Insecurity: Over 8 years of education collapse, Benue communities still under siege

The heightened insecurity in Benue state has put immense pressure on education, resulting in the closure of numerous schools due to attacks. Consequently, this situation has led to a significant increase in the number of out-of-school children, especially in LGAs like Guma, where militant herdsmen and bandits have laid siege.


NOVEMBER 21, 2020, remains a day Eunice Mase wishes she could rewrite. That was the day her 12-year-old daughter, Mercy, was abducted by armed men suspected to be bandits at her school in Tse-Ankyegh village, mbawa council ward of Benue state, where she had been studying for three years.

Before then, Mase had heard about coordinated attacks by herdsmen in nearby villages but could not foresee that her daughter would be kidnapped in her village on one afternoon in November 2020. 

From that moment, Mase has held on to her other three children, promising not to send them to a very far place for school until the attacks by terrorists run out. The school in her village, where Mercy was abducted, had been shut down over fear of abduction of kids by the parents, even as teachers took to their heels.

Eunice Mase, who now resides in Udei, hasn’t seen her daughter for over three years since she was kidnapped by suspected herdsmen on her way back from school. She still hopes that one day, her daughter will return home. Photo: The ICIR

Although she has not given up yet on her kidnapped daughter more than three years later, she explained that Mercy’s situation was unknown. ‘I feel so bad that sometimes, I hardly eat. I feel as if she will appear one day,’ she said as his eyes fluttered, trying to fight the barrage of tears.

“On November 21, 2020, the Fulani herdsmen invaded our village, killed some people and made away with so many people alive, including my daughter Awase, who was on her way to school. Till today, we don’t know her whereabouts,” said Awase. 

Mercy’s abduction is just one among numerous cases of children falling victim to the escalating insecurity plaguing Benue communities. Across various parts of the state, especially in the Guma LGA, armed conflict and criminal activities have instilled fear, making the parents and the children desert their homes to makeshift huts and government IDPs.

The bandits’ attack goes beyond the abduction of children in an isolated place, as most of these communities suffer persistent attacks and either get killed or severely injured.

Joseph
Zendesha Joseph, another resident of Benu, had her daughter kidnapped during an attack on their village by suspected herdsmen. Photo: The ICIR

Zendesha Joseph went through a similar ordeal when his daughter was kidnapped with four other pupils while coming back from school sometime last year.

Joseph, who is from Tse-nundu village, Guma LGA, said the other students abducted during the attack have since returned, but his daughter has not been found since the incident.

While both Joseph and Mase’s cases were unique on their own, their children are just two among many children in Benue and thousands of students who had been abducted or killed in pursuit of education across northern Nigeria. This has continued to have a significant impact on the number of out-of-school children in the country, especially in the Northern of Nigeria, where banditry, communal clashes and terrorist attacks persist.

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2020 Model Estimates on out-of-school children, published in 2022, states that almost 20 million Nigerian children are out of school. The data also shows that the secondary school out-of-school population has grown by 61 per cent, from 6.3 million to 10 million since 2010, while the number of primary school-aged children who are not in school also increased by 50 per cent, from 6.4 million to 9.7 million since 2010.

Globally, this puts Nigeria as the country with the third highest number of children deprived of education, only behind India and Pakistan. One of the biggest factors responsible for this humanitarian disaster is insecurity, according to UNICEF. In most of the places affected by insecurity, particularly Guma, the communities have been deserted, and the schools remain closed, thereby putting the children’s primary and secondary education on hold. 

Lingering crises

The state of insecurity in Benue State has grown increasingly precarious over the last eight years. According to The ICIR report, official records from the state indicate that over 5,000 deaths were attributed solely to attacks by herdsmen during the administration of the former governor, Samuel Ortom. These deaths were recorded in the state death register between 2015 and March 2023.

This was alongside millions worth of properties burnt, thousands of people injured and a mass exodus of people from their homes. For over eight years, the communities have continued to experience a series of attacks and could only hope they make it beyond the present day.

The official data by the state government might not have captured the extent of the damage (death) suffered by the state as there are some cases of insecurity incidents which go unreported. 

According to the state government, the attacks by herders led to the death of 1,177 and 809 people in 2015 and 2016, respectively, while 43 and 440 people were killed in 2017 and 2018. Also, the state stated that it recorded 174 deaths from herdsmen attacks in 2019, 88 in 2020, 2,131 in 2021, 172 deaths in 2022 and 104 since January 2023.

Of the 23 LGA areas in the state, 18 LGAs, including Guma LGA, were affected by insecurity and suffered continuous attacks from state and non-state actors.

Although the attacks can be majorly traced to open grazing and crisis between the herdsmen and farmers, communal clashes and criminal activities also contribute to the number of deaths and displacements recorded.

The number has increased since March 2023 following the presidential election, as attackers have intensified their pursuit of causing more harm. In April last year, at least 95 persons were killed during attacks on various LGAs within the state, including Otukpo and Guma, over a three-day period.

