Following an attack on a boarding school that killed 42 children and teachers, the governor of Nigeria’s northeastern Yobe state has directed that all secondary schools be closed starting today until they convene in September for the new academic year.
The Saturday pre-dawn attack on the school saw gunmen – believed to be Boko Haram Islamist insurgents – set fire to the building and shooting pupils as they tried to flee. Survivors of the attack are being treated for gunshot wounds and burns.
This marks the third attack on schools in recent weeks, including two in Yobe. On June 19, unknown gunmen attacked a secondary school in the Customs area of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the epicenter of a four-year Islamist insurgency. Four teachers and two students were reportedly killed in the raid.
The slaughter of children at the school takes place amid a nearly two-month crackdown on Boko Haram by the Nigerian government of President Goodluck Jonathan.
In mid-May the government scotched discussions and ended rumors about an amnesty for the Islamic fighters, and launched a sweeping offensive to end a four-year campaign by Boko Haram – which translates loosely to “Western Education is Sinful” – to create an Islamic state, partly by the killing of thousands of men, women, and children.
The operation, launched on May 14, included placing three of Nigeria’s northeastern states under a state of emergency. Phone services have been cut to prevent intelligence of military operations from spreading within Islamist cells. In mid-June the use of satellite phones was also banned.
The offensive initially stemmed the unrest, and the military has claimed some major successes. However, it has failed to stop the sect from launching devastating attacks, indicating that military gains may be short-lived.
Boko Haram cells have shown in the past that they can go into hiding only to then regroup and adapt to security measures, and finally overcome them. Attacks on schools have taken place steadily in Borno and the northeast, where Boko Haram has vilified secular education as usurping its efforts to impose Sharia law.
Muslims schools have not escaped the sect’s efforts either and have been targets of arson attacks.
Targeting schools has historically been secondary to and less frequent than Boko Haram’s attacks on security forces and assassinations of public officials.
“Since Boko Haram has attempted to reassert itself during the heightened northeast military campaign, it is clear that soft targets such as schools and churches have become the group’s primary objects,” according to a security expert in Nigeria.
A continuation of the spate of suspected terrorist attacks that began re-emerging three weeks ago raises concerns over the effectiveness of the ongoing counter-insurgency operations in the northeast.
Security experts believe that further targeted shootings and low-level bombings can be expected in Borno State as pressured Islamist militants attempt to show their resilience in the face of the military onslaught.
Soft targets such as schools and churches will be at increased risk, although militants have made recent attempts to re-launch attacks on security targets.
President Jonathan's administration offered an amnesty and peace talks to members who renounce violence, but their charismatic leader has repeatedly rejected any negotiations.
Critics say that until the driving forces such as poverty, unemployment, and mistrust of the southern-led government are addressed, no amount of force will be able crush the group.
Meanwhile, Britain's Home Office announced today that it was adding Boko Haram to its list of outlawed terror groups.
* Reporter Gillian Parker is normally based in Nigeria and has covered Boko Haram extensively.