Maiduguri, Nigeria – Children remain anxiously awake with artillery fire cracking through the air as Nigerian troops battle Boko Haram fighters in this city once known as the “home of peace”.
Hundreds of the armed group’s members recently stormed into Maiduguri near the Giwa Barracks, the largest army base in northeastern Nigeria.
Since the launch earlier this year of a multinational military force with troops from Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon, Boko Haram fighters have retreated from areas it once controlled, huge swaths of territory almost the size of Belgium.
Attacks have begun to hit Maiduguri recently, including a deadly one on Saturday by a suicide bomber who blew himself up at a mosque.
But the group is suffering from a lack of ammunition and provisions, according to Aliyu Musa, a UK-based lecturer and Boko Haram analyst.
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More than ever, it needs more members – foot soldiers, suppliers, and spies, he says.
“Now that Boko Haram does not have military capacity, they have to go underground, and underground they will speak gently to people, encouraging them to join their fight,” Musa says.
Musa knows well that such groups target the young. He was nearly lured to Yan Tatsine – a group of young Muslims who carried out violent attacks in northern Nigeria during the 1970s until they were repelled by Nigerian security forces in the 1980s.
He says one of the reasons Yan Tatsine approached him was because he was young. That’s why Islamic schools are a prime target.
“They are a breeding ground for Boko Haram,” Musa says.
Not far from a police station once attacked by Boko Haram, a block of nondescript classrooms stands erect in the middle of a dirt field.
On a dusty afternoon, the voices of children emerge from those classrooms. Inside, girls in blue hijab and boys in plaid button-down shirts recite the Arabic words from the opening of the Quran, Surat al-Fatiha. They continue to the next chapter, al-Baqarah, and then onto Surat Ali’Imran.
In an adjacent classroom, Ibrahim Abdullahi points to writings on a chalkboard.
He faces his students saying: “These are the stages of peace. I mean kindness, obedience to your brothers. Obedience to your elders.”
Abdullahi scans the classroom before raising his voice to say: “We should know the importance of peace.”
This school, al-Ilmu Nurul Hayat Islamiya, is teaching a new state-sanctioned curriculum based on peace and tolerance in an effort to counterbalance the influence of Boko Haram – a saying that means “Western education is a sin” in Hausa, the regional lingua franca.
It is just one of hundreds of Islamic schools across Maiduguri, the bustling capital city of Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram first emerged in 2001.
It is also the commercial hub of the historic Kanem-Bornu empire from where Islam is said to have first been introduced to Nigeria.
“Boko Haram started with their preaching in Islamic schools and mosques across Maiduguri and we realised that they were using Islamic schools to promote their violent ideology to youth,” says Mohammed Abdullahi, director of religious affairs for Borno State.
“They were widespread, the Boko Haram. Wherever they found themselves, they would preach.”
Attracting the downtrodden
A city where impoverished residents live in utter squalor despite the abundance of Nigeria’s oil wealth, Maiduguri is a haven for religious hardliners and anti-establishment sentiment. Unregulated Islamic schools founded by self-proclaimed Muslim clerics have cropped up in abundance.
One of those clerics was Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram.
Yusuf’s anti-Western doctrine condemned the government’s corruption and neglect of the poor, attracting many of the downtrodden. He once gave a BBC interview dispelling that the Earth was round, saying it was contradictory to Islamic teachings.
Yusuf died in 2009 at age 39 in police custody following a government crackdown on his group. Security officials said he was killed trying to escape.
After his death, Boko Haram began its vengeful insurgency against the Nigerian government to impose its version of an Islamic state; more than 12,000 people have since died and more than one million are now displaced.
With this ongoing reality, city and religious officials decided to fight back.
Under the guidance of Jama’atu Nasril Islam, the umbrella organisation for Muslim groups in Nigeria, Muslim scholars belonging to the six Islamic sects that operate in Maiduguri banded together – a rarity – to produce the new curriculum that Mohammed Abdullahi describes as a “comprehensive syllabus implemented to fight the insurgency on the school level”.
It is a battle for the hearts and minds of the local youth, with Boko Haram on one end and community leaders on the other.
While peace and religious tolerance is taught in schools, regional lawmakers are finally taking steps to monitor the Islamic learning centres – going so far as to raid one school in Cameroon.
In Nigeria’s eastern neighbour – also struck by Boko Haram – security officials received a tip-off and rescued children from a supposed Quranic school in November 2014.
But according to Christopher Fomunyoh, a director for the US-based National Democratic Institute, it was nothing more than an indoctrination centre for Boko Haram. Most of the children could not count or speak a local language.
Remarkably, they did not even know their names or what towns they came from, only able to mutter bits of Arabic instead.
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In 2013, Borno State finally decreed all Islamic schools must be authorised by the government, although Mohammed Abdullahi says only 200 out of thousands have registered so far.
Al-Ilmu Nurul Hayat Islamiya is just one of the Islamic learning institutions already using the curriculum.
In it, 15-year-old Muhammed Tijjani concentrates on what his teacher, Ibrahim Abdullahi, says about principles of conflict-resolution. “Boko Haram destroyed the peace in Maiduguri. We want our peace back,” he says.
The world of Tijjani and so many other kids like him in Maiduguri have changed since the rise of Boko Haram. In an ironic twist, Tijjani wants to grow up to be a soldier and fight Boko Haram.
Maryam Abubakar, 14, says she wants to be a nurse in order to heal the wounds of Boko Haram’s victims.
Eleven-year-old Bilkiss Liman knows exactly when there is an attack in town. “The walls in my house shake,” she says, gazing at the ground.
It is even worse for the children known as almajirai, given away by their parents to live under the tutelage of an imam in order to beg for alms. They have long been ripe for Boko Haram recruitment.
‘The way to live’
But back in Maiduguri, different lessons are being taught.
Tsanganya schools for almajirai children have also been incorporated in the state-wide peace-building initiative.
Sheikh Goni Mohammed Sai’ad Ngamdu gathers his students under a tree for an evening lesson. The sheikh sits cross-legged on a prayer mat. He closes his eyes, listening carefully to check the pronunciation of his students as they chant in unison, “Lá iláha illallah” (there is no God but Allah).
Ngamdu teaches the peaceful message and his students seem to be embracing it. One is Aliyu Mohammed, 24, who left home at the age of 12 to become an almajiri.
Mohammed is well aware of Boko Haram’s recruitment drive and says the almajirai should eschew the group for Islam’s message of peace.
“If there is no peace, we won’t survive,” he says. “My imam teaches us that peace is the way to live.”