Schools are increasingly under attack. Good protective measures could do all lots of good

The National Parent-Teacher Association of Nigeria and allied bodies recently sought audience with President Muhammadu Buhari to discuss with him what is becoming a disturbing phenomenon: kidnapping of pupils and students from the premises of their schools by sundry criminal gangs.

The demand was prompted by the recent vicious attack of some criminals on an elite school, Nigerian Tulip International College, in Ogun State. Some armed men had invaded the school and seized five members of staff and three students. Two days after the abduction, the kidnappers asked for a hefty ransom of N1.2 billion, an amount they later slashed to N750 million. The whereabouts of all the abductees – all females – were unknown for several days until they gained freedom last week after what must have been a most traumatic experience for them and their families.

Unfortunately, that was not an isolated incident as many of the nation’s secondary schools are increasingly under siege as criminal gangs increasingly render them unsafe for studies. Repeated attacks on schools have also created fear in many vulnerable students, especially in some sections of the country. “When a school is under attack and students become targets”, said Manuel Fotaine, West Africa Regional Director of United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), “not only are their lives shattered, the future of the nation is stolen.”

Regrettably, this has become our lot in Nigeria today. Last March, three pupils of Babinton Macaulay Junior Seminary, Ikorodu, Lagos, were abducted in a commando-like operation just as four pupils and two teachers of Lagos State Model College, Epe, Lagos, were seized six months later in October. In between these, so many schools were raided by bandits across the country, seizing, harassing and collecting ransoms.

In the North-east where the brutal insurgent group Boko Haram operated with impunity for years, some 200 schools were reportedly burnt in the course of their futile campaigns to establish a caliphate. Indeed, violence and instability in the schools only helped their ignoble cause since, by their philosophy, “western education is sinful.” Their attack on Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, Yobe State on February 25, 2014, where some 51 students were murdered was designed to instil fear in the minds of the children and their teachers and to discourage the parents from sending their wards to school. Even more audacious was the abduction, on April 14, 2014, of 276 schoolgirls from their hostels in Chibok, an action which prompted the catchy hashtag, BringBackOurGirls. Although 57 of the girls later escaped and 21 have been released through negotiation, some 195 of the girls are still in captivity.

The spate of kidnappings has prompted many to look out for ways of safeguarding students from physical threats and generally making the schools safe for study. The Safe Schools Initiative launched in 2014 after the Chibok kidnap, was meant to counter the growing attacks on the right to education and to build community security groups to promote safe zones for education, consisting of teachers, parents, police and community leaders. “We cannot stand by and see schools shut down, girls cut off from their education and parents in fear of their daughters’ lives,” said former British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, then UN Special Envoy on Education at the launch. “The Safe School Initiative will put Nigeria on track to help more and more girls and boys go to school and learn.”

Sadly, the idea has long been abandoned and the schools left to their individual devices. But all indicators suggest the threat to schools is not about to flag. What’s more, many elite schools, including a good number of federal government colleges, are located in rural areas and many are without perimeter fencing, making them easy targets at a time the security agencies are stretched. Besides fending for their security in time of recession, the schools may not have many alternatives than to build partnerships with the authorities as espoused in the safe school initiative.