In the city where the infamous Boko Haram was born, education is leading the return to peace and hope, writes Geoffrey York
Photography by Stefan Heunis for The Globe and Mail
In their elegant blue and red gowns and tasselled mortarboards, thousands of students gathered proudly at the University of Maiduguri for their graduation.
It was a remarkable moment of triumph: the first convocation ceremony in nearly six years in the city where Boko Haram was born.
Throughout the years of fear and bloodshed, the students and professors often heard bullets and bombs in the distance. They knew Boko Haram's fanatical gunmen were making brutal efforts to shut down the education system. Yet the university stayed open, year after year, even as its enrolment dwindled. This month, when the city was finally safe enough for a convocation, the university awarded more than 37,000 degrees to five years of graduating classes.
Two days later, the campus was filled with the latest crop of students, queuing up in the harsh sun and 40-degree heat for more tests. "Education is a really big deal now," says Fatima Ahmad Ma'aji, a 19-year-old science student. "I'm not afraid. I have to decide my own future. Nobody else can decide for me."
The Nigerian army – with help from British military advisers and U.S. drones – has finally pushed Boko Haram back into the remote corners of the country's northeast. The insurgents, unable to hold territory, have switched to hit-and-run attacks, suicide bombings and cross-border raids into Cameroon and Niger.
They killed dozens in a town on the outskirts of Maiduguri in January, but have failed to penetrate the city's main defences for more than a year now.
In defiance of the gunmen, the birthplace of Boko Haram is slowly coming back to life. Traffic jams are returning. Shops are reopening. The evening curfew, once set at 5 o'clock, has been pushed back to 9. The soldiers are gone from the sandbagged checkpoints in the city centre. Commercial flights into Maiduguri have been restored, and highways have reopened. Even the soccer team is back in action at its home stadium.
GALLERY: SEE HOW NORMAL LIFE IS RETURNING TO MAIDUGURI
The biggest city in northeastern Nigeria, Maiduguri had been under siege by the Islamist extremists for five years. As the war raged on, more than a million refugees flooded in, doubling the population. It became the heartland of a conflict that eventually killed some 20,000 people and left 2.6 million homeless.
This sprawling city of dusty, low-rise buildings, which billed itself as The Home of Peace, was the place where Boko Haram was founded, more than a decade ago, by a charismatic young preacher named Mohammed Yusuf. After a clash in 2009, police executed him and slaughtered hundreds of his followers. Boko Haram went underground, and since 2011 it has been waging a savage offensive against northern towns and villages. As well as the thousands it killed, Boko Haram abducted 2,000 people, including more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok.
Maiduguri has struggled to cope with the influx of refugees and the legacy of violence. Impoverished children roam the streets, pulling heavy carts from which they hawk jerrycans of water. The city is dotted with refugee camps. But peace and hope are finally beginning to return. Its survival has turned Maiduguri into an extraordinary symbol of resilience.
Education is at the heart of this survival saga. Boko Haram, whose name can be loosely translated as "Western education is forbidden," has always targeted the school system. The radical militia has killed at least 611 teachers, destroyed more than 910 schools and forced the closure of a further 1,500 over the past seven years, according to Human Rights Watch.
Throughout the onslaught, the University of Maiduguri refused to close its doors. It reinforced its security with soldiers, police, private guards, telephone warning systems and frequent safety drills.
"It was a precarious situation," recalls Mohammed Ahmed, its deputy information director. "You never trusted anyone in the street. It was terrible. Everybody feared coming here."
That's why he was so excited to see both the convocation this month – and an upsurge in applications. About 23,000 students applied to the university this year, more than double the number at the peak of the Boko Haram bloodshed.
"It shows you that people are still yearning for education, in spite of the insurgency," Mr. Ahmed says.
"They have defied all the attacks. The insurgents were trying to defeat Western education, but they totally failed. Now people feel that it's safe here."
