“They Set the Classrooms on Fire” Attacks on Education in Northeast Nigeria
HRW, 11 Apr 2016
They had not received an education in that area for many, many, years….Now they [Boko Haram] have chased away the teachers. Their children have no future.
—Teacher, Maiduguri, September 15, 2015
Boko Haram in Nigeria is one of the deadliest extremist armed groups in the world. According to the Global Terrorist Index 2015, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the group was responsible for the deaths of over 6,644 people in Nigeria and Cameroon in 2014 alone. According to Human Rights Watch research, an estimated 10,000 civilians have died in Nigeria since the group began its attacks in 2009. The group’s brutal insurgency has affected every strata of life in Nigeria’s northeast, including education, which has become the fault line of the conflict.
Boko Haram, whose name in Hausa, the dominant language in northern Nigeria, means “Western education is forbidden,” has targeted and killed teachers, education workers and students. At least 611 teachers have been deliberately killed and a further 19,000 have been forced to flee since 2009. More than 2,000 people, many of them female, have been abducted by the group, many from their schools from the beginning of the conflict. Thousands more students and teachers have been injured, some in deadly suicide bombs in the same period. Between 2009 and 2015, attacks in northeastern Nigeria destroyed more than 910 schools and forced at least 1,500 to close. By early 2016, an estimated 952,029 school-age children had fled the violence. They have little or no access to education, likely blighting their future for years to come.
Based on interviews with 215 people – including 99 teachers, 31 students, 36 parents, and 25 school administrators – this report documents Boko Haram’s attacks on schools, students, and teachers in Borno, Yobe, and Kano states between 2009 and February 2016. It charts the different kinds of assaults waged by the group – including targeted killings, suicide attacks, widespread abduction, burning and looting. Some of these assaults likely amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
A boy at the Kano school for children orphaned by the Boko Haram conflict. The Kano state government “adopted” 100 orphaned children from Borno in April 2015. © 2015 Bede Sheppard, Human Rights Watch
The report also examines government security forces’ use of schools for military purposes, which not only places schools at risk of attack but is contrary to the Safe Schools Declaration, which Nigeria endorsed in 2015. The declaration urges parties “not to use schools and universities for any purpose in support of the military effort.” The report documents security forces’ abuses against teachers, students, and schools, especially Quranic schools and the response of the Nigerian government, as well as the interventions by government agencies, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including humanitarian agencies seeking to restore the right to education for children affected by the northeast conflict.
The report finds that Boko Haram’s attacks on education, and the government security forces’ misuse of school for military purposes, has had a devastating effect on the right to education in the northeast. It has dramatically affected hundreds of thousands of school children at all levels of education, and thousands of teachers and education administrators.
The government has failed to adequately protect schools, in the face of Boko Haram’s attacks. In April 2014, the group abducted 276 schoolgirls from Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. Some of the girls initially escaped, but none were rescued and 219 remain missing at time of writing. Another attack on Zanna Mobarti Primary School in Damasak, also in Borno state, in November 2014, led to the abduction of an estimated 300 young students. None of the children have so far been returned to their parents.
As a result of displacements caused by Boko Haram attacks on schools and other targets, many children have limited schooling in displacement camps or in private homes and communities where they are hosted by friends, families, and others across northern Nigeria. In such camps, schools consist of children grouped according to their age in large rooms or underneath trees for three to four hours of lessons per day, in most cases three times a week. School materials such as paper and pencils are provided in United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supplied bags, but there are no textbooks for the children, or other teaching aids for teachers.
The overall result is that an entire generation of children in the northeast is being robbed of their right to education, an essential ingredient for their future and for the development of the northeast region, which for years has lagged behind that of other parts of the country. Without urgent action to address the lack of access to education occasioned by the Boko Haram attacks, the lives of these children could become locked in unending cycles of underachievement and poverty.
For example, in Borno, one of the most affected states, schools at all levels have been closed in 22 out of 27 local government areas for at least two years, and public secondary schools in the state capital, Maiduguri, only reopened in February 2016 after internally displaced people, or IDPs, who occupied most of the schools, were relocated elsewhere. Education might have ground to a complete standstill in even relatively safe Maiduguri if it were not for some private schools that remained open when state authorities shut down public schools in March 2014.
In Yobe state, primary and junior secondary schools have virtually disappeared in two local government areas since 2013 when public senior secondary schools were relocated from Gujba and Gulani to Damaturu, the state capital.
President Muhammadu Buhari pledged to tackle the Boko Haram insurgency and to develop Nigeria’s northeast during his election campaign in 2015. His government will need to take urgent steps to address the insurgency, particularly the education challenge. There are some signs this is beginning to happen. In September 2015, the government announced the merging of various presidential initiatives to improve the delivery of services to victims of Boko Haram’s violence, including the Victims Support Fund, and the Presidential Initiative on the North East. In January 2016, the government established a new Social Protection Plan which focuses, among other things, on improving the quality of teachers by directly hiring 500,000 university graduates, and providing cash transfers to extremely poor parents on the condition that they enroll their children in schools across the country. The plan with a budget of 60,000 billion naira (about US$ 302 million) is supported by the World Bank.
But to ensure success, the government should ban its soldiers from using schools for military purposes to avoid such schools being targeted for attacks and destruction, work with the appropriate authorities to ensure better security at schools in the northeast, and ensure that students deprived of educational facilities−whether in IDP camps, host communities, or in the slums and shanties of large urban cities− are promptly given access to schooling in safe areas or in temporary learning spaces, with suitable books and equipment. The government should also ensure parents and relatives of missing children are given regular public updates on efforts to recover their loved ones. The repeated failure to adequately communicate with relatives only contributes to their suffering.
At the same time, Boko Haram insurgents and government forces implicated in unlawful attacks against students, teachers, and other civilians should be brought to justice in fair trials.
Failure to act urgently may serve to entrench the perception of neglect and alienation of people in the northeast and reinforce the need for, and appeal of, unlawful and violent alternatives, such as Boko Haram.
