Higher education – An antidote to Boko Haram

In the wake of a series of suicide bomb attacks this year on the University of Maiduguri by Islamic extremist terror group Boko Haram, academics have called for the government to revamp education and vocational training in order to discourage the recruitment of young men and women as cannon fodder by the militant extremist group.

“The state must consciously invest heavily in the education and vocational training of youths to ensure that Nigeria averts the impending doom. Once this reform takes place, we shall gradually see positive results,” Sociology Professor Muhammed Kuna told University World News.

This year’s attacks are seen to reflect a shift in strategy on the part of Boko Haram which was founded in the north-east state of Borno, the capital of which is Maiduguri. Until January this year the movement’s militant wing had refrained from attacking the local university which is situated roughly 125 kilometres north of Chibok where the group abducted 276 schoolgirls in 2014.

Most of this year’s attacks on Maiduguri have been undertaken by young boys and girls – suspected in some cases to be underage. Some of the attacks have been repelled because of the inexperience of the bombers in the manipulation of sophisticated explosive devices.

Endangering education

Kuna, who is based in the sociology department at Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, north-western Nigeria, said the recent attacks on the University of Maiduguri may be a precursor to further attacks on other campuses, particularly in northern Nigeria where the actions of Boko Haram are said to be “endangering” education in the area and exacerbating existing educational disparities between the north and south.

As a result of the recent attacks, universities in northern Nigeria have sent their heads of security agencies to the University of Maiduguri, with a view to study how its security system against Boko Haram operates.

Some suggestions have been put forward to de-indoctrinate and de-radicalise Muslim youths who may be lured into attacking other university campuses regarded by Islamic extremists as bastions of the so-called anti-Islamic centres of Western education better known as Haram (infidel).

Kuna said there was a need for the creation of skills acquisition centres across the federation where young people could receive a range of artisanal training.

“Nigerian youths are facing an economic, social and existentialist crisis. These contradictions should be nipped in the bud before they spin out of control,” he said.

Academics speak out

Academics are increasingly speaking out on the issue. In a rare show of candour, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Maiduguri Professor Ibrahim Abubakar Njodi told a delegation of the Presidential Initiative for the North-East – a reconstruction and development strategy for the region – which came to evaluate the extent of the damages inflicted on the campus by the activities of Boko Haram, these insurgents have contributed to the well-documented educational “backwardness” of northern Nigeria.

“With the attack of Boko Haram, especially on Western education, it might take the North between 500 and 1,000 years to compete educationally with the South. Education in the North was already endangered prior to Boko Haram. The survey that was conducted before the period of insurgency revealed that the North was behind the South by 100 years,” said Njodi.

His comments were endorsed by John Lamido, lecturer in the department of political science at Gombe State University in north-eastern Nigeria.

“In this 21st century driven by massive investment in human capacity via education and vocational training, the northern governors should live up to their responsibilities to the electorate. All developed nations including those without raw materials have invested immensely in education and vocational training. We must emulate those countries,” he said.

In order to end the Boko Haram insurgency, Lamido proposed twin solutions: military intervention and social engagement. He commended the military for their ongoing efforts at dislodging the insurgents at their base in Sambisa Forest near Maiduguri. However, he said the Nigerian state must invest in the education and vocational training of young boys and girls in order to remove them from the influence of Boko Haram.

2017 attacks

The University of Maiduguri has been the site of three attacks this year, the latest being on 20 May when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive outside the perimeter fence of the university.

The blast took place barely 48 hours after three male suicide bombers suspected of being Boko Haram members attempted to attack the university’s female hostel. The attack was foiled. All three suicide bombers were killed and three security personnel injured.

The attack on two sections of the university was confirmed at a press conference by Abu Babati, president of the University of Maiduguri Students Union, who said that the attack on the hostel seemed to be a bid to abduct some female students.

Earlier last month, on 13 May, the university’s mechanical section of the works department was the site of another attack by a male and female suicide bomber. The incident killed a security guard and injured a soldier.

And on 16 January, Professor of Veterinary Medicine Aliyu Mani was killed, along with others, by suicide bombers while he and others were worshipping in the university mosque in the heart of the campus.

In a recorded video message, Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for the attack in response to the “ungodly” activities of the university community.

Evacuations and reinforcements

In response to fears that Boko Haram insurgents may be emboldened to carry out more sophisticated attacks, the Kwara state government in western Nigeria has evacuated female students who hail from Kwara and have taken them to the state capital Ilorin. More state governments are planning to evacuate their students if the situation further degenerates.

Meanwhile President Muhammadu Buhari has ordered more military reinforcements around the campus perimeter. In addition, the university authorities have employed traditional local hunters and vigilantes to patrol and monitor footpaths leading to the campus.

According to Kuna, Boko Haram is not an Islamic movement because its leadership does not understand the tenets of Islam.

“Islam is a religion of peace and of human solidarity. Boko Haram is simply a terrorist organisation hiding behind Islamic narratives to commit anarchy, destruction, chaos and mistrust amongst members of different faiths," he told University World News.

According to its online manifesto, the aim of Boko Haram is the ultimate establishment, through jihad or holy war, of a world-wide pan Islamic kingdom governed by Sharia law and ruled by a caliphate.

Kuna said the young Boko Haram recruits were under the influence of “hard drugs” when they undertook their suicide operations.

“There is a need for the military to debrief those captured during operations by soldiers in order to understand in detail their readiness to undertake suicidal missions … These debriefings would assist all of us to understand this worrisome phenomenon,” he said, adding that suicide bombers and suicide bombings are not inherent to African cultures. “They came from non-African cultures,” he said.

He warned that with the big losses sustained by Boko Haram at the hands of the military, the insurgents have moved to the cities to attack “soft” targets like university campuses, especially in the North, as well as churches, mosques and markets.