As Nigeria joins the world today, September 9, 2021, to mark the second anniversary of the International Day to Protect Education from Attacks, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Chief of Maiduguri Field Office in Borno State, Phuong Nguyen, speaks with PREMIUM TIMES’ Mojeed Alabi, on the impacts of violent attacks on education in North-east Nigeria and the country as a whole.
With over 20 years’ experience managing programmes in complex emergency as well as development contexts across Asia, Africa, Middle East and the Pacific Islands, Ms Nguyen, prior to her current role, was the Chief of Education in UNICEF Somalia. She held the same office in Jordan and South Sudan.
Among other crucial roles, she was the Regional Peacebuilding and Education Manager in Nepal where she provided quality assurance and oversight, knowledge leadership, strategic representation and partnerships support to the Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy Programme across several South Asian countries.
Ms Nguyen had also led support on Education-in-Emergency coordination, preparedness, and response in cooperation with governments, humanitarian and development partners in a number of countries throughout her career with UNICEF.
Ms Nguyen is an alumna of Brandeis University in Massachusetts, and George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University in Virginia, United States.
Below is the excerpt of the interview:
To begin with, how bad is the impact of attacks on schools in Borno and North-east Nigeria?
Ms Nguyen: Historically, poor participation in education in North-east Nigeria has been exacerbated by armed conflict and insurgency, as a result of which 1,400 schools were damaged, more than one million children forced out of school, and 2,295 teachers killed between 2009 and 2020.
All schools in Borno State were closed from December 2013 to June 2015 due to the escalation of the conflict while in Yobe and Adamawa States, schools have also been closed for shorter periods on an ad hoc basis. The Education-in-Emergency Working Group Nigeria Joint Education Needs Assessment (JENA), November 2019 found that conflict continues to affect the ability of schools to remain open and provide lessons across north-east Nigeria. The JENA 2019 also reports that most schools assessed in Adamawa and Borno states had stopped functioning at some point since 2012 due to the emergency (71% and 68% respectively), as had 43% of schools in Yobe. In the first half of 2021, Borno faced a drastic reduction in humanitarian access with an escalation of actions of Non State Armed Groups (NSAGs) targeting teachers and threatening those who support educational activities.
How much could you say this development has affected the interest of children, students and the parents?
Ms Nguyen: Since the inception of the conflict in north-east Nigeria, education has been identified as a direct target of violence. As reported in the Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) 2021, armed conflict, communal violence, natural disasters and resulting economic challenges have aggravated existing challenges and gaps in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States. An estimated 52% of school-aged children have never attended school and the annual drop-out rate for children in the north-east is the highest in Nigeria, demonstrating the gravity of barriers to education. The crisis has caused large-scale displacement within Nigeria and across borders creating hundreds of thousands of IDPs and returnees. This displaced population is significantly less likely to participate in education and that is especially true for IDPs and returnees living in formal or non-formal camps, many of whom live far from government schools and have limited income to spend on school and school related costs. Among this group, girls are especially unlikely to participate in organized learning activities because of the greater domestic burden that family and community placed upon them, concerns about protection and interaction with unrelated males and perceptions that girls may not need education. Female teachers consequently have a larger and more important role to play as mentors to girls who want to pursue education continuation and completion. Girls are less likely to drop out at the upper primary level when they have female teachers as mentors. Host community children, IDPs and returnees living in host communities may have better access to schools, but often also struggle in schools which do not have conducive learning conditions such as overcrowding or lack of supplies and qualified teachers.
What are the current statistics of out-of-school children in the North-east?
Ms Nguyen: Based on the HNO 2021, an estimated 52 per cent of school-aged children have never attended school and the annual drop-out rate for children in the north-east is the highest in Nigeria, demonstrating the gravity of barriers to education.
How dangerous is this to the future of education in the North-east considering the poor state of education before the conflict?
Ms Nguyen: The high rate of out-of-school children (OOSC) in the state and the country at large is seriously alarming to all well-meaning citizens. This is because it poses a great threat to the economic well-being of the state and the nation in a larger perspective. Several literatures confirmed a high degree of correlation between education and economic development of countries. Promoting education in the society is one of the surest ways of keeping the economic and political stability of the nation. The implication of having OOSC is that we cannot achieve social, economic, and political stability. Because the children left without education today will surely grow up uninformed and they may be vulnerable to all sorts of unhealthy ideologies that can jeopardize the peace of the state/nation.
Could you briefly enumerate some forms of interventions by UNICEF in the region?
Ms Nguyen: UNICEF has been working hard to reduce the number of OOSC in the state and improve the quality of education from early childhood to adolescence. To reduce OOSC, there must be a multi-sectoral approach among education actors involving governments, the private sector, and communities. Therefore, UNICEF expanded its interventions in this regard to not only Borno State Universal Basic Education Board (BOSUBEB) but also to the University of Maiduguri (UNIMAID); the Borno State Ministry of Religious Affairs (BoSMoRA); the Borno State Agency for Mass Education (BoSAME) and indeed other NGOs to ensure that OOSC are reached and haves access to education. UNICEF provides its partners with the tools and all the needed support to strengthen Non-formal Education programmes that improve equitable access to education as well as ensure that children are truly learning, leading to a reduction in the number of OOSC.
