On a dirt road in the northern Nigerian city of Kaduna this morning, 13-year-old Joseph John walked home to collect money from his father for school fees. He was frustrated by missing his class. But after three attacks on schools in less than a month – including a gruesome massacre of children July 6 – he said school is more frightening than it used to be.
“We are not even free to play,” he said, munching a biscuit as he walked along the muddy road. “We are all afraid.”
Early last Saturday militants said to be Boko Haram Islamic radicals stormed a boarding school in Yobe state, opened fire, threw explosives, and killed as many as 42 people, mostly children, some of them as they tried to escape the flames, reports say.
Parents in the north were already pulling their children out of schools when Yobe State Governor Ibrahim Gaidam ordered all state schools shut down this week.
Some analysts now argue the recent attacks on children and lower schools may signify a frightening new element to Boko Haram, pushing its position by going after the most vulnerable, and perhaps even pushing the young into the arms of Islamic schools.
Strangely, days after the killings, reports from local officials said a ceasefire between the government and militants had been agreed to, though so far nothing is confirmed.
Since May, much of northern Nigeria has been under an emergency rule as the Nigerian government initiated another military crackdown in what has been a four-year battle against the radical Boko Haram insurgent group.
The government regularly reports successes against insurgents and says it has killed scores of militants, arrested hundreds, and re-taken territories formerly occupied by Boko Haram.
What exactly is taking place – the killings, battles, negotiations – is highly unclear. With no independent observers on the ground in Yobe, Adamawa, and Borno, the three states under emergency rule, it’s hard to know what’s really going on says John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
“[The attack] makes me even more skeptical than I already was about government claims about making progress,” he added. “It seems to be a ratcheting up of the general horror.”
In the past, Boko Haram, whose name is loosely translated as “Western education is sinful,” has attacked schools but the buildings were usually empty. In June, at least six other people were killed in two other school attacks.
So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack and one man claiming to be Boko Haram’s second-in-command denied the group's involvement. Boko Haram, however, is a shadowy organization that appears to have loosely connected sub-groups with distinctly different goals and messages that clash. An overriding goal for the group is to push their unorthodox local vision of Islam in Nigeria's mostly Muslim north, a region that is locked in a power struggle with the more populous Christian south.
Boko Haram has been blamed for thousands of deaths since it began violent operations in 2009, attacking churches, marketplaces, government buildings, and media houses. Nigerian security forces have been accused of perpetuating the violence by shooting before making arrests and detaining prisoners without charges.
The recent school attacks could drive more children to Islamic schools, some analysts say. Yet these schools don’t prepare students to go to college, according to University of Abuja Institute for Anti-Corruption Studies director Kabir Mato. He says one outcome would be more poor, young people with little else to do but fight.
“People are going to be poorer,” he said in his office in the Nigerian capital, Abuja. “And the more they get poorer, the more possibilities of having more resurrections and insurrections from the younger elements.”
A Nigerian human rights commission said military gains may also be undermined by a pending food crisis as farmers have been cut off from their lands. The military clampdown and a complete shut down of mobile phone services in the region limited their ability to accurately assess the situation on the ground, the group said.
As reports were trickling out of the Yobe boarding school over the weekend, officials in Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city, announced a Boko Haram ceasefire, drawing hope from some and skepticism from others. It was the second ceasefire announced this year. Abubakar Shekau, the man believed to be the Boko Haram leader, has repeatedly rejected government reports of ongoing peace talks and called the first ceasefire announcement fraudulent.
Back in Kaduna, a city beleaguered by sectarian violence sometimes fueled by Boko Haram attacks, parents say if the government is winning against the group, it isn’t helping them much. One middle-aged man who wanders the city in search of work as a day laborer, James Peter, said he has dropped by the school three times in a day to check on his two children.
"We can’t wait for the government to provide security for our children,” he said. “We have to do it.”
* Ibrahima Yakubu contributed to this report from Kaduna, Nigeria.