Lastly, Boko Haram should immediately halt its attacks on education and all those involved in it. Learning and seeking knowledge is not an offence by any secular or religious creed – but attacks on places of education are often serious crimes.
To the Nigerian Authorities
Impartially investigate and appropriately prosecute Boko Haram leaders responsible for recruiting or abducting children and other abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law, including unlawful attacks on schools, students, and teachers.
Take immediate steps to stop the military use of schools in line with the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines on Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict.
Make public the report of the fact-finding committee established by the federal government on the abduction of Chibok schoolgirls, and provide all residents including relatives of the missing girls with public updates on efforts to recover the girls, to regain the community’s trust.
Take proactive steps to implement the plans, including the Victim Support Fund and the Presidential Initiative on the North East, for the rehabilitation and reintegration of victims of violence including students and teachers who were forcefully recruited or abducted during the violence.
To the Federal and States Ministries of Education
Ensure that students deprived of educational facilities as a result of the conflict are promptly given access to accessible alternative temporary schools, including with suitable school equipment, and adequately trained teachers, while their own schools are repaired or reconstructed.
Ensure availability and accessibility of schools, effectively implement the Safe Schools Initiative, and work with school authorities, community leaders and parents to ensure better security for the northeast region’s schools.
To Federal and States Ministries of Health, Women Affairs
Ensure that teachers and students, and women and girls generally, who experience sexual violence receive trauma support and ongoing counseling, as well as immediate access to treatment for injuries, emergency contraception, safe and legal abortion and post-abortion services, and access to sexual and reproductive health and psychosocial support. Develop a plan to assist children born from rape to ensure adequate services and protection for them and their mothers.
Ensure that public information is available about the legal and physical consequences of abductions and how victims can access free functioning services.
Implement the provisions of the National Action Plan to Implement UN Security Council resolution 1325 and Related Resolutions in Nigeria, particularly with regard to ensuring the full and meaningful participation of women in all peace and security discussions and processes.
To the Ministry of Justice
Establish a unit in the Ministry of Justice to document the prosecution of Boko Haram suspects at all levels of government, and to collate information of insurgency related arrests, detentions, and extrajudicial killings to aid future prosecutions.
Investigate and prosecute, based on international fair trial standards, those who committed serious crimes in violation of international law during the conflict, including members of the government security forces and pro-government vigilante groups.
To the National Assembly
Enact legislation to domesticate the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, which Nigeria ratified in 2001, including criminalizing under Nigerian law genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, consistent with the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute definitions. Ensure such laws apply retroactively at least until July 2002, the date the Rome Statute entered into force for Nigeria.
To the State Assemblies of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe States
Enact legislation to domesticate at the state level Child Rights Act, which was enacted at the national level in 2003 for the protection of children’ rights.
To the Nigeria Police
Take reasonable steps in line with Nigeria’s responsibility under international human rights law to protect students, teachers, schools, and all those in Nigeria’s territory from violence, but should not use excessive force, mistreat and torture of detainees, or conduct arbitrary arrests in quelling the Boko Haram threat.
To the Nigerian Military
Take steps to implement the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict to which Nigeria made a commitment by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration in May 2015.
Encourage use of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict throughout the chain of command by incorporating them in military “doctrine, military manuals, rules of engagement, operational orders, and other means of dissemination.”
Order commanding officers not to use school buildings or school property for military purposes such as camps, barracks, deployment, or weapons, ammunition, and supply depots. Draw upon examples of good practice, as reflected in the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.
Share with like-minded militaries in region its good practices of using temporary accommodations such as tents so as to avoid using schools for military purposes.
To Boko Haram
Halt all attacks against non-combatants and release immediately all civilians in custody.
Cease the abduction and recruitment, forced or otherwise, of anyone under age 18 into the armed group for any purpose.
Release everyone in the group under 18 and ensure their safe return by acting in cooperation with humanitarian agencies; permit anyone recruited under age 18 to leave armed groups.
Cease all attacks on schools, killing of students and teachers or threats that undermine children’s right to education.
Cease the use of school buildings or school property, including for camps, barracks, military deployments, or weapons, ammunition, and supply depots.
Immediately cease all attacks, and threats of attacks, that target schools, students, teachers, school administrators, and other civilians.
Take all necessary steps to comply with the principles of international humanitarian and human rights law including handing over all persons suspected of war crimes for prosecution.
To the International Community – including the United Nations, European Union, United States, and United Kingdom
Call for and support transparent investigations and prosecution of perpetrators of human rights violations by Boko Haram, government security forces and pro-government militias.
Join Nigeria in endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, thereby endorsing and committing to implement the Guidelines on Protecting Schools and Universities from Use During Armed Conflict.
Encourage and financially support Nigerian government’s effort to make schools safer and ensure humanitarian education response plans are adequately funded.
Encourage and financially support the Nigerian government’s efforts to provide comprehensive post-rape care to survivors of sexual violence and psycho-social support to women, girls, men and boys who experienced human rights violations, including abduction, forced marriage and physical abuse
Publicly denounce attacks on schools and illegal use of schools for military purposes by the Nigerian military and Boko Haram and call for those responsible to be impartially investigated and appropriately prosecuted.
If providing support for the reconstruction of schools or the education sector generally, urge the government to adopt strong protections for schools from military use.
Privately and publicly urge the Nigerian government and military to adopt the above recommendations.
Support appropriate child protection activities, and large scale rehabilitation, and reintegration programs that include vocational training programs, education programs, and medical and psycho-social counseling activities for abducted returnees and school-aged Boko Haram defectors.
To the International Criminal Court
Continue to monitor and assess the government’s efforts to fairly and credibly hold perpetrators to account, including through periodic visits to Nigeria.
Continue to press Nigeria, consistent with its obligations under the Rome Statute and the principle of complementarity, to ensure that individuals implicated in serious crimes committed in violation of international law, including attacks on educational institutions, are investigated and prosecuted according to international fair trial standards.
