Nigeria’s Boko Haram has abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Islamist fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram group have abducted more than 1,000 children in the northeast since 2013, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday.

The militants regularly took youngsters to spread fear and show power, the agency said on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a case that triggered global outrage.

“Children in northeastern Nigeria continue to come under attack at a shocking scale,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Nigeria head.

The agency said it had documented more than 1,000 verified cases, the first time it had published an estimated tally. But the actual number could be much larger, it added.

It said it had interviewed one young woman, Khadija, now 17, who was abducted after a Boko Haram attack on her town, then locked in a room, forced to marry one of the fighters and repeatedly raped.

She became pregnant and “now lives with her young son in an IDP (displaced persons) camp, where she has struggled to integrate with the other women due to language barriers and the stigma of being a ‘Boko Haram wife’,” UNICEF said.

At least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed in the conflict, it added.

POLITICALLY CHARGED

The Boko Haram conflict is in its tenth year, but shows little sign of ending. In February, one faction kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, previously untouched by the war.

A month later, the militants returned almost all of those girls. About five died while in Boko Haram hands. One other, Leah Sharibu, remains captive because she refused to convert to Islam, her freed classmates have said.

The government said the release was a prelude to ceasefire talks, though some insurgency experts disagree, saying it violated that faction’s ideology to kidnap Muslims.

Boko Haram remains a charged issue politically. President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 rode to power on promises to end the insurgency. But his administration has failed to defeat Boko Haram, despite pushing the militants out of many towns in the northeast by 2016.

On Monday, Buhari said he plans to seek re-election in 2019.

Four years since the Chibok abduction, about 100 of the schoolgirls are unaccounted for. Some may be dead, according to testimony from the rescued girls and Boko Haram experts.

Boko Haram in January released a video purporting to show some of the missing Chibok girls, saying they wish to remain with their captors.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Nigeria to release $1 billion from excess oil account to fight Boko Haram

Nigeria to release $1 billion from excess oil account to fight Boko Haram

By Felix Onuah

ABUJA (Reuters) – Nigerian state governors on Thursday approved the release of $1 billion from the country’s excess oil account to the government to help fight the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency.

The account holds foreign reserves from excess earnings from sales of crude. It currently totals $2.3 billion, according to Nigeria’s accountant general.

“We are pleased with the federal government achievements in the insurgency war and in that vein state governors have approved that the sum of $1 billion be taken from the excess crude account by the federal government to fight the insurgency war to its conclusion,” said Godwin Obaseki, Edo state governor.

“The money will cover the whole array of needs which includes purchase of equipments, training for military personnel and logistics,” he told reporters after a meeting of Nigeria’s national economic council.

The release of such a large sum could raise concerns over corruption, endemic in Nigeria.

The next presidential and gubernatorial national elections are scheduled for February and March 2019. Historically, the run-up to elections has seen rampant graft and theft of public funds as politicians build war chests to contest the vote.

The insurgency in the northeast is in its ninth year. Deadly attacks on the military and civilians continue, and large areas are out of government control.

Officials have siphoned off funds meant for aid for 8.5 million people in the region.

In October, President Muhammadu Buhari sacked the country’s top civil servant, accused of having inflated the value of contracts for aid projects, part of a suspected kickback scheme.

The United Nations appealed to donors for $1.05 billion to fund humanitarian aid in the northeast in 2017, and says it will require another $1.1 billion in 2018.

Nigeria, which has Africa’s largest economy, has come under fire for devoting little of its own resources to humanitarian aid.

Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said troops are undersupplied and underpaid, with weapons, vehicles and other basic equipment often in disrepair or lacking. Some have alleged their own officers are skimming from already-meagre supplies.

The release of the funds is a further sign the Nigerian government and military may be abandoning their two-year narrative that Boko Haram has been all but defeated.

Nigeria’s long-term plan is now to corral civilians inside fortified garrison towns – effectively ceding the countryside to Boko Haram.

Earlier this month, Nigeria replaced the military commander of the campaign against Boko Haram after half a year in the post. Military sources told Reuters that came after a series of “embarrassing” attacks by the Islamists.