 

James
Tsokase James is another victim of the incessant bandit attacks on Benue communities. Photo: The ICIR

Tsokase James, 52, is one of the thousands of people who have suffered the brunt of insecurity in his town. His house was burnt, and he had to run through the middle of the night to get to the internally displaced persons camp to hide his head.

“In 2014, on the 23rd of June, our Community and school at LGEA Primary School Yogbo were attacked by herdsmen. That was the beginning of our problem and since then, it had been an incessant attack that made the people flee for safety.”

When asked about how insecurity impacts the lives of his children, he continued, “Generally, the condition of these children cannot be described any better. Living at the IDP camp is demoralising, and one cannot project any form of confidence. In fact, facing challenges of money, food, and shelter are the basic needs of life and the greatest challenges that they are facing, not to talk of education.”

Aborted dreams, shattered aspirations

Raphael Tehinba, 17, has been foced out of school for over a period of three years due to insecurity.
Tehemba Raphael, 17, has been forced out of school for over a period of three years due to insecurity. Photo: The ICIR

Tehinba Raphael, 17, harboured dreams of becoming either a medical practitioner or a lawyer, but those aspirations were shattered in 2020 when terrorists attacked his village, Agankasi, killed his loved ones, burnt his house and destroyed his family’s properties. Since then, he has been in the IDP camp and had to relinquish the hope of furthering his education over what he described as a lack of finances.

Raphael was in a junior secondary school when the suspected militant herdsmen attacked his village, and ever since then, his parents could not afford his school fees as they lost their means of farming and trading.

“Fulani herdsmen attack brought us to the camp. The attack has affected my educational journey because sometimes my parents could not afford my school fees. For that I have been dropped out of school,” said Raphael.

Even though he doubted if his dream could be resurrected, Raphael still appealed to the government to find a lasting solution to the insecurity attacks and facilitate their return home, enabling him to resume his education.

Just like Raphael, Cynthia Jato had dreamed of a future made possible through education,  but it has now been put on hold.

Tehinba Raphael , 17, has been foced out of school for over a period of three years due to insecurity.
Cynthia Jato, another child, has been forced out of school for over a period of three years due to insecurity.

She has been forced out of school for over three years when terrorists attacked her village bordering Nasarawa state.

“It is the farming crisis that brought me here (IDP camp). The insecurity affects my education so well because my parents can no longer afford my school fees, thus leaving me out of school for a long time,” Jato noted. 

The exodus from their homes in pursuit of safety has not brought any noticeable changes in the livelihoods of numerous individuals within these areas. Amidst seeking refuge, many continue to grapple with dire challenges, facing not only the trauma of displacement but also struggling to sustain their daily lives.

Some other children who spoke with The ICIR also shared the same plights and have seen their hopes of pursuing education up to at least the secondary level fade away.

Although her children are not out of school, 65-year-old Mama Kwaghkunda Tsekaa explained that the insecurity in Guma LGA affected the overall education and well-being of their children, citing a very poor environment, poverty and fear of attacks in the IDP centre.

“So bad that we never imagined the gravity. We lost our homes, farmlands, and properties and even lost people in our neighbourhood to the herdsmen’s attack. Another striking thing is the level of poverty experienced now than before. Because we cannot effectively feed ourselves, we depend on humanitarian aid for survival.

“It greatly affected especially my small boys. I have grown up children that had even gone to higher institutions while others left here to settle at other places. But we cannot doubt the fact that the Crisis has really affected the overall education and well-being of our children,” Tsekaa said. 

Over 50 schools remain closed, teachers scamper for safety

A picture of the affected school in Inundu, Guma LGA. Photo: The ICIR
A picture of the affected school in Inundu, Guma LGA. Photo: The ICIR

While it is more difficult to independently place the actual figure of the number of schools affected in Benue state, where armed men have continued to launch their attacks, The ICIR gathered from the Guma LGEA Secretariat at Gbajimba that over 50 schools have been closed due to insecurity.

Most of these schools, which cut across the ten council wards of the LGA, are located in deserted villages and towns, with a significant number of the schools being burnt by the bandits while a number have been turned into an IDP camp.

The ICIR also gathered that over 15 teachers lost their lives during the attacks on some of these villages in Guma, prompting many other teachers to transfer their services to the major city for safety. 

LGEA Primary school Inundu, Mbanyiar Mbawa, Gbajimba. Photo: The ICIR
LGEA Primary school Inundu, Mbanyiar Mbawa, Gbajimba. Photo: The ICIR

The implications of this were glaring when The ICIR visited some affected schools on one Monday, November 20. In Inudu LGEA primary school, The ICIR discovered that bushes had overgrown the surroundings of the three blocks of classrooms, with no signs of use for a considerable period of time.

Findings revealed that under the zonal intervention projects, UBEC had engaged Ultimate Civil Design Consult Nigeria Limited to construct a block comprising two classrooms for the school. Despite the completion of this construction, the classrooms have remained unused due to the village being deserted by its residents.

