Boko Haram came looking for me because they fear the power of education

When I told people that after my first four years in the university, I planned on being an education campaigner and working in disadvantaged communities in north-eastern Nigeria, they thought I was crazy.

My parents thought I should return to the university and study medicine. My friends had applied for jobs in big companies.

But I went ahead and wrote letters to every State Education Commissioner in north-eastern Nigeria that I could think of, asking for their help so that I could visit educationally disadvantaged communities in their states and speak with local community leaders on ways of enhancing school enrolment. Finally, the Borno State Education Commissioner wrote back and offered to assist if I visited Borno.

The Borno State Ministry of Education didn’t have much money – so they only offered to take care of a few logistics that didn’t include my transport fare to the capital city, Maiduguri, nor my accommodation while in the state. Nevertheless, I was ready to move to Maiduguri – a place I had never been and where I didn’t know a living soul.

Even people who didn’t know me were skeptical of my decision. I remember having a conversation with a woman I had met before I arrived in Maiduguri. I told her about my plans, and she looked at me and said, “Let me tell something. You are a very young man with a bright future ahead of you. So let me give you a piece of advice – forget this idea of campaigning in Borno. You wouldn’t achieve anything. You are too young to change anything about Nigeria, and you might even get killed by Boko Haram militants. You should rather look for a job in the civil service and get a good career.”

I could’ve taken my parents advice and I could have taken the path my friends traveled. And objectively speaking, that civil service thing might have made some sense.

But I knew there was something in me that wanted to try for something bigger. And so I went.

When I arrived in Maiduguri, I was told about the education crisis in Gamboru, a small community near the state capital. In this town, there were more children begging on the streets than in school. Parents were skeptical about sending their children to school and Boko Haram militants had been constant visitors to the community. 

After three days in Maiduguri, I had made a few close friends, all of whom I was able to dispatch to Gamboru to find solutions to the education crisis in the community by interacting with its leaders. They were going to speak with local community leaders in their capacity as volunteers of 1 GAME, an education advocacy and campaigning initiative I had now established in Maiduguri.

Weeks later, I visited Gamboru and something very shocking happened. On my second day in the town, a small group of Boko Haram militants stormed the compound I was staying asking for the “1 GAME boy”.

By this time, almost everyone in the community had heard about the 1 GAME Campaign. More than 500 volunteers had been involved in the door-to-door campaign organised by 1 GAME to get parents to send their children to school, 10,000 exercise books and pens had been distributed to school children and many villagers had gotten free 1 GAME shirts with the campaign’s slogan – Education Defeats Violence – clearly written on each of them. Obviously I was the “1 GAME boy” Boko Haram was looking for.

But rather than give me in, the villagers helped me escape by disguising me into a local Islamic teacher. Their action clearly showed that they were fed up with illiteracy and poverty and wanted a better future for their children which only education can provide. It was clear that in the battle of ideologies, Boko Haram was losing. Gamboru community now understood the power of education. Interestingly, many communities in Borno state now understand the essence of quality education and are quick to defend the subject whenever the terrorists slam it.

When a store containing thousands of 1 GAME campaign-branded exercise books meant for distribution to primary schools in Maiduguri was burnt down by Boko Haram militants last December in Maiduguri, local traditional leaders were the first to condemn the act. Even illiterate youths who have never attended school thought the terrorists went too far by attacking education, a true indication that support for Boko Haram and their ideologies was reducing. Clearly the terrorists are losing.

When I made up my mind to campaign for education in Borno, I knew I was going to face a well-organised opposition by the men that profit from crippling education. But I also knew that I would find young people like me who were willing to fight very hard to make education for every child possible.

As I think about all of the good every young person has the potential to do in this world, I am reminded of this image. It is the image of young people in northern Nigeria watching how Boko Haram wrecked havoc on their communities. I imagine that they would have seen the insurgents shoot sporadically in the air but they also saw innocent people slaughtered or young girls being kidnapped or maybe they would have heard the news the day many schoolgirls died when Boko Haram militants burnt down their dormitory.

Instinctively, they knew that it was safer and smarter to stay at home and hope that, one day, the insurgency will come to an end. But somewhere in their hearts, they also understood that these people in Borno and Adamawa and Yobe were their brothers and sisters; that what was happening was wrong; and that they had an obligation to make it right.

And so when the call came to protect their communities, thousands of them answered by setting up youth vigilante groups. And they protected schools. They did so because they knew the benefits of education, but little did know that they had changed the world.

This is call to young people all over the world to demonstrate these same qualities through service to their communities, because it is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realise your true potential – and become fully grown.