(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Nigeria puts fortress towns at heart of new Boko Haram strategy

Nigeria puts fortress towns at heart of new Boko Haram strategy

By Paul Carsten and Ola Lanre

BAMA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Nigeria’s government has a plan for the northeast, torn apart by eight years of conflict with Boko Haram: displaced people will be housed in fortified garrison towns, ringed by farms, with the rest of the countryside effectively left to fend for itself.

The vision for the state of Borno, ground zero for the war with the Islamist insurgency, is a stark admission of the reality in the northeast.

For two years, the military and government have said Boko Haram is all but defeated, and the remnants are being mopped up.

But the military is largely unable to control territory beyond the cities and towns it has wrested back from Boko Haram. That means many of the nearly 2 million displaced people across the northeast cannot return to their homes in rural areas.

Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno state, said it was not possible for people to live in small villages.

“There’s beauty in numbers, there’s security in numbers. So our target is to congregate all the people in five major urban settlements and provide them with means of livelihood, education, health care and of course security,” he told Reuters. “It’s a long term solution, certainly.”

The plan for the eastern part of the state, centered on the town of Bama, is intended as a pilot scheme to be rolled out in other parts of Borno if it is successful.

Vigilantes, currently members of a group known as the Civilian Joint Task Force, will become agricultural rangers, the governor said.

Aided by Nigerian security forces, they will aim to secure and patrol a five-km (three-mile) radius around each garrison town where people can farm.

An aerial view of the Federal Training Centre camp on the road between Maiduguri and the town of Bama in northeast Nigeria, November 23, 2017. Picture taken November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Paul Carsten

An aerial view of the Federal Training Centre camp on the road between Maiduguri and the town of Bama in northeast Nigeria, November 23, 2017. Picture taken November 23, 2017. REUTERS/Paul Carsten

PROTECTION

“It’s logical. Bama is the second biggest city in Borno,” said Peter Lundberg, the United Nations Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Nigeria, who heads the organization’s response in the northeast.

“People are very eager to go back if the conditions are right and if the conditions are safe, if the conditions are dignified, and of course it has to be voluntary,” he told Reuters.

Sentiment amongst the displaced is mixed.

Abubakar Goni, who lived outside Bama before fleeing to the Borno state capital Maiduguri, said he wants to return home, but if the town is safer he will agree to go there.

“I will support it as long as I will have a place to farm. I am also happy to hear the government will give us protection on the farm because I learnt Boko Haram men are still around.”

Others, like Tijja Modu Alhaji, are wary of potential disputes between residents of the towns where people will be sent and the returnees.

“I don’t want to stay in Bama because I will still be a stranger there, just as I am in Maiduguri now,” he said. “I want to go home, not to somebody else’s land.”

The governor’s plan is still in its early stages. It involves bringing back thousands of people who fled the town of Bama and the surrounding area and sought refuge in camps in Maiduguri and elsewhere.

They will eventually be housed in towns such as Bama, which was largely abandoned by its inhabitants when Boko Haram took it three years ago, but has since been recaptured by the military.

Many of Bama’s buildings are still shells, windows smashed, doors ripped out and roofs gone. Telephone and electricity wires remain torn down, more than two years after the military evicted Boko Haram.

It is not clear how the returnees will be housed. There are already 15,000 people in a crowded camp for displaced local residents set up by the military after it retook the town.

The United Nations had planned to move them gradually to new shelters accommodating 30,000 people that have been erected in the town, but the military said it could not oversee two camps there at the same time, UN and military officials told Reuters.

NEW HOMES

The government has announced plans to build 3,000 homes in the Bama area. But there are concerns about how people sent to the town will manage, since many did not originally live there.

“It’s one thing to move people to Bama,” said Lundberg. “Unless the engine of the economy can restart, the risk is that people are moving back to places where they will become very dependent (on aid).”

Aid workers said the demarcation between garrison towns and a lawless countryside means people have a choice: live in virtual quarantine, or return to their homes in the countryside, where Boko Haram roam, and be treated by security forces as potential insurgency sympathizers.

“You’re imprisoned, but you’re safe,” said one senior relief worker, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If you prefer your own life you can do it on the outside.”

Boko Haram’s recent attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed at least 50 in a mosque in Adamawa state last week, are the “last kicks of a dying horse,” Nigeria’s Information Minister Lai Mohammed said last Sunday.