One of northern Nigeria's most prominent traditional leaders, the Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, told the new graduates that they have "earned the respect of the world." In a speech to the convocation, he said their "courage to continue" in the face of bombings and shootings was a "remarkable achievement."
The same courage can be found at primary and secondary schools across the city. Boko Haram has repeatedly issued threats to Bara'imul Iman Islamic Integrated School, a private institution that includes both Western and Islamic subjects in its curriculum. Its officials have received ominous calls and text messages, warning that the school would be attacked and destroyed. But they would not bow to the pressure.
"Boko Haram are burning schools and putting fear in our hearts, but we are sticking by education," says Shuaibu Abubakar, the school's director.
"Education is life. We are keeping the water flowing, the knowledge flowing."
Like most others in Maiduguri, the school has been deeply touched by the bloodshed. About 50 of its students have had a parent killed by Boko Haram; others have had relatives or family members killed. One 11-year-old pupil was abducted during a home visit and is still missing. Others are refugees who have fled from Boko Haram, attending through scholarships that the school provides.
One student, Falmata Lawan Yarayi, quietly tells a horrific story about how her father was shot dead by Boko Haram gunmen in their home, as she hid in a nearby room. This happened four years ago, when she was just 9. Her father was targeted because he was a senior civil servant.
Another student, 14-year-old Aisha Madu, remembers the roar of gunfire and explosions when Boko Haram attacked an army barracks in the city two years ago. The school locked its gate, closed its windows and kept the students inside. "We thought we were dying," she recalls. "We were praying. Some of us were crying and calling our parents."
Later she found out that an explosion in the barracks had killed her aunt and several other relatives.
But despite the violence around it, the school has kept expanding. Its enrolment today is nearly 1,620, compared with 950 just two years ago. Education is a way for parents to inoculate their children against the danger of recruitment by Boko Haram. "People realize the worst that could happen to their children if they don't go to school," Mr. Abubakar says. "They come here so they won't be deceived by Boko Haram."
The school tells its students to inform it if anyone tries to preach the Boko Haram message to them. "They have to guard themselves," Mr. Abubakar says. "It's a war of ideas."
While the schools are emerging from years of danger, Maiduguri is still burdened by the economic misery that the war created. Some of its million refugees are in formal tent camps, dependent on rations from Nigerian authorities. Many others were unable to get into the camps, so they sleep in schoolyards or other buildings, struggling to survive by sewing traditional hats or chopping down trees for charcoal.
Then there are the widows and orphans of Boko Haram's victims. Aisha Mohammed, a 39-year-old mother of eight, weeps as she describes how her husband was killed when he was visiting his mother in another city. She survives by buying pepper, grinding it at home and selling it to passersby for a tiny profit.
But often there is not enough food for the family, and she goes hungry. "So many times I just drink water or a little tea, and then sleep," she says.
While the insurgents are gone, violence still lingers. Maiduguri's security is now largely in the hands of Nigeria's notoriously corrupt and often brutal army. In the city streets, it is common to see soldiers beating or whipping civilians for minor infractions.
At the chained gate of one of the biggest refugee camps, they prohibit photos and control who goes in or out with arbitrary cruelty. For example, one hot morning recently, they ordered two young women to kneel in the sand outside the gate, and then beat them with a stick, claiming they had stolen something.
But despite the poverty and hardship, the signs of economic revival are growing. At the city's exits, long convoys of cars and trucks wait for military escorts to allow them to travel down the newly opened highways.
A Western-funded radio station, Dandal Kura (which means "meeting place"), moved 37 employees into its new Maiduguri studios this month. "The security situation has improved dramatically," says David Smith, a Canadian media consultant who helped to launch the station. "It feels like a normal Nigerian city now."
Shopkeepers remember how, at the peak of the Boko Haram violence, they would lock their doors and run for safety whenever they heard gunfire or explosions. "You would always be looking over your back, not knowing what could happen," says Ladimimi Wudiri, who runs a gift shop in the city.
"It was very scary – you didn't know where the gunshots were coming from. But now we're happy. We are sleeping peacefully."
Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Africa.