Human Rights Watch conducted the research for this report, including field research in northeastern Nigeria and Abuja, between May 2015 and February 2016, in order to document the extent to which access to education has been affected by the Boko Haram conflict.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 215 people including 99 teachers, 31 students, 36 parents, and 25 school administrators in Maiduguri, Kano, Damaturu, Potiskum and Abuja. The interviewees were identified with the assistance of Nigerian civil society workers. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch came from Kano, Borno and in Yobe states and included the following locations: Kano in Kano state; Abadam, Baga, Bama, Dalori, Damboa, Damasak, Gajaram, Gamboru Ngala, Gobio, Gwoza, Kukawa, Maiduguri, Mainok, Mobbar, Monguno and Ngazai in Borno state; and Bularafa, Buni Gari, Buni Yadi, Damagun, Damaturu, Daura, Goniri, Gujba, Mamudo, and Potiskum in Yobe state. Due to ongoing insecurity in northeastern Nigeria, a number of locations that would have been part of this research were inaccessible.
Researchers also interviewed members of Nigerian and international nongovernmental organizations, human rights defenders, international donor organizations, social analysts and various experts, diplomats, journalists, religious and traditional leaders, and state and federal government officials. Human Rights Watch monitored and analyzed media reports, reviewed academic publications, statements and transcripts of videos by Boko Haram, including videos showing attacks on schools and the military use of schools. We sought to verify the authenticity of the videos by cross-checking them against other footages and media reports, or victim and witness accounts.
Human Rights Watch asked interviewees about their experiences since the beginning of the violent conflict between members of the Boko Haram insurgent group and Nigeria’s security forces in July 20o9. As a result this report documents abuses that took place between the start of the conflict and the time the interviews were conducted.
Interviewees were informed about the nature and purpose of the research and how the information they provided would be used. Human Rights Watch obtained consent for each of the interviews. No incentives were provided in exchange for the interviews, which were conducted in the interviewee’s local language, in private settings, and in displaced people’s camps. Many of the interviews were conducted using an interpreter.
Researchers sought to ensure that the interviews did not further traumatize the interviewees and, when possible, gave referrals for medical care and psychological support. Interviewees were told they could stop the interview at any time. The names of the students, teachers, and parents have been withheld for security reasons.
The Boko Haram Insurgency
In 2002, following the end of decades of military rule and return to civilian rule in Nigeria three years earlier, Mohammed Yusuf, a young charismatic cleric, searching for a purer form of Islam, established a movement known as Yusufiya or followers of Yusuf, in Maiduguri, Borno state, northeast Nigeria.
Rejection of formal education gradually gained a central position in Boko Haram’s insurgency against the Nigerian government, as education became the fault line of the Boko Haram insurgency. The group initially given the name the Nigerian Taliban by local people, became popularly referred to as “Boko Haram” which means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language, a reference to Yusuf’s widely circulated sermons condemning aspects of Western education as being sinful because they contradicted Islamic principles and beliefs.
These teachings lured many people in that part of the country, including students, school drop-outs, unemployed youth, who saw a radical form of Islam as the antidote to the alienating social inequalities and economic impoverishment that marked their lives. Yusuf’s followers also included high-ranking elites such as politicians, government officials, and wealthy businessmen.
The group’s numbers swelled with young men from across northern Nigeria, attracted by Yusuf’s fiery preaching against unjust and corrupt secular governments. But when soldiers captured Yusuf on July 30, 2009, after five days of violence in Maiduguri, and police summarily executed him days later while handcuffed inside police headquarters in Maiduguri, the group became increasingly radical.
In 2010, one of Yusuf’s deputies, Abubakar Shekau, took over the leadership and renamed the group “Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad,” an Arabic phrase which roughly translated means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Under his leadership, Boko Haram has become intensely more violent and abusive with devastating consequences for school-age children. In March 2015, Shekau pledged Boko Haram’s allegiance to the Middle-East based terror group Islamic State (IS) and the group later changed its name to Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah, or “West Africa Province.” Despite this alliance, Boko Haram has largely continued to operate independently. Boko Haram was ranked as the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2014 by the Institute for Economics and Peace in its 2015 Global Terrorism Index.
Education in Nigeria
Nigeria has a significant education challenge. Sixty-two percent of the country’s population is under 24 years of age. As a result, it has a large number of school-age children: about 30 million out of the country’s 168 million people. In 1999, the federal government introduced a Universal Basic Education program to provide nine years of free education from primary school to junior secondary school for children aged 6-15, but its implementation has faced serious challenges. Four years of senior secondary for children aged 15–17, and four years of tertiary education completes the nation’s formal education system.
While poor quality education is a problem across Nigeria, it is most dire in the northern states, particularly in Yobe and Borno states in the northeast, where there is a Muslim majority. Attendance in primary and secondary schools in the northeast is the lowest in the country, according to government data from 2013. More than 52 percent of males and 61 percent of females aged six and above in the north-east have received no education. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 10.5 million primary school-age children were are out of school in Nigeria in 2010, the latest year for which data are available. According to UNICEF, the stark reality is that 60 percent of out of school children live in in the north.
Religious schools are part of Nigeria’s education system, which is a shared responsibility between federal, state, and local government levels. Non-formal Islamic or Quranic education was first introduced into northern Nigeria by Fulani and Arab clerics and traders around the 14th century. Quranic school students called “Almajiri” travel far from home to study the Quran under teachers in schools known as “Tsangaya.” Christian missionaries introduced Western education to Nigeria in the mid-19th century. While readily accepted in the south, it was largely rejected in northern Nigeria as an attempt to “Christianize” the region’s largely Muslim population. According to education officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the population in Borno, Yobe, and Kano states, where there is a Muslim majority, still largely prefer Islamic education over state-recognized schooling for school-age children.
From about the late 1990s, some northern state governments began establishing “Islamiyyah,” or modernized versions of Tsangayas. Islamiyyahs operate in the formal state-recognized school structures, receive government recognition and support, and combine Islamic education with basic conventional school subjects. Tsangayas, on the other hand, are largely mobile, focus on Quranic recitation, and are funded by local communities. Education received in Tsangayas – being basically religious – is not recognized by the Nigerian government as meeting the standards of the national education curriculum. According to the Universal Basic Education Commission, a government body, students who attend Quranic or Tsangaya schools form the largest group of children not receiving an education recognized by the state.