UNICEF provides technical support in piloting and scaling up interventions that promote on-time enrolment, reduce children’s school drop-out rate, re-enrol children who have dropped out, and provide alternative pathways to education and alternative skills acquisition in established multiple vocational training centres. For instance, partnership with BoSMoRA, UNIMAID and the Borno Islamiyya School Association (BOSISA), a civil society organisation has led to the provision of access to education for over 160,000 OOSC, Tsangaya and Islamiyya within Maiduguri Metropolis, Jere and Mafa Local Government Area of Borno State, Nigeria. UNICEF deploys a multisectoral approach in reaching and retaining OOSC in school. In collaboration with partners, we provide gender-sensitive and inclusive water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities in schools to ensure inclusiveness. Child protection measures are in place to ensure that children are protected in school. UNICEF also provides deworming services and supports school health programmes, all in effort to see more OOSC enrolled, retain and complete at least basic education.
Going by your response, it means your interventions in addressing the consequences of attacks on schools are largely concentrated in Borno State. Why is this so?
Ms Nguyen: The Education-in-Emergency programme supported by UNICEF Maiduguri Field Office covers Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States. The UNICEF Maiduguri Field Office has interventions in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States and in some instances in Gombe State as it is also affected by the crises. For example, annual Enrolment Drive Campaigns are conducted across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States. Other programmes include the rehabilitation and construction of schools, provision of learning supplies and building the capacity of teachers as well as the School-based Management Committees (SBMCs) in all BAY states as we call them. The fact that Borno remains the epicenter of the crises underscores our emphasis on Borno most of the time. UNICEF is supporting Adamawa and Yobe state governments with the construction and rehabilitation of classrooms, offices and fences in over 200 schools which are nearing completion to be used for the new school year beginning in October to improve access to education for teeming out-of-school children across these states.
Do you believe that improved budgetary allocation to education by the government at all levels can help to tackle the menace as well?
Ms Nguyen: Education budgets in most states do not take education in emergency into consideration as such there are no budget lines to protect schools against attack. Therefore, increasing budgetary allocation to address emerging issues like the protection of schools against attack will tackle the menace of attack on schools.
Beyond Borno State, how can UNICEF mobilise support towards addressing the challenge across the country, especially the issue of out-of- school children?
Ms Nguyen: UNICEF has supported UBEC at the national level to develop the Enrolment Drive Campaign (EDC) strategy where annually, more than 1 million children are enrolled in schools. UBEC has now taken over this activity and it is conducted annually.
Moreover, UNICEF has supported states to implement alternative education programmes for those who have preference for vocational education and those who are beyond the primary school age. These efforts are part of the quest to reduce the number of OOSC. Over the years, UNICEF has learnt that a large number of learners, who enroll after the EDC but they hardly stay to complete their education. This is due to many factors, including the quality of education available. Hence, UNICEF has put more effort into improving the quality of education through innovative teachers’ training programmes and learning outcome improvement interventions for children. A good example is the Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) methodology which has proved very effective at keeping children in school.
Apart from three states, many other states have been forced to shut down schools including Kaduna, Zamfara, Niger and even Katsina States. Don’t you think the agenda of the non-state actors is already being achieved?
Ms Nguyen: I don’t think they have achieved their agenda. It may look as such at the beginning just the way it happened in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States where schools were closed for more than two academic sessions when the crisis was at its peak. This compelled education actors to think out of the box and develop strategies to forestall future occurrence of total closure of schools in BAY states. We have put in place Conflict and Disaster Risk Reduction (CDRR) plans in place in each school and this has perfectly worked many times. Again, we have developed remote learning strategies in the case of school closures to ensure continuity of teaching and learning. The current situation in NW states will also ensure that education stakeholders come up with core strategies to ensure continuity of education in this ever-changing context.
What lasting solution would you recommend towards addressing the degenerating insecurity and the attacks on schools, in particular?
Ms Nguyen: This is the ratification and domestication of the Safe School Declaration (SSD) in all states across the federation. The SSD is geared towards providing a safe and protective learning environment for learners, education personnel and education infrastructure.
Again, the participation of SBMCs and Parents-Teachers-Associations in CDRR and school emergency preparedness and response plans where schools coordinate with critical stakeholders to ensure schools and learners are protected should be strengthened.
In Naira and Kobo, how much do you think Nigeria would require to fix education facilities that have been attacked both in the North-east and the whole of the country?
Ms Nguyen: This can only be determined after thorough assessment of the extent of damage. As you know, some of these locations are not accessible now. This should be done by location as they become accessible since the situation is not yet over. UNICEF counts on the full support of the government and other appropriate actors to enable humanitarian access into currently inaccessible areas in order to undertake full need assessment and provide the necessary support.