Sahel schoolteachers face Jihadist threat

Screenshot of students in school in Burkina Faso (Sahel), Tv5 Monde Info YouTube Channel

No sector has been spared the impact of the Jihadist conflicts in the Sahel. Even the education sector remains profoundly impacted by armed group operations and threats.

The Sahel conflict is an armed conflict between Jihadist and Islamist groups and the governments of  Western Africa some of which receive military support from France, the United States, and Russia. This conflict began in 2003 when an armed group led by Abderazak el Para abducted 32 German and Austrian tourists to demand a ransom, which they eventually obtain. Estimates indicate that over 11,000 civilians have lost their lives during this conflict.

Although the Sahel's volatile security situation primarily affects students, the teachers’ daily work puts them at even greater risk, with many living each day as if it were their last. Some have subsequently decided to leave the teaching profession for the sake of their lives, whereas others are determined to safeguard the children’s future out of love for their profession. Armed groups make repeated attempts on their lives since their ideology conflicts with the notion of school education for all, as this Tv5 Monde Info video report with student and teacher accounts explains:


School year under Jihadist threat

The school year that began in September or October 2022, hasn’t been easy for those involved in the Sahel region's education systems. Students and teachers in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, northern Benin, Togo, and Nigeria have had to contend with the profound impact of these armed conflicts. Nearly 500 attacks were carried out against schools in this region just in the year 2019, and an estimated 650,000 students have been affected by school closures since 2017, according to the UN.

While Niger’s end-of-year exams are fast approaching, access to school remains challenging in the west of this country. In Tillabéri, or more specifically the tri-border region that Niger shares with Burkina Faso and Mali, several primary and secondary schools have been closed for security reasons.

Following a supervision visit, the Nigerien Minister of National Education, Ibrahim Natatou, published figures indicating that 921 of Tillabéri’s primary and secondary schools had been closed for security reasons in May 2023.

The secretary general of Niger's National Union of Civil Servant and Contract Employees in Secondary Education  (Synafces), Labo Seibou, confirmed this observation in a Global Voices interview:

Le Niger est secoué ces dernières années par des attaques répétées au niveau de quatre régions à savoir : Tahoua, Maradi, Diffa et Tilaberi. Mais la situation s’est beaucoup dégradée au niveau de la zone des trois frontières du fait des actions des groupes terroristes, des écoles ont été fermées.

Over the last few years, Niger has been shaken by repeated attacks in four particular regions: TahouaMaradiDiffa and Tillaberi. However, the situation has deteriorated significantly in the tri-border region owing to terrorist group operations. Schools have also been closed.

According to Labo Seibou, this situation denies thousands of children their right to education enshrined in Article 23 of the Constitution of Niger.

Forty-one schools have been closed in the southwestern department of Abala. Thirty-one for security reasons and ten for a lack of teachers. In an interview with Global Voices, the department of Abala prefect, Boubacar Oumarou, said:

Quand les enseignants partent, l’école ferme automatiquement. Ce n’est pas un bon signe pour nous parce que nous avons des milliers d’élèves. Environ 3 000 qui sont en train de chômer

When teachers leave, the schools inevitably close. This doesn’t bode well for us since we have thousands of students. Around 3,000 are currently hanging around.
In Burkina Faso, teachers are faced with similar terrorist threats. According to Souleymane Badienne, the secretary general of Burkina Faso’s Federation of National Teachers and Researchers Unions, there are two ongoing issues. He explained to Global Voices:

Il n y a même pas eu d’année scolaire à proprement parler. Il y a quelques localités où les cours ont pu se dérouler mais difficilement, c’est-à-dire pas à un rythme défini par les normes.

There isn’t even a school year as such. Lessons could take place in some localities, but with great difficulty. That’s to say, not in the standardized manner.

Out of the country’s 13 administrative regions, only the Centre region, with Ouagadougou as its capital, has been unaffected by terrorist groups disrupting its schools, according to Badienne.

A Burkinabé journalist, Djakaridia Siribié,  tweeted:

#Education: According to @UNICEF_FR, 11,000 schools in the Central Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin have been closed due to conflicts and threats made against teachers and students.

Hundreds of thousands of children have thereby been denied entry to the new school year. @Kalidoo

— Djakaridia Siribié 🇧🇫 (@Dsiribie) September 9, 2022

Teachers and students left to their own devices

In view of this complicated security situation, it’s hard to imagine how the school curricula could possibly go ahead. The State, which should provide safeguards to ensure teachers can continue teaching safely, is conspicuously absent in these conflict zones. In terms of the situation in Niger, Labo Seibou explains:

Il n’y a pas de soutien formel de l’État. On avait même demandé qu’il y ait des primes de motivations pour des zones d’insécurité mais jusque-là, l’État n’a rien prévu.

There’s no formal State support. We had even requested incentives for insecure areas. However, the State has done nothing thus far.
As for Burkina Faso, Badienne adds:

Face à ces menaces, nous ne recevons pas d’appui de la part des autorités. L’essentiel des investissements dans notre pays va ministère de la défense et de la sécurité.

We receive no support from the authorities to deal with these threats. Most of the investments in our country go towards the Ministry of Defense and Security.
According to a teacher in Tillabéri, known as Moussa (name changed for anonymity), this situation is hard to endure:

Quand nous expliquons à nos supérieurs hiérarchiques que nous avons reçu des messages de fermer les écoles, des menaces de quitter le village, nous sommes mal compris. Ils nous demandent de retourner à nos postes dans nos villages sans quoi, nos contrats seront définitivement résiliés. D’un côté, nous sommes sous menaces terroristes, et de l’autre nous sommes sous la menace de l’administration.

When we tell our superiors that we’ve received messages to close the schools and threats to leave the village, but we are not taken seriously. They tell us to return to work in our villages or else our contracts will be permanently terminated. We’re under terrorist threats on one side and administrative threats on the other.

Panic and trauma every day

The terrorist risks and threats are very real, Badienne explains:

Dix-sept membres du personnel de l’éducation ont perdu la vie du fait de l’action des groupes armés terroristes. En plus de cette perte en vies humaines, il y a des traumatismes physiques. Certains ont été pourchassés, bastonnés parfois même devant leurs élèves. Il y a aussi des traumatismes psychologiques.

Seventeen education professionals have lost their lives due to armed terrorist group operations. As well as this loss of life, there is also physical trauma. Some have been hunted down and sometimes even beaten in front of their students. There’s also the psychological trauma.
This panic stems from a significant number of teachers being unable to teach in situations of insecurity and subsequently forced to leave areas where they could easily lose their lives. Moussa himself has survived several attacks; he says:

«Nous avons été menacés de fermer nos écoles et même de quitter le village définitivement. Il y a même un enseignant qui a été tué dans la commune d’Anzourou, située sur la frontière nigéro-malienne. Dans cette zone, les terroristes sévissent, des chefs de villages ont été tués et d'autres villages ont été abandonnés sous menaces terroristes.

We’ve been threatened with the closure of our schools and to even leave the village forever. A teacher was also killed in the Anzourou commune on the Mali-Niger border. Terrorists are rampant in this area. Village leaders have been killed while other villages have been abandoned due to terrorist threats.

According to Labo Seibou, some teachers only survived because they hid within the community or wore rags to avoid being spotted. He adds:

Beaucoup de nos camarades ont été lâchement abattus par les terroristes du fait qu’ils enseignent aux enfants du Niger et que ces groupes sont contre l’enseignement moderne.

Many of our colleagues have been spinelessly killed by terrorists purely for teaching children in Niger where such groups oppose modern teaching.

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