Hundreds of schools closed in fear of jihadist attacks

A policeman patrols in the centre of Ouahigouya, in northern Burkina Faso, which is particularly under threat from jihadists.
A policeman patrols in the centre of Ouahigouya, in northern Burkina Faso, which is particularly under threat from jihadists.
Image: AFP

In Burkina Faso, a country struggling to contain jihadist violence, education is one of the victims of the insurgency, with hundreds of schools closed, teachers in hiding and pupils kept indoors over the fear of attacks.

In the conflict-ridden north, more than three years of assaults and threats by radical Islamists have led to the closure of more than 300 schools, according to estimates, with the east of the West African country now also seeing closures.

“The jihadists are slowly killing education,” Kassoum Ouedraogo said.

He used to teach in a primary school in the small town of Nenebouro, near the border with Mali.

One of his colleagues was murdered in 2016, and in 2017 teachers felt the security threat was so dangerous that they shut the school.

Ouedraogo moved to the northern regional capital Ouahigouya where, he said, he lived with fear in his stomach.

“They do not want ‘French’ schools . . . they want schools in Arabic,” he said, describing how teachers had been threatened by Islamists angry about “Western-style” education.

“[I used to] stay with villagers so that they could not find me so easily,” Ouedraogo, who considered the accommodation provided by the school unsafe, said.

Burkina Faso is part of the vast Sahel region, which has turned into a hotbed of violent extremism and lawlessness since chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

Despite international efforts to create a transnational anti-jihadist military operation, named the G5 Sahel force, the situation is getting worse.

A recent report submitted to the UN Security Council warned that security had deteriorated rapidly over the past six months in the area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with attacks spreading to eastern Burkina Faso.

According to an official report in September, 229 people have been killed in Islamist attacks in Burkina Faso since 2015 – including three major assaults on the capital, Ouagadougou.

Another teacher, who did not want to be named, said jihadists attacks destroyed his school.

“One day, armed men arrived in the village. Some pupils ran to warn me and we went into the bush to hide.

“The men shot at the doors of the school, then they burned everything inside,” the teacher said, declining even to name the region of the attack.

In the eastern town of Matiakoali, a dozen schools closed at the end of October.

Jihadists had visited mosques in nearby villages and warned that the staff had to leave, another teacher said.

“The teachers from neighbouring villages got together and we decided to leave,” he said, explaining that they moved to other cities for safety.

The growing boldness of jihadist fighters in the former French colony reflects the government’s apparent inability to protect its citizens across vast stretches of the country.

Teachers and unions warn that thousands of children face years without access to schools unless the government steps up the fight against the terror.

“The situation is worrying. More than a dozen secondary schools have closed, hundreds of primary schools, Yssa Kintiga, from F-Synter union, said.

“There are many places where there are no schools.

“The state must give itself the means to ensure security so all children have access to education,” he said.

In one of the world’s poorest countries, that is proving hard to do.

France has a 4,500-member military mission in the Sahel and is backing Burkina Faso and other members of the G5 Sahel group to improve security, but it has had funding issues.

French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Ouagadougou in October and announced a ß30m (R480m) “Three Borders” aid package for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to help spur development.

The money is seen as essential for easing the conditions which have allowed the jihadist insurgencies to thrive.

But optimism is hard to find, with a French diplomatic source warning of a very long anti-terrorist fight.