As has been the case annually since the crisis in Mali erupted in 2012, the start of the school year on 9 October was ineffective countrywide. Hundreds of schools remained closed in the north and centre of the country because of rampant insecurity.
According to a report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 500 schools were closed at the end of the 2016-17 school year. More than half of them are in the region of Mopti. In the north, this is the result of the insecurity caused by political and extremist armed groups. In the centre, attacks on schools by terrorist groups reflect their hostility towards the secular education system – often referred to in Mali as ‘Western’ education.
While the north fell prey to an independence rebellion and ‘jihadist’ occupation in 2012, the centre of the country has gradually lapsed into armed violence since 2015. Intra-community and inter-community clashes based on competition over natural resources, targeted killings of local elected officials and traditional authorities are common. This has led to a withdrawal of state representatives (prefects, governors etc.) and forced many teachers and pupils to flee schools.
Abandoned by authorities worried by the rising insecurity, schools have become targets for terrorist groups affiliated with Hamadoun Kouffa’s militant Katiba Macina. These groups have taken advantage of state absence to extend their influence in the centre of Mali.
In May this year, a turning point was reached with the destruction of two schools in the commune of Sah, located 30 km from Youwarou in Mopti, on the grounds that ‘the education advocated by Sharia must be dispensed’. As reported by Amnesty International, in Diafarabé, Togue Mourari and Sarro (Mopti), presumed terrorists demanded the closure of schools to ‘transform them into structures providing Qur’anic teaching’.
The challenges faced by the Malian school system in the centre of the country are not all security related. The populations of this region have often perceived the secular schooling system with suspicion, seeing it as a symbolic and historical representation of Western values as well as a sign of colonial and postcolonial domination. By attacking these schools, extremist groups have tried to strategically position themselves as an alternative by adopting an anti-Western rhetoric and defying the state, which they say is under the influence of foreign interests.
This highlights the political and religious motivation of the ongoing intimidation of teachers and destruction of school infrastructure. While secular schooling is under attack, the number of Qur’anic schools has increased, especially in the Mopti and Ségou regions.
Mali is not the only country in the region where terrorist groups target secular schools. In Soum, a province in Burkina Faso near the border with Mali, teachers and pupils deserted classes under threat from Ansarul Islam. This extremist movement, created by Ibrahim Malam Dicko, seems to be the main cause of instability in that region.
Qur’anic schools are often the preferred option for sections of the population, especially the pastoral communities of the Mopti region, who see them as a more suitable alternative to their reality and nomadic way of life. For them, Qur’anic schools tend to be more accessible and flexible because of their significant number and their geographical spread. Beyond the religious dimension, the usefulness of this type of education for the nomadic population should not be overlooked.
But these schools are not part of the secular national public system, and this has led to low school enrolment figures. The number of out-of-school children in Mali has increased from 862 563 in 2012 to 1 154 062 in 2015.
Some studies show that religious education can help strengthen resilience to extremist ideologies: it enables students to acquire an ability to read and interpret religious texts independently of the influence of religious leaders.
In July 2013, the government set up a commission to reflect on the integration of Qur’anic schools into the Malian education system. The commission’s recommendations are to be implemented once a pilot phase is completed based on the lessons documented by the follow-up committee that was established in 2015.
The tendency these days is to integrate resilience-oriented courses such as peace education into national curricula in order to prevent violent extremism and the factors that feed it. The Malian government and education actors could, in an inclusive way, build an education system with secular and religious dimensions. However, regardless of the content of the school curriculum, education alone cannot prevent radicalisation. A deteriorating security environment will keep teachers and students from returning to school.
In February 2017, the government adopted an integrated security plan for the regions in central Mali. This plan sets out security, development, governance and communication measures to address the growing insecurity.
A return of the state implies responding to the shortage of teachers, equipment and school infrastructure, and ensuring the safety of school personnel and pupils. The government must reclaim control in the centre of the country and prove both its authority and usefulness to the population. This is a prerequisite for stability, which in turn is crucial for the proper functioning of schools.
Written by Nadia Adam, Junior Fellow and Ekaterina Golovko, Visiting Fellow, ISS Dakar; and Boubacar Sangaré, Junior Fellow, ISS Bamako