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School offers hope to Nigerian children

22 July 2014, 16:20

Maiduguri - Aisha Abubakar was at home two years ago when Boko Haram Islamists stormed through the door. She watched as they executed her father.

Children in Nigeria's north face immense challenges in accessing education, and for the fatherless like 13-year-old Aisha the obstacles are even tougher.

But by far the most daunting roadblock standing between Aisha and a diploma is that she lives in Maiduguri, the epicentre of a brutal insurgency being waged by a group that has declared war on education, especially for girls.

With an English textbook spread on a wooden table in a sparsely furnished classroom, Aisha vowed that Boko Haram - which kidnapped more than 200 girls from a secondary school in April - would not keep her from reaching medical school.

Modicum of hope

"I'm sure my dad would be proud to have a medical doctor for a child," she told AFP.

The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School in Maiduguri offers a modicum of hope to children caught up in the conflict by providing cost-free meals, uniforms, health care and education.

Founded in 2007 to serve orphans and the poor, Future Prowess had 36 students in its first year, but enrolment has surged during the five-year Islamist uprising.

"Of the 420 pupils we have 205 who had their fathers killed in the insurgency," said the school's principal Suleiman Aliyu.

A traumatised generation

Despite its brutally hot, unforgiving climate, Maiduguri was once a commercial hub for traders in northeast Nigeria as well as neighbouring Chad and Niger.

The economy and countless numbers of families in the city have been destroyed by Boko Haram's rebellion, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

During some periods the city has suffered gun and bomb attacks on a near daily basis. The assailants are primarily alienated young men radicalised in part by the crippling poverty in the northeast, experts say.

School attendance has plummeted to a record low because of the violence, including the gruesome raid on a secondary school in the remote town of Chibok on 14 April, when Boko Haram militants seized 276 girls. Fifty-seven have since escaped.

State of collapse

Officials in Borno state, of which Maiduguri is the capital, have been forced to shut all 85 public secondary schools indefinitely, sending an estimated 120 000 students home.

Northern Nigeria has never boasted a strong public school system, and girls have typically been denied an education: more than two-thirds of females between 15 and 19 cannot read a sentence, according to a 2012 British Council study.

But the Future Prowess principal Aliyu said the current state of collapse of education in Borno is unprecedented and could ultimately perpetuate the insurgency by depriving a whole generation of children an education and making them vulnerable to extremist ideology.

"We will have another generation of psychopaths that will one day be a threat to us all if we don't help these children now," he said.

Relentless violence

Private schools offering scholarships or charitably funded free schools must step in to fill the void, he added.

The relentless violence has led to a flood of new applicants for Future Prowess.

Ninety children are currently on the waiting list and the school is struggling to find funds to build three more classrooms and add to its roster of 19 teachers.

Future Prowess's founder and primary donor is Mustapha Zanna, a lawyer with intimate knowledge of Boko Haram.

He represented the relatives of Boko Haram's ex-leader Mohammed Yusuf, who was killed in police custody in 2009, in a wrongful death lawsuit. Zanna won the case, but it is not clear whether Nigeria has paid any damages.

Ceasefire talks

In 2011, he helped broker unsuccessful ceasefire talks between former president Olusegun Obasanjo and Islamist leaders in Maiduguri.

The legacy of government dialogue with Boko Haram is convoluted and defined by failure, but Zanna told AFP that the mix of children at his school gives him hope that a negotiated settlement remains possible.

Most students, like Aisha, had fathers killed by the insurgents, but there are also those whose fathers died in a heavy-handed military raid, killed by soldiers who often do not distinguish between Boko Haram and civilians.

"We [also] have children of the insurgents," Zanna said, explaining that widows of Islamist fighters have brought their sons and daughters to learn at Future Prowess.

By bringing together an array of children touched by opposite sides of the conflict and enabling them to study together, the school offers "sort of template" for a future peace, he said.

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