Attacks on education surge in West and Central Africa, UNESCO warns

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A recent report issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has sounded the alarm on a disturbing trend: a surge in attacks on education across West and Central Africa over the past decade. 

A recent report issued by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has sounded the alarm on a disturbing trend: a surge in attacks on education across West and Central Africa over the past decade. According to UNESCO, universities and schools have not been spared from these assaults, which have been perpetrated by armed conflict groups and government armed forces.

Highlighting the severity of the situation, UNESCO pinpointed several countries where attacks on education have been most prevalent. In Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria, educational institutions have faced relentless targeting by various armed groups.

In Burkina Faso, armed Islamist insurgent groups have specifically targeted higher education institutions since 2017. Notable universities such as Dori University and the University of Fada N’Gourma have been forced to suspend classes due to security concerns.

Similarly, armed separatist groups in Cameroon, particularly in the English-speaking north-west and south-west regions, have boycotted education since 2017, leading to attacks on universities like the University of Buea and the University of Bamenda. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, conflict between rebel groups and government forces has escalated since 2012, resulting in attacks on educational facilities in eastern provinces.

Mali has also witnessed a significant impact on its education system due to rebel attacks, with approximately 1,500 out of 9,000 schools closed or non-functional as of last year. Even prestigious institutions like the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu have not been spared from violence.

However, the situation in Nigeria stands out as particularly dire, with attacks carried out by the notorious Boko Haram group. Over the past decade, Boko Haram has disrupted education through abductions, looting, and violence targeting students and teachers, especially in the north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe.

According to UNESCO's briefing papers, more than 1,400 students were abducted and over 100 university students and academics were injured, abducted, or killed in reported attacks on tertiary institutions in Nigeria between 2020 and 2021.

Amid efforts to address these attacks, UNESCO has adopted a framework that defines attacks on education as any threatened or actual use of force against educational personnel, facilities, or resources. These attacks, motivated by political, cultural, religious, and ethnic factors, have far-reaching consequences, disrupting the education of millions of children and youth across the region.

Moreover, UNESCO and the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) have urged governments in affected countries to protect the civilian character of educational institutions and cease attacks or threats against students, teachers, and facilities. They also advocate for the implementation of guidelines to safeguard schools and universities from military use during armed conflicts.

Despite the existence of international commitments such as the Safe Schools Declaration, which aims to protect educational spaces from the impacts of conflict, implementation remains weak in many countries.

The underlying factors driving attacks on education are complex and multifaceted, including political instability, economic insecurity, and social grievances. Additionally, youth unemployment poses a significant risk, potentially fueling recruitment to armed groups in the absence of viable economic opportunities.

Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort from governments, international organizations, and civil society to prioritize the protection of education and invest in youth empowerment and economic development.

As attacks on education continue to escalate in West and Central Africa, urgent action is needed to safeguard the fundamental right to education and ensure the safety and security of students, teachers, and educational facilities.