But military and diplomatic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said overstretched troops are unable to push Boko Haram out of non-urban areas. Much of Borno is not under the authorities’ control and attacks are rife.

“Borno is not getting better at all. It may have even gotten worse,” a diplomat said of the security situation outside urban areas. “There is no recovery and stabilization.”

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Kingimi in Maiduguri; editing by Giles Elgood)

Suicide bomber kills 50 in Nigeria in deadliest attack this year

By Percy Dabang and Ardo Hazzad

YOLA, Nigeria (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed at least 50 people at a mosque in northeastern Nigeria on Tuesday, the biggest mass killing this year in a region facing an insurgency by Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

“Some of the dead were in pieces beyond recognition,” said Bayi Muhammad, a worshipper at the mosque in Mubi who said he only escaped the blast because he was late for early morning prayers.

The government and military have said numerous times since 2015 that Boko Haram’s eight-year insurgency is almost defeated but the group continues to attack civilian and military targets.

Tuesday’s bombing brings the number killed in 2017 to at least 278, according to calculations by Reuters. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack.

Abubakar Othman, a police spokesman in Adamawa state, said the death toll is at least 50 but “there could be more as those seriously injured could add to the figure.”

Mubi is in Adamawa state where Boko Haram held territory in 2014. Troops pushed them out in early 2015. The group mounts suicide attacks in public places such as mosques and markets.

Tuesday’s attack was the biggest in Nigeria’s northeast since two schoolgirl suicide bombers killed 56 people and wounded dozens more at a market in Adamawa last December.

It is also the first attack on Mubi since armed forces recaptured the town from Boko Haram in 2014.

The blast bears the hallmarks of a faction led by Abubakar Shekau, which forces women and girls to carry out suicide bombings. The attacks often leave only the bomber dead.

Boko Haram has waged an insurgency in northeastern Nigeria since 2009 in its attempt to create an Islamic state in the region. It has killed more than 20,000 and forced around 2 million people to flee their homes.

The group split in 2016 and the faction under Shekau is based in the Sambisa forest on the border with Cameroon and Chad and mainly targets civilians with suicide bombers.

The other faction is based in the Lake Chad region and led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. It mainly attacks military forces after quietly building up its strength over the past year.

Most attacks focus on Borno state, the birthplace of the insurgency. The group held land around the size of Belgium in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states until early 2015 but was forced out by Nigeria’s army and troops from neighbouring countries.

(Reporting by Percy Dabang in Yola and Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Paul Carsten; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Six crew from German ship kidnapped in Nigerian waters

BERLIN (Reuters) – Six crew from a German container vessel have been kidnapped in Nigerian waters, a shipping company said on Tuesday.

Four of those taken are Filipino, and one is a Ukrainian national, according to the Philippines department of labor and Ukrainian foreign ministry.

Kidnapping for ransom is a common problem in parts of Nigeria. A number of foreigners have, in the last few years, been kidnapped in the Niger Delta, source of most of the crude oil which is Nigeria’s economic mainstay.

“The vessel was attacked by pirates on early Saturday morning when it was approaching one of the ports of Nigeria,” said a spokesman for Peter Doehle Schiffahrts KG.

“Six of the crew were taken off the ship and they are now held by kidnappers in Nigeria,” he said. There were no German nationals among the kidnapped but the spokesman declined to say where those abducted were from.

Those kidnapped comprise four Filipinos, one Ukrainian and one Hungarian, officials from the countries involved told Reuters.

At the time of the statement there was no official contact with the kidnappers and the vessel had moved away from Nigerian waters with the 12 remaining crew safe, the spokesman said.

“The top priority is to try and establish contact with the kidnappers and try to have a quick and safe release of our seafarers,” he said.

Germany’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Four of the six abducted crew members are Filipinos, the Philippines labor secretary told Reuters.

An official at Ukraine’s foreign ministry said preliminary information indicated a Ukrainian citizen was among those kidnapped. He gave no further details.

One Hungarian national was also taken, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the rescue operations.