Impact of the Insurgency on Education in the North
Boko Haram massively recruited students and out-of-school youths in Borno and parts of Yobe and Adamawa states, decimating efforts of federal and state authorities to bring education levels in the region on a par with the rest of the country.Those with formal education are reported to have torn up or burned school certificates to signify their rejection of Western education, sometimes encouraged by religious figures.
Abdulwaheed Nasiru, a primary school dropout facing prosecution for his role in the October 2, 2015, bomb attacks that killed more than 20 people in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, allegedly told a court how a local imam urged believers to join Boko Haram and destroy their educational documents:
In some of his teachings, he told us that Western education was a sin and working for the government was also a sin. He then asked those who have gone through secondary and university education to destroy their certificates. A lot of people, who graduated from the secondary and university in that mosque, destroyed their certificates. That singular act fully convinced me that if my brothers who attended university can destroy their certificates because of Boko Haram, I should not hesitate [to join].
Recruitment and retention of members however became increasingly forceful under Shekau’s leadership. In a YouTube video released in July 2013, Shekau warned: "We are going to burn down the schools, if they are not Islamic religious schools for Allah." It was not an idle threat, as illustrated by the subsequent actions of the insurgents (see below).
Poorly-educated young men and boys, mostly from extremely poor homes, initially embraced membership of the group voluntarily in exchange for financial rewards and the promise of paradise in the after-life. A teenage boy released from military detention in May 2013 said he helped Boko Haram burn schools because he was paid the equivalent of US$25.
By early 2012, Boko Haram’s initial tactics to enforce the rejection of Western education by issuing threats and intimidating and harassing students, teachers, and parents became more severe. The insurgents began to destroy, burn and pillage school buildings and property, mostly at night and during non-school hours, further impacting education. But worse was to come. From late 2013, Boko Haram began to deliberately target and kill teachers, school administrators, and education officials. In October 2015, the Nigerian National Union of Teachers said over 600 teachers had been killed in the Boko Haram conflict in northern Nigeria.
Students were also increasingly targeted, with male students often killed or forcibly recruited and female students abducted. In his 2015 annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, quoting education authorities in Borno state, said that 314 school children had been killed between 2012 and 2014.
Tens of thousands of people fled Boko Haram’s brutal attacks to seek shelter in camps for internally displaced people (IDP) or to live with host families. According to UNICEF, 952,029 school-age children have been forced to flee the violence. More than 600,000 have lost access to learning due to the conflict.
Boko Haram’s attacks have been particularly devastating for school-age children largely among the nomadic people of northern Borno, near Lake Chad and the border with Niger, where educational opportunities have long been limited. According to a teacher hired by the government to teach nomadic children between Gobio and Ngazai, near the Niger border:
They had not received an education in that area for many, many, years….There is nothing there….Now they [Boko Haram] have chased away the teachers. Their children have no future.
Chibok School Abductions
Boko Haram’s attack on Government Secondary School, in the town of Chibok, Borno state, remains one of the largest school abductions committed by the group and has become emblematic of the group’s strategy to target education. On the night of April 14, 2014, 276 girls were abducted from their dormitories. While 57 of the girls managed to escape, 219 remain captive two years later.
Boko Haram justified the abductions as punishment for the girls’ participation in Western education. In a video released in May 2014, 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.
While most of the 57 schoolgirls who escaped that abduction have received support from private individuals and institutions, as well as the Borno state government, to continue their schooling elsewhere, the fate of the 219 in captivity remains uncertain. Human Rights Watch research shows that many of the missing girls who were Christians have been forced to convert and to marry their captors. Other reports have emerged from those who claim to have seen some of the girls in captivity, but it has been near impossible to corroborate the information.
Despite finding over 1,000 other hostages during military operations against Boko Haram camps, government security forces have not yet rescued any of the remaining schoolgirls.
A 38-year-old woman who fled Gwoza when the insurgents took over the town in June 2014 told Human Rights Watch she saw 11 of the missing Chibok girls when she returned to the town to take care of her ill father. She said:
I saw the girls in a hospital in Gadamayo. The Boko Haram allowed me to take my father there because he was very sick. That was where I saw them. I did not know them. One of them wanted me to help her escape. She said, ‘I am from Chibok. Look at those girls, we are all from there. They took us from school. Can you help me?’ They were 10, working in the hospital—filling forms, prescriptions, cleaning, and assisting the doctor. I was shocked. But how could I help her? The other girls later told me, ‘There is no point. We are married and lived in town with our husbands.’ One was pregnant but she died. It was when she was in labor and the baby didn’t come out. The other girls helped the doctor to do operation but she was just bleeding. Too much blood. She died. I do not even know their names. They only spoke in whispers. I feel bad that I could not help.
Boko Haram appear to consider their successful abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls as a major accomplishment that they flaunt in a bid to stop other girls from continuing in school. A 14-year-old student from Sabongari Primary School, Gwoza, described the fear that caused her to flee the town:
One day in May 2013, a student found a letter and took it to our mathematics teacher. It was written in Hausa. When the teacher read the letter we all became frightened. He said it was from Boko Haram. The letter said all teaching activities must stop in the school or else we would all be abducted like the Chibok girls. The school was immediately shut down. I was at home for one year. Then two insurgents came to my house and told my mother they wanted to marry me. I became really scared that they would take me away like the Chibok girls. My mother and I escaped from the town immediately after the insurgents left.
In December 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said that the government has no reliable information or intelligence on the whereabouts of the missing schoolgirls. To date, the government has given no reason for not making public a report by a presidential fact-finding committee on the abduction of Chibok schoolgirls. Parents of the schoolgirls receive few, if any, updates on government efforts to rescue their children and remain critical of the government’s failure to bring their daughters home safely.
II. Boko Haram Attacks on Schools and Students
Boko Haram first began to deliberately target schools in 2009. Initially the attacks were sporadic and usually after hours. Often insurgents looted the property before torching and throwing bombs to destroy school buildings, equipment, books, other educational materials, school records, and certificates. Sometimes witnesses identified the attackers as former students.
