Nigeria Kidnap Strikes at the Heart of Schools-for-All

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Nigeria Kidnap Strikes at the Heart of Schools-for-All

Sir Michael Barber

07 May 2014

The abduction of the Nigerian girls is an offence against the best traditions of learning in Islam writes Michael Barber, a trustee of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, chief education adviser at Pearson and the Department for International Development's special representative on education in Pakistan.

Imagine if 200 girls had been abducted at gunpoint from a school in north-east England. Imagine that for three weeks no word of them had been heard. That would be a massive story across the globe. There would be outrage and scathing criticism of the Government.

Yet for weeks, the abduction of more than 200 girls from their boarding school at Chibok in north-east Nigeria on April 14 barely registered with the media. Finally, the international community is calling for action, though that did not stop Boko Haram kidnapping eight more girls yesterday.

Of course the case got plenty of attention in Nigeria. The parents are devastated. They are also deeply unimpressed by their government's response. They hear plenty of words but see little effective action. They even went searching themselves in the surrounding forests but they know there are armed militants. Estimates suggest as many as 1,500 people in the region have been killed this year. Islamist terror group Boko Haram seeks the expulsion of Christians from the north. However, while it has killed Christians, most of its several thousand victims have been Muslims.

Much is unknown about Boko Haram, other than the deadly consequences of its terrorism. From the work the Tony Blair Faith Foundation does, we know the group is growing. Some analysts believe networks of education may play a key role, with Boko Haram recruiting former students from schools in the Almajiri network. These institutions are run independently of government; in them, it is alleged that students memorise the Koran and little else. Some accuse their teachers of promoting religious violence.

Most Muslims prize education for girls as well as boys. I know from my work on education in Pakistan that even in tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan, poor parents know education is a way to escape poverty.

The Nigerian girls' abduction is thus an offence against the best traditions of learning in Islam and a bid to strike fear over taking part in education into the hearts of ordinary Nigerians. These are reasons enough for international outrage and solidarity.

The Millennium Development Goals, set 15 years ago, prioritised getting every primary-age child in the world into school. Today nearly 60 million children, more girls than boys, are still to be enrolled and another 250 million or so are in school but not learning. The figures for secondary education are much worse.

So the question is a simple one: are we serious about universal education or not? If we are, it has to be about more than making speeches and raising money, though this might help.

It needs to be about driving practical action in the villages and cities of the countries where children are still not schooled, as is happening for example in Punjab. It has to be about vigorously countering anyone who uses violence to deny the right of children to a good education.

The Chibok girls' schooling could be a symbol of the future and the good in the world. Their abduction is a denial of all that is human. Are we serious or not?

This article was originally printed in the London Evening Standard.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 

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