The Hungarian foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi and Paul Carsten in Abuja, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Karen Lema in Manila and Krisztina Than in Budapest; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Top U.S. military officer seeks to address criticism of fatal Niger operation

Top U.S. military officer seeks to address criticism of fatal Niger operation

By Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. military officer sought on Monday to tamp down criticism the Pentagon had not been forthcoming about the death of four U.S. soldiers in an ambush in Niger, providing a timeline of the incident and acknowledging unanswered questions remained.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the United States Africa Command was conducting an investigation into the Oct. 4 attack. Some lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon for being slow to provide answers.

Dunford acknowledged that a number of issues were still under investigation, including why U.S. forces on the ground waited an hour until they called for support, what type of intelligence was used in the mission and why it took as long as it did to recover a U.S. soldier’s body.

“There has been a lot of speculation about the operation in Niger and there’s a perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming and I thought it would be helpful for me to personally clarify to you what we know today, and to outline what we hope to find out in the ongoing investigation,”

Dunford said in an hour-long news conference.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of condolence messages to the families of the dead soldiers has been criticized by lawmakers in Washington and has raised the profile of the deadly incident.

Dunford said for the first time that U.S. forces on the ground in Niger waited an hour before calling for support.

Within minutes, a U.S. drone located nearby was moved over the firefight and provided intelligence and full-motion video.

French fighter jets arrived above the scene about an hour after that, said Dunford.

“It is important to note that when they didn’t ask for support for that first hour, my judgment would be that that unit thought they could handle the situation without additional support,” Dunford said.

The French fighters did not drop bombs when they arrived, something Dunford said was under investigation.

QUESTIONS FROM LAWMAKERS

Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week he may consider issuing a subpoena because the White House had not been forthcoming with details of the attack.

On Monday, McCain said lawmakers were getting cooperation and information from the Pentagon and expected a “formal hearing” on Thursday about the ambush.

The attack threw a spotlight on the little-known counterterrorism mission in the West African country, which has about 800 U.S. troops, out of a total of 6,000 U.S. troops in Africa. The United States says it is there to support Niger in fighting Islamist extremists.

The Pentagon said at the time that three soldiers had been killed in the ambush. The body of a fourth soldier, Sergeant La David Johnson, was recovered about two days later.

Dunford said that on Oct. 3, a dozen U.S. soldiers accompanied 30 Nigerien forces on a reconnaissance mission near the village of Tongo Tongo.

After spending the night near the village, the forces were moving back to their base when they came under attack from about 50 enemy fighters, who appeared to be from a local Islamic State affiliate. The militants attacked with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, Dunford said.

“It was planned as a reconnaissance mission,” Dunford said. “What happened after they began to execute, in other words, did the mission change? That is one of the questions that’s being asked,” he said.

CONSIDERED A LOWER-RISK MISSION

The mission had been seen as a relatively lower-risk endeavor for elite U.S. commandos and there was no armed air cover at the time that could carry out air strikes if necessary.

He added there was no indication the soldiers had taken too many risks.

“I don’t have any indication right now to believe or to know that they did anything other than operate within the orders they were given,” Dunford said.

U.S. forces were conducting normal operations in Niger again and the plan was for them to continue to train and advise local partners. Dunford said there had been no discussions about increasing U.S. troops.

A controversy has swirled for a week over how Trump has handled the task of consoling relatives of slain service members.

Myeshia Johnson, the widow of the Army sergeant killed in Niger, said on Monday that Trump had “made me cry even worse” in a condolence call when he said her husband “knew what he signed up for.”

“We owe the families as much information as we can find out about what happened, and we owe the American people an explanation of what their men and women were doing at this particular time,” Dunford said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by David Alexander, Eric Walsh and Amanda Becker; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Peter Cooney)

Many Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram fighting not ready to return home

Nigeria to release $1 billion from excess oil account to fight Boko Haram

ABUJA (Reuters) – The vast majority of almost 2 million Nigerians driven from their homes by the conflict with Boko Haram cannot return because of a lack of security, an aid agency said on Wednesday.

About 1.8 million people have been displaced in Nigeria by the conflict with the Islamist insurgency, which has left at least 20,000 dead and shows little sign of ending as it drags into its ninth year.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said in a report that 86 percent of internally displaced people were not ready to return home in the immediate future. Insecurity is cited by 84 percent of them as the main reason for wanting to stay put, it said.