People purportedly speaking for Boko Haram to local and foreign journalists and on videos posted on the Internet, claimed the group’s responsibility for some of the attacks reported in this section. In the other cases, witnesses told Human Rights Watch they identified the attackers as members of Boko Haram by their chants of “Allahu Akbar” or “Allah is great,” or by the attackers own confession of Boko Haram membership.
One of the earliest documented attacks occurred on July 29, 2009, when the group attacked Success International Private School in Maiduguri, destroying six classrooms and a school office.
In the years that followed, the attacks became more deadly. From 2012, Boko Haram began to deliberately target schools, several of which were burned and destroyed. In February of that year, at least 12 schools in and around Maiduguri, Borno state capital, were set ablaze by insurgents over a two-week period. The brutality and ferocity of Boko Haram attacks on civilians in the northeast peaked in early 2013. Faced with a depletion in its ranks caused by the massive crackdown on its members by security forces in late 2012, the group embarked on large-scale recruitment of students and others using hefty financial rewards as enticement and brutal force. The recruitment was accompanied by killings of those who refused or who attempted to evade capture.
Boko Haram also targeted students, both to prevent them from attending school and to retaliate against students who tried to repel their attacks, or who had become members of vigilante groups working with the government against Boko Haram. As security tightened, Boko Haram increasingly adopted suicide bombings at schools and other locations as a tactic.
The following sections examine some of the main tactics used by Boko Haram and the escalation of the brutality.
Burning and Looting
Boko Haram has been burning and looting of schools since 2009. By January 2015, 254 schools had been burned, as well as 276 partially destroyed in Boko Haram attacks in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states, according to the National Emergency Management Agency. In March 2016, Borno state authorities reported that 512 primary schools, 38 secondary schools and 2 tertiary institutions in the state had been destroyed in the six-year long conflict.
Yerwa Central Primary School Maiduguri, established in 1915, is the oldest primary school in northeast Nigeria. Located close to the site of Mohammed Yusuf’s mosque, many of its students were drawn to his preaching. The school was attacked twice between 2010 and 2012. When insurgents set ablaze 36 classrooms and offices in September 2010, a 70-year-old civilian security guard in the school recognized the attackers as former students. He said:
When the boys came at around 11 p.m. that night I was not surprised. They had been hanging around the school for weeks. They would insult and threaten to kill me and my colleagues and destroy the school because we were infidels for providing a ‘haram school with security.’ I fled to a corner of the school as soon as I heard their shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ I could only watch in fear as they hurled bottles of fuel into classrooms. I was lucky that they did not touch me or any of my colleagues.
Success International, a private primary and secondary school, located in the same neighborhood as the Yerwa School, also suffered several attacks in 2009, 2012 and 2013 —before eventually relocating to a safer area of Maiduguri in early 2014.
On April 2, 2012, about a dozen insurgents woke up sleeping students at Government Secondary School Daura, 20 miles west of Damaturu, Yobe state. Insurgents made students lie on the bare floor and recite Quranic verses, and forced a teacher to load the school bus with computers, a power generator, and school certificates. They then set fire to two blocks of six classrooms and the principal’s office. No one was hurt in the attack.
Later that year, on September 26 and 27, insurgents launched a spate of attacks against schools in Maiduguri, killing a teacher in Mafoni Government Day Secondary School on September 26, and returning the next day in a failed attempt to burn down the school’s newly equipped science laboratory. The tertiary institution next door, Borno State [Mohammed Goni] College of Legal and Islamic Studies, was also razed. Though focused on Islamic education, the school was likely targeted because it is owned and run by the state government. Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, was a former student.
One of the earliest recorded school attacks by insurgents in Yobe state was on Government Secondary School, Damaturu, in July 2011, while the school was closed for vacation. Early arrival of security forces saved it from serious damage on that occasion, although it was attacked again in June 2013 and December 2014.
Between June and October 2012, schools in Damagun, Damaturu and Potiskum, Yobe state, bore the brunt of Boko Haram attacks. Yobe Children’s Academy was the first private school to be attacked in Damaturu. On the night of July 22, insurgents burned 32 classrooms and nine offices in the primary and secondary section. A teacher working late in the office was shot and killed after being forced to show the insurgents around the school.
On October 18, 2012, men suspected by residents to be Boko Haram laid siege to Potiskum, Yobe’s largest town, about 63 miles west of Damaturu the state capital. From early that morning until late evening, insurgents took over the town and systematically attacked and destroyed public buildings, the local education authority office, and at least eight schools including Race Course Primary School, Nahuta Primary School, Sabon Layi Primary School, Government Day Junior Secondary School, College of Administrative and Business Studies, and Best Center Vocational School.
Forced Recruitment of Male Students
In late 2012 and early 2013, Nigerian security forces expanded military operations against Boko Haram in Maiduguri and other strongholds, often with the assistance of local vigilante groups. As the military pursued the Boko Haram leaders and forced their fighters out of Maiduguri, the group turned their attacks on schools, students, teachers and other vulnerable groups in less defended areas in the north, such as Kano, rural and remote parts of neighboring Yobe, as well as the forests and hills in southern Borno, including Sambisa forest, Gwoza, Damboa, and Bama.
Witnesses said that beginning from late 2012 to mid-2013, indigenes of Gwoza who had joined Boko Haram in Maiduguri, returned to the area in large numbers following the harsh military onslaught against the group’s members. They regrouped in the Sambisa forest, less than 20 miles away, and in caves in the surrounding Gwoza hills. From there, Boko Haram soon began a campaign of terror and forceful recruitment of young men and boys to replenish their ranks.
A 15-year-old student of Government Day School Ngoshe, near Gwoza, described an attack on the school in May 2013:
We were in the school when Boko Haram came and started shooting. It was 9 a.m. in the morning. We were sitting in class when I went outside [to go to the toilet]. Outside the classroom I saw Boko Haram men holding guns, so I ran to tell the headmaster. The headmaster helped some of the students escape. Then the Boko Haram men started shooting. A boy got shot in the leg and later died. I saw them with my own eyes. They covered their heads and face with a white scarf. They only left their eyes uncovered. They said they will come back if we don’t stop going to school. So the school was closed, and the military came to stay there. But Boko Haram still came back to burn the school…. I was out of school for 11 months before my family decided to run from the town. 
