Education is weapon in battle against terror, says Obasanjo

More must be done to protect schools from attack, says Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo

Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, said education is a critical weapon in the battle against terrorism and world leaders must do more to guard against deadly attacks on children in schools.

He made the remarks during a panel discussion on how best to protect schools and students at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai yesterday.

"When it comes to the attacks on schools, particularly in areas where we have terrorists, we have to treat the disease rather than the symptoms. The disease is what brings about terrorism," said Obasanjo. "Until we deal with that, whatever else we do will be like treating a headache that emanates from high blood pressure."

Nigeria is struggling to deal with extremist Islamist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in the country's north in April of last year. The group's operations and kidnappings have been steadily increasing since 2013, and other countries such as Cameroon and Chad have also suffered from the insurgency that is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria and its surrounding countries.

Another case that garnered international attention is that of Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted and injured by a Taliban gunman as she boarded her school bus in Swat Valley in Pakistan in 2012.

Sri Lanka's former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, echoed Obasanjo's remarks. "When we talk about children's schools being targeted, we have to look at the root causes and how to deal with them in a committed manner," she said. "It's a new phenomenon that children's schools are being targeted. We had one of the most ruthless groups (in Sri Lanka) but they never targeted children."

One reason for this is the belief among radical groups that girls should not be educated, as well as poverty, illiteracy and pursuit of power, Kumaratunga said. The marginalisation of specific groups in a community, the feeling that their language or religion is not recognised, can also lead to acts of terror, she added.

Anusheh Bakht Aziz, Member of the UN Youth Advocacy Group, Pakistan, also sees terrorism arising from illiteracy and poverty. "If we educated one child we bring 12 out of poverty. We need to build more schools and to make sure that education is accessible to every person."

Hamadi Jebali, former Prime Minister of Tunisia, said there are many reasons terrorists attack education and its institutions, but mainly this was due to ignorance and misunderstanding of religion, and the belief that education is at odds with religion and identity. "Terrorism thrives in ignorant minds," said Jebali, adding that there was no contradiction between education and Islam, which encourages people to seek education in places "as far as China".

Joining the discussion, Azizullah Royesh, who started the Marefat High School in Kabul in Afghanistan, recounted the struggles that his country had endured since the Soviet invasion up until the current day.

"We also have issues of terrorism and this is something that is affecting our lives in front of our eyes, affecting our schools. As a teacher, I've gone through hard times and I try to find a balance through education," he said. Royesh focused on educating children in underprivileged communities where illiteracy levels were high.

In 2014, his schools had 4,000 children, 44 per cent of them girls. The schools have changed illiterate communities and taught students to speak openly without facing a backlash, he said.

"There are attempts from terrorists to suppress their voice, but something is changing in the community, the mindset is changing. Taliban are in the spotlight because of their behaviour but the community itself produces the same ideas," said Royesh. "This problem lies in the culture and this is why you have to change the mindset of the people so they step forward to get rid of violence."

Photo credit: GESF