Only about six in 10 people said they wanted to return to their villages at some point, but could not do so now, the NRC report said.

Many of the displaced say they have tried to return home, only to be forced to flee back to safer camps and cities because of continued attacks by Boko Haram and general insecurity.

“While the end game is for communities to return home, the unfortunate truth is that pushing people back now will have harmful consequences,” Jan Egeland, NRC secretary general, said in a statement.

Although Boko Haram in recent months has increased its attacks on displaced people, they still feel safer in camps and urban centers than in their communities, said Egeland.

The Nigerian government and military have repeatedly said the insurgency has been “defeated”.

Despite that, Boko Haram has killed 381 civilians in Nigeria and Cameroon since the beginning of April, more than double the amount dead in the preceding five months, Amnesty International said last month.

The NRC survey did not take into account the roughly 200,000 refugees who have fled to neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The humanitarian crisis in northern Nigeria is now one of the biggest in the world, with $1 billion needed to fund relief efforts in 2017, the United Nations says.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Alison Williams)

Nigeria set to start mass trial of Boko Haram suspects behind closed doors

ABUJA (Reuters) – The trial of more than 1,600 people suspected of ties with Boko Haram was expected to begin in Nigeria on Monday behind closed doors, in the biggest legal investigation into the eight-year militant Islamist insurgency.

More than 20,000 people have been killed and two million forced from their homes in northeastern Nigeria during the insurgency, contributing to what the United Nations has said is among the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Nigeria’s ministry of justice said last month the trial of around 1,670 people held at the Kainji detention facility would begin at the site, in the central Niger state, on Monday and would be presided over by four judges.

A spokesman for the ministry did not respond to requests for confirmation that the trial had begun. A military spokesman declined to comment, saying questions should be addressed to the judiciary.

The ministry has said that after the Kainji trials are completed, a further 651 people suspected of having links to Boko Haram and currently being held at prisons in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno, would go on trial.

Clement Nwankwo, a human rights lawyer based in the capital, Abuja, said the trials would provide a more effective deterrent if they were open to the media and public.

“On the Boko Haram issue, stories need to be told for the public to be made aware what has been going on and understand the nature of the crimes committed,” said Nwankwo, adding that secrecy also made it hard to determine whether trials were fair.

“The Nigerian authorities have not been known to be diligent in investigating and properly prosecuting suspects,” he said, warning that a sense of injustice could breed resentment among relatives that could yield future radicalization.

SECRECY

However, Fatima Akilu – who headed the government’s counter violent extremism program under the previous administration – said secrecy was needed to encourage witnesses and judges to take part in the trials because Nigeria does not have a witness protection program.

“A lot of witnesses were afraid to come forward,” Akilu, who was based in the Office of the National Security Adviser from 2012 to 2015, said of previous efforts to pursue trials.

She said judges and witnesses had previously been subjected to death threats.

“If the witnesses don’t come forward there is limited evidence in terms of reaching a conviction, so I think there was little choice,” she said, adding that there were no clear alternatives in the absence of an amnesty program.

Nigeria’s handling of thousands of people accused of ties with Boko Haram insurgents has previously attracted criticism.

The legal process marks a steep escalation in the number of insurgency-related cases being handled by Nigerian authorities.

The Ministry of Justice has said that, as of Sept. 11, only 13 “terrorism cases” had been concluded and nine convictions had been secured.

“The decision to start the trials is a response to persistent complaints by local and international human rights groups over thousands of persons detained without access to lawyers and without any specific charges, said Nnamdi Obasi, of International Crisis Group.

(Reporting by Camillus Eboh, Paul Carsten and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Editing by Gareth Jones)

French, Nigerien forces operating where three U.S. soldiers killed

By Boureima Balima

NIAMEY (Reuters) – French and Nigerien troops were conducting operations on Thursday in a region of Niger where three U.S. Army Special Forces members were killed the day before, becoming the first American soldiers to die in West Africa in decades.

At least one Nigerien soldier was also killed and two U.S. soldiers wounded in the attack, which took place in a southwestern Niger region where insurgents are active, U.S. Africa Command spokeswoman Robyn Mack said .