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that in an apparent retaliation for the military offensive, insurgents forcefully recruited up to 13 students of Army Children’s School Monguno, northern Borno when the barracks was sacked by insurgents on March 22, 2013.
By June 2013, the Gwoza local education authority closed all government schools in the area that still remained open.
When Boko Haram combatants seized control of six villages around Gwoza on June 3, 2014, they sought out men for killing and young boys for recruitment. A 43-year-old teacher who was in Agapalawa on the day of the attack expressed deep grief for her inability to save many of her students who ran to her for protection:
We were confused at first whether the men in military uniform were soldiers or insurgents. Some people fled but many of us stayed. They gathered all the men at the primary school and began to shoot. Women and children began to run up the hills but they pursued us. I was hiding with a group of my students who had lost sight of their parents in the confusion when the insurgents came to us. They were shouting, “Where are the men?” Then they asked the children to stand upright. They selected and took away the boys who looked tall enough to be 10 to 12 years old, saying they were old enough to fight. I watched helplessly as they ran uphill with those poor boys shooting and killing for over four hours as they went.
In Bama, a major Borno town 45 miles east of Maiduguri, the insurgents took a hardline in the recruitment drive for new members. The International Crisis Group reported that in June 2013, male residents began to flee Bama, due to threats from Boko Haram to either join the group or be beheaded.
A 25-year-old parent described the pressure to give up her sons to join Boko Haram after the insurgents took control of Bama on September 1, 2014:
Two insurgents came to my house. They demanded that my sons must join them. I pleaded that my three boys – aged 12, 3, and 18 months – were too young, but they forcefully took my 12-year-old son away. He was a primary four pupil of Kasigular Primary School, Bama. They also took my 40-year-old brother-in-law. He was playing the role of father to my children after Boko Haram killed my husband and took away all the contents of his provision store in 2013. Now we are left with no help.
Another woman, a 50-year-old, told Human Rights Watch that her 62-year-old husband and six of her stepsons – aged between 14 and 38 – were beheaded in June 2014, by Boko Haram fighters in Damboa, Borno state. She said the insurgents were angered by her husband’s refusal to join the group because according to him, his fathers did not teach him the type of Islam the insurgents practiced.
Intimidation and Abduction of Schoolgirls
Boko Haram treats women and girls differently from men and boys. The group prohibits female membership, prescribing a more subservient role for women and girls and considers abducted women and children to be part of the spoils of war to which its members are entitled.
Two teenage girls of Success International Private School, Maiduguri told Human Rights Watch how they escaped abduction during an attack on their school in September 2013:
One of the insurgents jumped over the fence and opened the gate for the others and they came in. Then I saw their guns. Everybody was running but I couldn’t run because I was afraid. A gunman asked one of our uncles (teachers) to lie down and then brought out his gun and shot him. Then they came to me and my friends. One of them said let us take these little girls, but another of them said “No, they are so cute, let’s leave them.” I was scared and was just crying. We were just 12 years old then.
Another 16-year-old witness, who was also 12 at the time of the attack said:
We were sure the gunmen would kill us too or take us away. So we were crying even after they left. There were four of us standing together. Only two of us returned to the school. The third girl transferred to the school’s new campus, while the fourth one just never came back to school. We don’t know what happened to her.
Damasak School Abductions
On November 24, 2014, six months after the Chibok school abduction, Boko Haram carried out another large-scale attack on a school. This time the target was the Zanna Mobarti Primary School in Damasak, about 200 kilometers northwest of Maiduguri, near the border with Niger Republic. According to a teacher present at the school on the day of the attack, an estimated 300 children aged between 7 and 15 years old were in school at the time. The attack on the school was part of a larger, brutal attack on the town, which occurred during a busy market day. The insurgents blocked all four roads leading into the town, trapping Damasak’s residents and traders.
Initially Boko Haram occupied Damasak, using the primary school with the children still inside, as one of its military bases where it brought other female abductees and children. The insurgents separated parents from their children, keeping them in different parts of the school during the months they occupied it.
Between March 13 and 15, 2015, Chadian and Niger troops engaged in operations against Boko Haram and forced the insurgents to abandon Damasak. According to some Damasak residents later interviewed by the press and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the insurgents took with them the estimated 300 primary school children who had been held at the school for nearly four months, in addition to about 100 other women and children they had seized from the town. In their wake, Boko Haram left dozens of residents’ bodies, of which at least 70 were later found in a riverbank under a nearby bridge. 
The Damasak school abduction is the largest documented number of school children taken in one single attack by Boko Haram. It has received little media attention.
A teacher at the school on the day of the attack said:
On a Monday that’s when they [Boko Haram] came to Damasak. They came at 10 am and blocked all the four routes that lead into and out of Damasak. They went to the primary school, Zanna Morbarti Primary School, and attacked and closed the two gates.
There were at least 300 children held captive in the school apart from those that had escaped. They refused to allow the children to be taught their usual subjects in English. Instead, they were teaching them the Quran with the gates locked.
I was held captive by them for at least 6 days in Damasak. Corpses were on the street. They [Boko Haram] forced us to carry [the corpses] and go and dispose of them in the river and there is nothing one could do about it. A lot of people were shot and thrown into the river. In the market and up to the river, there were at least up to 2,000 bodies.
It was as we were carrying the corpses into the river that I was able to escape. I fell into the river and I swam to Niger just 1 kilometer away.
Up till today, our children from the school, we don’t know where they were taken to. They are kids and their age ranged from 7 to 12, 14, and 16 up to 17. They were captured and taken away.
A woman who had been held in the school with two of her children described to Human Rights Watch what happened to her:
It was early morning when I heard gunshots and chaos. My husband had already left home for the market so I grabbed my two children: male aged four years and female aged 2 years, and ran. But we ran into Boko Haram and they detained us in the middle of the town. They brought more and more women and children to where we were kept.
