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Education is both the victim and the best weapon in Central Sahel conflict

A young boy reading, seen from above and dressed in bright colours..
A child who fled from Central African Republic attending a class at a refugee camp in Chad. Getty Images

South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, captured the value of education when he said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

This is why quality education is one of the 17 sustainable development goals “to transform our world” of the United Nations (UN). It’s also why protecting education from attack during armed conflict and in insecure spaces is so important.

The UN has had the protection and provision of education during armed conflict on its agenda since 2010. This was when the General Assembly adopted a resolution on the right to education in emergency situations. On 9 September 2020, the UN commemorated the first International Day to Protect Education from Attack, specifically in the context of armed conflict.

The purpose is “to raise awareness of the plight of millions of children living in countries affected by conflict”. The General Assembly’s decision to commemorate this day coincided with the fifth anniversary of the international Safe Schools Declaration.

The attack on education by armed groups fuels a vicious cycle of underdevelopment and insecurity, causing more violence. Some have described such attacks as a “perceptible shift in modern terror tactics”.

Africa features prominently in a 2020 report published by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack. It lists Sudan, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo as “very heavily affected” countries.

Another region of high concern is the Central Sahel, which includes Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. A Human Rights Watch news report published in early September claims that attacks on education in this region have been surging.

Between 2014 and 2019, the Central Sahel experienced a significant increase in “security incidents”. These include battles, explosions or remote violence and violence against civilians. One feature of this violence is how perpetrators have targeted school infrastructure, staff and students.

Violence caused a six-fold increase in school closures across the Central Sahel between early 2017 and end 2019. Prior to COVID-19 lockdowns, and in 2020 alone, 4,000 schools in the Central Sahel closed because of insecurity, affecting 650,000 students.

A key feature of the attack on education is the way children are made victims of killing, sexual violence, maiming and abduction, and are recruited and used by armed groups.

What drives attacks on education?

Civilians across the Central Sahel have endured attacks from Islamic militant groups, state security forces and ethnic or religiously based militias. While state security forces use schools for military purposes, Islamic armed groups have deliberately targeted education facilities.

One highly publicised incident just beyond the borders of the Central Sahel was the 2014 kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls by the militant group Boko Haram.

The reasons terrorist groups or other armed actors attack education institutions are varied. A school is a “relatively unguarded site where people congregate, normally in large numbers, thus offering the potential for mass casualties”.

They’re ideal targets for terrorist groups who aim to portray a government as incapable of protecting its most vulnerable citizens.

Islamic militants, specifically, attack schools perceived to be Western or modern, as part of their strategy against Western civilisation. And where there’s prolonged intra-state conflict, schools can become centres for recruiting child soldiers.

Attacks on schools and children evoke a strong emotional response, which is a definitive goal of terrorist groups. This was evident following the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. Its also helps explain the impetus behind the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack and the recently held High-Level Humanitarian Event on the Central Sahel.

Another reason for targeting schools is the intensive media coverage that follows. Media coverage provides terrorist groups with a platform.

Political will

What can be done to fix the problem?

There’s no straightforward answer to this question. The attack on education is one element of the broader challenge of armed conflict and insecurity. The causes reside not so much with religious fundamentalism, Islamic or otherwise, as they do with poor governance.

It’s worth noting that Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger each perform poorly on freedom, human development and corruption indices – all measures of good governance.

It’s questionable whether political leaders in the Central Sahel have the will to follow recommendations that emphasise the role of the state in protecting education from attack. Governments that are self-serving and don’t really want to promote freedom don’t have an interest in education.

The ability of communities to hold their governments accountable becomes restricted in countries where governments are oppressive and devalue education. This gives impetus to the involvement of foreign actors in the Central Sahel.

Militarised partnerships

Western states have been among the more prominent foreign actors in Africa’s security landscape. They have resources and concerns over migration and fundamentalism.

On occasion they have held African governments accountable on matters of governance. But they have also shown a willingness to collaborate with authoritarian regimes in the fight against terrorism.

The relations between Western governments and the governments of the Central Sahel are a case in point. The militarised partnerships worsen the underlying causes of violent extremism, including attacks on education.

I cautioned in 2017 that if emphasis on military solutions to the Sahel’s security challenges persisted, countries were likely to experience an increase in extremism. Since then, the foreign military presence in Africa and in the Sahel region has increased. The increase in attacks on education in the Central Sahel suggest that violent extremism has followed the same trajectory.

The militarised partnerships pursued by Western administrations have proven counter-productive to education.

Perhaps the victims of attacks on education in the Central Sahel can rely on democratically inclined constituencies elsewhere for assistance. These could pressure their governments to hold their African allies in the war on terror to account. For these constituencies to do so effectively, however, they will need knowledge and motivation. This will require education.

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