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After Boko Haram attack, fear lingers for Nigeria students

At Maitama Sule Girls Academy in Kano, Nigeria, 15- and 16-year old students attend an Islamic studies class.

Erin Conway-Smith/The Globe and Mail

Rabia Nura has serious dreams. The earnest 16-year-old student, whose favourite subject is chemistry, is determined to become a doctor – and then she wants to be Nigeria's health minister. But first she must survive the anxieties of life in a girls school at a time of kidnappings and bombings.

When an estimated 276 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram extremists from Chibok school in northern Nigeria last month, the number of security guards was tripled at the gates of Ms. Nura's school. But she still doesn't feel safe. She and her classmates are the same age as the girls who were kidnapped, and she lives in a northern city, Kano, that has suffered its own Boko Haram attacks. She was shocked by the mass kidnapping last month. "It was devastating because you feel like you're the ones who were abducted," she says.

"Now we'll just be afraid," the Muslim teenager says, adjusting her headscarf. "Any slight interruption will make the students afraid. Parents won't want their children to attend school, and it will really increase the high level of illiteracy. People won't be free to learn, and students won't trust people."

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Kano, the biggest city in northern Nigeria, was the target of a wave of bombing attacks by Boko Haram in early 2012, killing 185 people on a single day – the deadliest attack ever launched by Boko Haram before this year.

The attacks by the Islamist extremists continued sporadically in Kano until the middle of last year. But today there is a glimmer of hope: Peace is returning to the city, the attacks have ceased and Kano's leaders believe the city could be a model of how to control the brutal insurgency.

Martins Felix, the principal of the all-girls academy where Ms. Nura is a student, remembers the terror of the 2012 bombing attacks when the whole city seemed under siege. His seven-year-old daughter still worries when she hears any loud noise. "They're bombing again, they're bombing again," she tells her parentsfearfully.

Mr. Felix believes there are two key reasons for the relative peace that Kano has enjoyed for most of the past year. First, the security forces on the streets have drastically increased: soldiers, paramilitary agencies, secret police and civilian defence units, often shielded behind walls of sand bags as they guard key streets. But he worries about the psychological effect on Kano's children.

"When I grew up, soldiers were kept in the barracks," he says. "These days you see soldiers on the streets with guns."

The second factor is a more positive one – an energetic Kano state government that has created thousands of jobs and helped students stay in school. It's a sharp contrast to northeastern Nigeria, where high rates of poverty and unemployment have allowed Boko Haram to thrive, Mr. Felix says. "When you're not doing anything from morning to night and you don't have any income, you start to think," he says. "An idle mind is the devil's workshop."

The state governor, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, says he has created jobs for thousands of young men as security guards, traffic police and other security posts. "It's a way of mopping up the young people who were doing nothing and taking them off the streets and having them fight crime," Mr. Kwankwaso saidin an interview. "Without these jobs, they would be doing nothing and they would probably be part of the crisis." Jobs are more important than brute force in controlling Boko Haram, hethe governor said. "It's not just a matter of police and soldiers firing guns and tear gas."

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Across northern Nigeria, however, there is a clear government strategy: use a heavy military and security presence to push Boko Haram out of the cities and into the rural villages and remote bush. It has made the cities safer and more secure, although it has also left villages such as Chibok more vulnerable to Boko Haram attack.

Nigeria's federal government was unable to increase the number of police officers in Kano, so the state government paid for an increase in the number of other security agents, including an Islamic morality police force called Hisbah, which has 9,000 members, and a civilian defence unit known as Neighbourhood Watch or Vigilante Security, which has about 35,000 members.

A national agency, the State Security Service, has also been heavily involved in pushing Boko Haram out of the cities. All of these agencies and security forces, however, have been criticized for heavy-handed excesses and human rights abuses.

Despite all the security on the streets, many people in Kano are convinced that Boko Haram supporters are still secretly active in the city. "They gather their intelligence," says Father Gabriel Ikor, a priest at the Catholic cathedral in Kano. "They survey the situation, and then, when you are relaxed, they strike."

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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