Then they took all of us to Zanna Morbati Primary School where we were separated from the children. That was the last time I saw my children, I do not know whether they are alive or dead.
They [Boko Haram] spent their days preaching to us and calling us infidels. They would shout at us when we cried for our children because we could also hear them crying in another part of the school. They said they were going to marry us. So we planned amongst us women that we were going to escape at any given opportunity because we could not bear being with them, let alone marrying them. One night, after almost two months, while the insurgents were sleeping, we climbed the fence and escaped.
I didn’t know how to help my children. I had no choice but to leave them behind. I heard later, after the town was liberated in March 2015 that they took away everyone who survived in the school.
Six witnesses now displaced in Maiduguri told Human Rights Watch that none of the women and children abducted by the insurgents more than one year ago have been found. They have not been identified among the hundreds of Boko Haram hostages freed by government forces from mid-2015.
A 2014 Human Rights Watch report documented the abduction of at least 500 women and girls by Boko Haram between 2009 and 2014. Hundreds of students, including 219 teenage school girls from Chibok (see above) and young primary school pupils from Damasak (see below) have been forcefully taken away from school for “marriage” to insurgents, forced to convert to Islam, and to carry out forced labor in Boko Haram camps. Other girls are constantly harassed to stop school and to wear long hijab veils.
In September 2015, a 46-year-old teacher from Bama told Human Rights Watch that his 14-year-old daughter, a junior secondary school student, was abducted by insurgents on her way home from her Bama school in June 2014. He also said that Boko Haram abducted six students of the high school where he taught. A 15-year-old student from the same town described the pressure she faced from her male relatives in Boko Haram:
My brother told me to run alone to Maiduguri because two of my older brothers who were Boko Haram members threatened to take me and our mother to their Sambisa camp. According to them, it was sinful for us to remain in Bama, ‘the land of infidels.’ I knew they would carry out their threat–one of them had earlier forcefully taken his wife and two children to the camp. When my second brother’s wife realized that her husband had joined the sect, she fled leaving her young baby behind. Her mother later came for the baby.
Targeted Killing of Students
Boko Haram has specifically targeted mostly male students of secondary school age and above—both to prevent them from attending school and at times seemingly to retaliate against the active involvement of students in repelling the group’s attacks or assisting government security forces. The tactics used include shootings, grenade and suicide attacks.
In March 2013, for example, Boko Haram launched deadly attacks on several schools in Maiduguri and in towns in neighboring Yobe state as the vigilantes gained the upper hand against them. On June 19, nine students of Ansarudeen School, Maiduguri, Borno state were shot and killed in their classrooms while writing exams. Boko Haram later claimed that the attack was to punish students for helping government soldiers hunt for insurgents.
In what might be a fallout of the offensive against the group in Maiduguri, insurgents stormed Yobe state, attacking schools and killing male students in Damaturu, Goniri, and Mamudo. On June 12, 2013, insurgents killed two teachers—Ali Musa Yin and Alhassan Shuabu—from the Government Secondary School Damaturu, six students, and the undergraduate son of another teacher who was away from home.
After a group of insurgents killed a government worker in Mamudo, Yobe state one week later, they made a stop at the boys-only Government Secondary School on the village outskirts to drop a letter threatening to return and kill any student found there.They made good on the threat on July 6, 2013. Scores of gunmen surrounded the unfenced school hostel, lobbed hand grenades into dormitories filled with sleeping teenage boys, and shot those who escaped through windows.Twenty-two students and one teacher died in the attack. Five sustained serious injuries.
At 1 a.m. on September 28, 2013, about 100 insurgents drove in vehicles and on motor bikes into the Yobe State College of Agriculture, Gujba. When they left hours later, 42 male students and a lecturer lay dead in different corners of the school. A 37-year-old staff member who was sitting with some school guards when the insurgents arrived said:
I was awakened by the sound of gunshots. When I peeped out of a crack in the door, I saw many students streaming out of the hostel in panic towards the exit gate. A young insurgent, who could hardly hold up his gun began shooting at them. The others came behind him in Hilux trucks on one of which was mounted a huge light beam powered by a generator. Each of the about 20 motorbikes I saw had at least three fighters. They were dressed in black t-shirts, with their heads and half of their faces covered in checkered scarves. They headed straight for the male hostel near the gate. A female hostel was next door but they ignored it as students fled from the building. That was when I dived into the bushy shrubs behind the school. I laid there until the insurgents left.
Another school worker who hid during the attack described what he later saw:
When soldiers arrived at 7 a.m., I helped to bring out the injured students, and corpses. In the first room we entered, I counted 10 dead students huddled together on the floor. The next room had nine dead on the floor, and two on the bed, then two outside the hostel, another one near lecturers’ quarters. In all I counted 42 students dead. It was three days later that we saw the corpse of a lecturer in a culvert near the gate. We picked up more than 150 spent cartridges around the school. Four out of dozens of injured students were in bad shape when we took them to hospital. All four are still not fully recovered. They did not come back to school.
In some cases, current students, recruited by Boko Haram, have attacked their own school, classmates, and teachers.
On February 25, 2014, for example, Boko Haram killed 29 male students at night in Federal Government College Buni Yadi, about seven miles from Gujba, Yobe state. Many young men, including students of Buni Yadi, Yobe state schools, were Boko Haram members. The principal of one of the secondary schools in Buni Yadi told Human Rights Watch:
We knew those who attacked our school were our former and current students. Many of them were average students from poor homes who were drawn by the promise of financial gain and the charismatic preaching of Boko Haram preachers. The former students had been idle, refusing to put their hands to work after they left school. Up to 10 of the current students never hid their membership of the sect.
As security tightened around Yobe state, Boko Haram began to adopt suicide bombings as a tactic, with lone insurgents slipping unnoticed into schools. The attacks have not only killed students and teachers, but resulted in injuries so severe that students have been unable to return to school.
