In February 2012, Boko Haram members burned down three schools in the town of Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria. The group claimed that the attack was provoked by indiscriminate student arrests in Islamic schools by state forces (IRIN, 4 October 2013).

In this instance, schools became sites of retaliation against government actions perceived as repressive by non-state actors. The fact that some militant groups expressly avoid the “killing of innocent pupils” (IRIN, 4 October 2013) is telling of how school and educational sites are political instruments in the eyes of some armed groups. A report by Amnesty documents that between 2010 and 2011, attacks carried out against schools were mostly conducted when they were unoccupied (Amnesty International, 3 October, 2013). This trend reinforces two dynamics of internal conflicts: targets are often symbolic and attacks on civilians are often planned to maximize strategic positions. Schools are seen as instruments of the state and are often used as political leverage to achieve political goals through disruption, rather than the intentional killing of innocent civilians. However, when these claims are not recognised, insurgents can shift their strategy to more violent practices directed at teachers and pupils. This dynamic is illustrated by Boko Haram’s intensification of violence from 2011 to the third quarter of 2014 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Number of Conflict Events and Reported Fatalities by Actor, by Quarter, from 2010 - Q3 2014

Violations against schools and students are most prevalent in Nigeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Somalia (see ACLED Crisis Blog ‘Education and Political Conflict Part 1:  An in-depth look at both Somalia and Nigeria can underscore further trends: Nigerian schools have not only been subjected to attacks from external rebel groups but have also experienced student-orchestrated violence. Nigerian educational facilities have a history of internal political fighting between confraternity groups. Although initially established as social organisations for students, fraternities often resorted to violence when tensions culminated between other student groups and activists over the denial of basic needs (Arijesuyo, 2010). Nigerian University campuses in the 1990s grappled with a rise in cult activity involving youth organisations and “Campus Cult” militias. Campus clashes between rival cult groups were a violent manifestation of socio-political and institutional frustrations that pervaded education– with poor access and infrastructure for learning and opportunity. However, since the decline in activity of Campus Cult militias in 1999 (see Figure 2), the role of other political militias in school violence has grown. Armed group activity has risen overall, with Boko Haram and Al Shabaab being the most active actors in school-directed violence.

Figure 2 Number of Conflict Events by Actor, by Quarter, from 1997 - 25 October 2014

Boko Haram have been involved in 33% fewer conflict events involving schools than Al Shabaab since 1997. Despite this, incidents involving Boko Haram have incurred over 7 times the number of fatalities as Al Shabaab militants. This may be due to the higher level of civilian-targeted violence perpetrated by Boko Haram, with Al Shabaab militants typically opting to engage with state security forces stationed at educational facilities. Or this may be a result of Al Shabaab ‘contracting’ out its civilian-targeted violence to other militia groups (see Figure 3).  

Figure 3 Number of Conflict Events and Reported Fatalities, by Actor, from 1997 - 25 October 2014

This pattern reflects how the two groups’ objectives influence their mobilisation and conflict tactics. Al Shabaab has challenged the legitimacy of the Somali government in controlling territory, resulting in attacks on state officials and attempts to undermine AMISOM.

Boko Haram’s initial attacks were aimed at the destruction of school property, signifying the symbolic nature of their insurgency and their opposition to Western forms of education. Boko Haram’s leader threatened to escalate attacks to civilian targets in July 2013 (Congressional Research Service, 10 June 2014). This tactical shift may be an attempt to highlight the inability of the Nigerian government to provide security for its population and Boko Haram’s intent to capitalise on its strategic position.

Interestingly, both groups have provoked a military response that has reduced their control and organisational capacity. In these circumstances, a rise in attacks against schools could be expected as they are ‘soft’ targets for militant activity. Whilst this trend occurs in Boko Haram’s activity, no discernible increase is seen by Al Shabaab.

UNESCO reported a “substantial negative impact [on educational attainment] during periods of conflict” (UNESCO, 2010: 93) in Somalia, with a decline in the average years of formal schooling achieved. Thus, protracted violence from within and outside of schools, as well as varying tactics employed by state and non-state actors, creates problematic societal issues for development and progress.



ACLED. 2014. ‘Education and Political Conflict Part 1. Crisis Blog. ACLED. 22 October 2014. Available online at: [last accessed 28 October 2014]

Amnesty International. 2013. ‘Nigeria: Children slaughtered, schools under siege’. Amnesty International. 3 October 2013. Available online at: [last accessed 28 October 2014]

Arijesuyo, A. E. 2010. ‘Theoretical Perspectives on Campus Cultism and Violence in Nigeria Universities: A Review and Conceptual Approach. International Journal of Psychological Studies. Vol. 3. No. 1. pp.106-112

IRIN. 2013. ‘Boko Haram violence takes toll on education’. IRIN. 4 October 2013. Available online at: [last accessed 28 October 2014]

The Jamestown Foundation. 2007. ‘Nigeria’s Cults and their Role in the Niger Delta Insurgency’. Terrorism Monitor. Vol 5. Issue 13. The Jamestown Foundation. 2007. Available online at: [last accessed 28 October 2014].

UNESCO. 2010. ‘The quantitative impact of conflict on education’. Think piece prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2011. The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education. UNESCO Institute for Statistics. 2010. Available online at: [last accessed 28 October 2014].

Congressional Research Service. 2014. Nigeria’s Boko Haram: Frequently Asked Questions. Congressional Research Service. 10 June 2014. Available online at: [last accessed: 29 October 2014].

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Education and Political Conflict Part 2: Non-State Actor Strategies – A Focus on Boko Haram & Al Shabaab Conflict Dynamics
James Moody
James Moody
Africa Research Manager
James Moody is Africa Research Manager with ACLED. In this role he oversees the coding of political violence and protest across all countries in Africa. He is also a Geography PhD Candidate at the University of Sussex. His research interests include protest movements across North and sub-Saharan Africa and the dynamics of civil war violence. His own research explores the rising wave of protest in the post-Arab uprising period, focusing on local level governance, forms of contention, and protest geography, diffusion, and escalation across Africa. James has country-specific knowledge on Egypt and Libya. He is based in Brighton, United Kingdom.
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