people have been displaced, most of whom do not live in refugee camps, but in ramshackle settlements next to a national highway. Humanitarian organisations say that the situation continues to deteriorate as new families arrive on a daily basis, fleeing violence and hunger in the Lake Chad Basin.
In spite of the terror group’s continued capture of about 200 Chibok schoolgirls, there are signs that Boko Haram is weakening. Having said that, as thousands of leaners head back to school this week, it is important to remember that the group remains a significant threat.