The same situation was observed when The ICIR visited Tsei Dei LGEA and Mbakuyor LGEA. The schools appeared visibly unused, while the villages have been deserted.

LGEA Primary School Mbakuyor, Guma LGA, has also been shut down over te years due to insecurity attacks. Photo; The ICIR
LGEA Primary School Mbakuyor, Guma LGA, has also been shut down over the years due to insecurity attacks. Photo: The ICIR

Speaking to The ICIR, the Education Secretary of Guma LGEA secretariat at Gbajimba, Guma LGA, Alaaga Genger, decried that over 90 per cent of schools in the area are not functional as a result of insecurity and lack of teachers who have transferred their services to major towns in the state for safety. 

According to him, the whole wing of educational activities in Guma has been taking refuge at the LGEA Central Primary School and UBE Secondary School, both in Gbajimba, adding that parents are not comfortable living in their wards to go to places alone or even staying alone at home by themselves.

Another affected school in Guma LGA; Tse inundu was shut down in 2020. Photo: The ICIR
Another affected school in Guma LGA, Tse inundu was shut down in 2020. Photo: The ICIR

Some of the affected schools as listed by the LGEA secretary are; LGEA primary schools Gbayange, Tse-gwa, Apera, Ormegha, Tsokuna, Mbabegha, Agbaka, Dam Awa, Gbajimba, Iortyom, Usoughul, Tsekereke, Yogbo, Igbenke, Ingbian, Tugudu, Tsegar, Gberkon, Tse-avine,  Kula Yemen, Magum, Makondu, Amah, Asamgabaa, Tarma, Gwa Adudu, Aninge, Bua Dyu, Anusu,  Igyorlugh, Akeja, Adai, Ali-Agudu, Orkpe and Akaakuma. Others are Junior secondary school Torkula, UBE Tyulen, and RCM primary school Uhembe. 

Morning and afternoon class in central primary school Gbajimba

As he emerged from the main entrance of Central Primary School, Gbajimba, into a moderately big classroom on a very sunny Friday afternoon, Aondoaseer Ordue was covered with sweat as he tried to find his seat. He was about 30 minutes late to the class, but his teacher knew he had to cover a very long distance to attend the lecture.

Aondoaseer Ordue
Aondoaseer Ordue

Ordue, a primary six pupil formerly at the LGEA primary school Tsokuna, found himself among numerous other students who had to trek down to the Central primary school from a long distance due to the non-functionality of their respective schools. Additionally, students residing in a nearby IDP Camp also benefit from the educational opportunities offered by the school.

“Insecurity badly affected me in terms of going to school, family settlement and peace of mind as a child. We used to play freely as children but since the incident, fear of the unknown has taken over,” Ordue said.

A cross section of primary six pupils at the LGEA Central Primary school Gbajimba (most of them where displaced from their former schools due to insecurity). Photo: The ICIR
A cross-section of primary six pupils at the LGEA Central Primary School Gbajimba (most of them were displaced from their former schools due to insecurity). Photo: The ICIR

The ICIR gathered that the school is the only active Public school in the area and covers both morning and afternoon classes to entertain many pupils due to its capacity.

He continued, “For me, my parents brought me here at the LGEA Central Primary School Gbajimba to complete my primary education, but the rest of my brothers are at home doing almost nothing. Most of my siblings are now in Nasarawa while few are in Makurdi.”

 

Sunday Orguga
Sunday Orguga.

Another primary six-pupil shared a similar plight with Ordue. “Though my parents brought me here, it is often a sad moment trekking under the sun every afternoon to attend classes. We never prayed for this bad experience, but we are suffering from it greatly.”

While explaining how the development has come, the headteacher of the school, Adule Aondowase, explained that the Benue State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) directed the pupils from the affected schools to undergo a free education at the Central Primary School, but the hope of those pupils remains a mirage. 

According to him, the distance to be covered by such pupils while coming to school was a great discouragement, adding that there is an emergency school at the Gbajimba IDP camp to aid the learning of children taking refuge at the camp.






     

     

    “Despite the fact that we have divided the LGEA Gbajimba Central Primary School into two sessions, morning and afternoon (7:00 a.m. -12:00 p.m. and 12:30–5:00 p.m.), we still have a very big problem due to lack of teachers and the population of pupils outweighed the structures on the ground. Now, a teacher is taking more than a hundred pupils in a class, which is against the standards”, he lamented. 

    State Government keeps mum

    On Monday, December 18, The ICIR reached out to the state Chief Press Secretary, Tersoo Kula, seeking reactions to its findings and inquiring about the state government’s efforts to ensure the return of students who have been forced out of schools to their classes.

    However, as of the time of filing this report, there has been no response from him.

    This investigative story is produced with support from Safer-Media Initiative under The Collaborative Media Engagement for Development, Inclusiveness, and Accountability Project of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

    Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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