On May 8, 2015, a school attack in Yobe state killed one student and injured five when a lone gunman shot his way into the College of Administration and Business Studies, Potiskum. Ironically, the insurgent saved the lives of many more students as he shouted warnings to those who wanted to tackle him to stay back because he was strapped with explosives. The attacker died after detonating the explosives between two cars when cornered by students and locals at the edge of the school property.
Attack on the Government Science and Technical College, Potiskum, November 2014
On the morning of November 10, 2014, students of Government Science and Technical College, Potiskum, were lined up on the school’s assembly ground when they noticed a stranger holding a schoolbag. The school rule was that no student should have bags with them at assembly, so they accosted him. A 16-year-old student said:
I saw the prefects struggling to seize a bag from an older boy. I am not even sure I heard any sound before I found myself thrown about 40 to 45 meters from where I was standing. I had no pain but saw my friends, dead and dying slowly as they bled from torn off body parts. My mind was numb. It was later in hospital that the pain came. My right leg was amputated during my six-month stay in the hospital. I continue to go for check-ups but I am back in school as I am able to move with the aid of crutches.
A 14-year-old student describing the same attack said:
I never saw the bomber. All I heard was a deafening explosion, then thick black smoke. I crawled under a car without realizing I was injured. I called out to my teacher for help when he walked past to help others but he did not recognize me. There was no pain at first just discomfort that made me tear off my uniform. Then I realized I had been blackened and made unrecognizable by the smoke. It was like an eternity before I was rescued and taken to hospital. My legs were so badly torn that one was amputated the same day. I cannot walk or rest any weight on the remaining leg even after several surgeries at different hospitals in Azare, Kano, and Maiduguri. I can deal with all that, what really bothers me is that my lack of mobility has made it impossible for me to return to school. My father has to carry me in his arms around the house and to hospital. Our request for assistance to get a wheelchair has not been successful so I am idling away at home. That is more painful to me than my injuries.
School officials told Human Rights Watch that based on a list obtained from families of students and the recognizable body parts, the school determined that 26 students died in the attack. More than 81 students suffered minor to grievous injuries.
Kano city, the capital of Kano state, one of the largest metropolis in northern Nigeria, is located 365 miles northwest of Maiduguri, the epicenter of the Boko Haram insurgency. It is also a major religious and commercial nerve center of the north, and home to the worst Boko Haram suicide attacks outside the northeast.
The attacks on schools in Kano focused on tertiary institutions. Seven prospective students of Kano School of Hygiene Technology were killed and 20 injured in a suicide bomb attack on June 23, 2014, as they gathered around the school’s notice board to check their admission examinations results. In what appeared to be a change of tactic, a week later, on July 30, the group used a female suicide bomber at Kano State Polytechnic killing two students, and injuring seven others.
A September 17, 2014 attack on Federal College of Education was even more gruesome. School staff told Human Rights Watch that at least 27 students were killed as gunmen shot and detonated bombs amid students and lecturers on the campus. A 22-year-old student said:
I was in the lecture hall for Hausa class with about 500 other students when I head gunshot sounds and started to run out. Suddenly there were two gunmen shooting at us from one of the exits. One of them ran to also block the other exit. They would shout, “Allahu Akbar” [God is great] as they killed each person. After killing students near the doors, they went row by row to shoot those laying on the floor. I was hiding among the dead and injured. But they were attracted to me when a nearby pregnant woman cried out in pain. I jerked in horror when her brain matter splashed on me as they shot her in the head. That’s when they shot me twice: once on the side, and then on the back. Then one threw a grenade up towards the roof of the hall. I passed out as the roof came crashing on us. I don’t know how I survived. I returned to school four months later. I am still in pain from my surgeries. The treatment cost my family so much but we decided I must not give up on my education. Boko Haram must not win.
Use of Schools for Military Purposes
Boko Haram has in many cases used schools for various purposes in areas where it has seized control, such as to harbor stolen goods, and for military aims, including to detain captives and to store and manufacture weapons.
On November 2, 2015, the BBC reported having received photographs from suspected Boko Haram members showing insurgents allegedly manufacturing rockets at an unknown location. An inscription on one of the machines shows the abbreviation of “GTCB,” which was interpreted in the report to mean Government Technical College Bama.
A teacher at the Umar Ibn Ibrahim El Kanemi College of Education, Science and Technology, Bama said:
After Boko Haram took over Bama in September 2014 they went to the school and stayed. They went to the library and removed all of the books there. And they used the library books to make fires [for cooking]. They had their camp there. Boko Haram used school as a base for their operations. They kept all their guns there.
A woman from Hausari Gadamayo area of Gwoza whose two children attended government-owned Sabongari Primary School explained why they stopped going to school in May 2014:
About one month before we fled, Boko Haram came at night in their hundreds, maybe thousands, with military armored personnel carriers. They attacked the government military base in Gwoza and brought all the guns and everything into the school. Once we realized they were camped in the school, no one dared go near it again. About three weeks later, they burned down the whole school and began to move into choice houses in town with their wives and children. That’s when we all began to escape quietly at night. They pursued us, shooting for miles as we fled.
Several of the women and girls rescued by government forces from Boko Haram camps in Sambisa forest in April 2015, told Human Rights Watch the insurgents had detained them in schools around Gwoza for many months. A 15-year-old girl who had been abducted in December 2014 by insurgents with her younger siblings from Baza in Michika, Adamawa state, described her ordeal:
We were locked with up to 60 other women and children in the classroom of a school in Ville, just outside Gwoza. They never let us out of that room. When a pregnant woman in our midst fell into labor we pleaded for hours before they gave us hot water, which the older women used to assist the delivery. But three weeks later, they hurriedly chased us out with canes as military jets flew overhead. Bombs just started dropping from the sky, and the school buildings caught fire. Many of us, including my three year-old sister, were badly injured. She died within a few hours. Then Boko Haram abandoned us under a tree for a while, but returned to force us to trek for days to another camp in Sambisa where soldiers found us three months later.
Insurgents have also used schools to store stolen materials and as sites to harbor and kill captives. One witness described how Boko Haram destroyed the two primary schools and a junior secondary school in Abadam, northern Borno, near the Niger border. The insurg