France’s regional Barkhane force was asked to support a counterattack after the Niger and U.S. troops were ambushed, French army spokesman Colonel Patrick Steiger told a news conference in Paris.

“It’s not clear if the attackers knew the Americans were present,” said a Western security source. “Initial information suggests there was a trap that appeared designed to get them out of their vehicles and then they opened fire.”

Insurgents in the area include militants from al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and a local branch of Islamic State, Mack said. The Western security source said al Qaeda and a relatively new group called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara were the main suspects, although no one had yet claimed responsibility.

Two other Niger security sources said four military helicopters had been sent to the region and that reinforcements arrived on Thursday morning in the Tillaberi area, where the attack took place.

A Nigerien regional official said on Wednesday five Niger soldiers were killed in the attack, but a statement by U.S. Africa Command on Thursday said only one “partner nation member” had died.

“U.S. service members were providing advice and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terror operations when they came under fire from hostile fighters,” Mack told Reuters.

In a speech on Thursday, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou condemned the attack. “Our country has just been the victim of a terrorist attack that claimed a large number of victims,” he said.

Islamist militants form part of a regional insurgency in the poor, sparsely populated deserts of West Africa’s Sahel. Jihadists have stepped up attacks on U.N. peacekeepers, Malian soldiers and civilian targets since being driven back in northern Mali by a French-led military intervention in 2013.

Malian militant groups have expanded their reach into neighboring countries, including Niger, where a series of attacks by armed groups led the government in March to declare a state of emergency in the southwest.

The European Union has pledged tens of millions of euros to a new regional force of five Sahelian countries – Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – in a bid to contain Islamist militant groups. The United States also views the region as a growing priority.

Rinaldo Depagne, West Africa project director at International Crisis Group, said the borderlands between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso were “becoming a new permanent hotbed of violence”, threatened by increasingly organized militant groups.

“This shows the level of organization of these groups and also their confidence,” Depagne said.

Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Wednesday’s attack revealed how U.S. training of Nigerien forces “has accelerated and also verged into ongoing military operations”.

The United States has about 800 service members in Niger, where it operates surveillance drones out of a $100 million base in the central city of Agadez to support the country’s efforts to combat jihadists and protect its porous borders.

It has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance to a multinational force battling the Nigerian Boko Haram militants near Niger’s border with Nigeria.

(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra and Cheick Diouara in Bamako, David Lewis in Nairobi, Emma Farge in Dakar and Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Joe Bavier and Larry King)

More than half of schools in Boko Haram’s region are shut, UNICEF says

ABUJA (Reuters) – More than half the schools in the state at the epicenter of Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram are still closed, the United Nations’ children agency said on Friday, as the insurgency drags into its ninth year.

The lack of schools could continue to fuel Boko Haram or similar movements in the future. Poor education for Nigeria’s restive northeastern youth left them with few prospects, driving them to join the Islamist insurgency, experts say.

The conflict has killed more than 20,000 people since 2009 and embroiled the region in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with at least 10.7 million people in need of assistance, according to the United Nations.

“In addition to devastating malnutrition, violence and an outbreak of cholera, the attacks on schools is in danger of creating a lost generation of children, threatening their and the countries future,” Justin Forsyth, a deputy director for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in a statement.

Over 57 percent of schools are shut in Borno state, where most of the conflict and resulting crisis have taken place, as the new school year begins, the statement said. More than 2,295 teachers have been killed, at least 19,000 displaced and almost 1,400 schools destroyed, UNICEF said.

Despite aid agencies’ efforts to set up schools for children in the northeast, particularly those displaced by the insurgency, UNICEF said it has only received three-fifths of the total funding it needs for 2017.

Combined with climate change taking its toll in recent years on farming, a mainstay of the region, the lack of schooling has left many without job opportunities.

Nigeria’s northeast has been plagued by poor education for decades.

British colonialization in the 19th and first half of the 20th century ushered in priests who set up schools in the country’s south, which came to be religiously dominated by Christianity.

The partly autonomous northern regions, governed by Muslim rulers under Britain, saw fewer similar attempts, and, by 1950, northern Nigeria had produced one university graduate.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten, editing by Larry King)