Philip Obaji Jr.
Squatting in front of floor-seated teenage children in a camp providing aid for displaced kids in Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria’s northeastern Borno State, I posed a quested: “What do you like so much that you’ll love to get?”
There were so many responses. “I love education, and I want to be a doctor so I can treat people injured during war,” one little boy said. “I want to be an army officer so I can fight terrorists,” another added.
All the children I spoke to wanted something only education can guarantee.
The kids spoke with courage and determination. One young girl even told me she wanted to become a teacher so she can “teach Boko Haram a lesson.” Sadly, there is only a little chance of these kids achieving their life-long dreams. These vulnerable children are part of a generation that has lots of prospect, but lack the essential means needed to meet their aspirations.
As Nigeria and its neighbors struggle to find ways to bring an end to the insurgency affecting them, them must not throw a blind eye on these young refugees desirous of making a difference in their communities.
The kids I met are just a handful of about 2.8 million children in northeastern Nigeria who are out of school, their childhood devastated by years of conflict and displacement, their education replaced by years of hard labor to survive – and the numbers are rising. The education crisis is fueling an epidemic of child labor and early marriage.
At least a quarter of schools in the region have been damaged or destroyed, occupied by displaced families or used for military purposes.
Analysts estimate that more than $1bn will be needed to repair northeast Nigeria’s devastated education sector.
Lost educational opportunity risks driving young people into radicalized groups, including the jihadist sect, Boko Haram.
That risk is most severe in Borno, where just one in four school-age children is in formal education – an enrollment rate below that of sub-Saharan Africa.
Public schools in neighboring Cameroon cannot cope: the school-age refugee population exceeds the current intake of government-owned schools in the Central Africa country, and an over-stretched and under-resourced system faces acute pressure.
Boko Haram’s rampage in Nigeria’s northeast region, particularly in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, has had huge effect on school calendar.
The sect who is against “secular” education has repeatedly attacked schools, students and teachers, forcing state and local governments to close down public schools in volatile areas.
Of the 1,357 primary schools in Borno alone, accounting for 495,000 pupils, few are offering complete educational services to children.
A report released by the Africa Health, Human and Social Development Information Service indicate that in the northeast, some 52.4 percent of men and boys over the age of six had no education. The figures were even worse for girls and women, rising to 61.1 percent.
But within the average, the figures rose to more than four in five, representing 83.3 percent of the 1.4 million males in Yobe. In Borno, it was just under two-thirds representing 63.6 percent of 2.6 million males.
Nevertheless, efforts are being made to address the situation in the northeast, where the very common “Almajiri” system has been revived, teaching Koranic education alongside “Western-style” subjects.
In Borno state, education authorities encourage school attendance by providing free school uniforms and one meal a day to pupils.
The Nigerian government and international partners are working in particularly to boost girls’ attendance at schools in northern Nigeria, with some 60 percent of girls in the region out of education.
Last month, the Borno government and the United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF, opened a learning centre for over four thousand children who were affected by the Boko Haram Insurgency in Mafa and Jere local government areas of the state.
Teacher training programmes have been strengthened, while a UN-backed Safe Schools initiative, established in the wake of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 200 girls last year, has raised $30 million and counting.
But as the war continues, the possibility of more children losing out on an education increases. The question now is – What might happen to kids with the same aspirations as the girls I met who grow up realizing that their dreams of becoming army officers and teachers have been placed beyond their reach?
The Nigerian government and its international allies must avoid turning the displaced children in the northeast into a “lost generation,” and it can only do so by providing education for young refugees who have a dream of reshaping their country.
Philip Obaji Jr., is an education and children’s rights advocate