28 November 2012

Nigeria: Picking the Pieces As Life Returns to Yobe Towns

Damaturu and Maiduguri — Fatima Baba Bilal, 9, was sighted at the shed of her blacksmith grandfather in Potiskum fanning flames recently. She told Daily Trust that she was doing something different because her primary school had been burnt down.

"My grandfather invites us here; we work, eat and get some money to spend at the end of the day," she said.

Sayyadi Jibril, a Fulani boy, was also sighted last week on the highway along Ngelzarma with herds of cattle and he told Daily Trust: "I am afraid of returning to school because they said they would burn children, together with the schools."

But Umar Khalifa, 12, who was hawking sugarcane in Potiskum on Thursday last week told our reporter that he and his friends were eager to return to school.

Since November 2011 when suspected members of the Jama'atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda'awati Wal Jihad, also known as Boko Haram, launched massive attacks on Damaturu, the Yobe State capital, the state had remained under siege with attendant loss of lives and property worth billions of naira.

Several schools have been burnt down and children of the less privileged had no option than to stay at home, some of them involved in child labour.

Dozens of security agents, religious clerics and civilians have been killed just as important government buildings including the state police headquarters, the two story building housing the anti terrorism squad, parts of the Immigrations office and many others have been shelled.

The attacks spilled over to other towns, especially Potiskum, the business hub of the state, as well as Geidam, Gashua and Buni Yadi, the headquarters of Gujba local government area.

So bad was the insecurity in the affected places that life was forced to a standstill. Curfews were intermittently imposed and lifted; a development which led to collapse of businesses. Civil service was grounded. Educational pursuits were suspended as primary and security schools, as well as some tertiary institutions were closed down.

Piqued by persistent terror attacks, especially in Damaturu, residents began to flee and the town became desolate, particularly between July and October this year.

Within the time under review, most primary and secondary schools in Damaturu and Potiskum had been reduced to shreds while countless telecommunication masts were torched by the attackers. Communication was thus made extremely difficult.

The level of damage, especially in the education sector is unimaginable. Significant part of the College of Administration and Business Studies in Potiskum has been razed down and the school closed. The Federal College of Education (Technical) Potiskum was also closed; so also is the state College of Education in Gashua.

But the Federal Polytechnic in Damaturu which was also closed has announced resumption of academic activities. Mallam Mohammed Nura, spokesman of the institution said HND 1 and 2 as well as Diploma students have returned while efforts are being made to recall students in other categories.

In the face of the bizarre situation, pupils and students from influential homes had an option. They were taken away to study in safer environments within and outside the state. Daily Trust gathered that many children were taken as far as Lagos, Abuja, and Kano, and even abroad to continue their educational pursuit.

Children from less privileged families were also occupied, somehow, by patriotic teachers. One such teacher who does not want to be named was sighted at a primary school in Damaturu giving free lesson to pupils. He said the initiative was meant to satisfy the quest of the pupils to learn.

"They come to me daily asking about their resumption date. So I decided to take them on extramural lessons, and lucky, the commissioner for education has announced that all the schools that are not completely destroyed should resume," he said.

When our correspondents interviewed some children seen hawking in Damaturu and Potiskum, majority of them said they are eager to resume studies.

However, though government has reopened all schools in the state, some parents are reluctant to release their children, fearing that the environment was not safe yet. Similarly, the teachers are reluctant to return to classes for safety reasons.

Effort to speak to state commissioner for education Alhaji Mala Musty was not successful. His number was not going through. But an officer in the Yobe State Universal Basic Education board said there was improvement in school activities.

"In fact almost all the schools, both private and public have resumed. The only issue is that some parents are still studying the situation. Even the burnt schools have been opened and reconstruction is ongoing," he said.

Earlier this year, the state government had terminated the appointment of 281 contract teachers but recently asked them to reapply.

"We want to give our students the best that is why the contract teachers would be considered again. It is part of the strategy to revamp the education sector," a source at the office of the head of service said.

Malam Muhammad Lawan who relocated his children from Damaturu to Gashua said he felt it was better to enrol them where they would study with little interruption.

"In the wake of these crises, both private and public schools in Damaturu did not complete a single term... this is exactly one year," he said.

Malam Rabiu Nguru said he had taken three of his children to their grandmother in a village to have access to uninterrupted education.

"I don't think I will return them to Damaturu soon because one is in class five and the other is in six; they will graduate very soon," he said.

In any case, life is gradually picking up in Yobe State. Just last Tuesday, government relaxed the curfew imposed by three hours. The curfew is now from 9pm to 7am and affects only Damaturu, Gujba, Potiskum and Gashua towns.

A statement by special adviser to the governor on media Malam Abdullahi Bego said the development followed a meeting with security heads in the state which resolved that there is significant improvement in the security situation.

Though some traders have returned, they still remember the ugly days they witnessed which forced them to flee to neighbouring states and towns. They alleged that they had to flee from molestation and indiscriminate arrest by security operatives on one hand and merciless execution by the militants on the other. But they are gradually returning to their former base.

Despite tight security, with several check points mounted at approximately 200 meters interval, the influx of people into Damaturu have increased in recent times. Some residents say it is the result of persistent prayers.

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