Out-of-school children: Nigeria's ticking time bomb

Kano (Nigeria) (AFP) - Bello Shehu is 12 years old. Under a scorching sun, he sells sachets of purified water to motorists caught in traffic jams in northern Nigeria's largest city, Kano.

"My family is poor and I have to vend water to assist," said Shehu, who has four siblings, and spends his days weaving in and out of the traffic, breathing in the choking fumes.

"My father is old and without a job. My mother plaits women's hair for a fee but what she makes is too meagre to support us," he told AFP.

Bello is not an isolated case, however, in a region already stricken by high levels of poverty and a country where children work for money to support their families.

Some 10.5 million children in Africa's most populous nation and leading economy are out of school -- the largest number in the world, according to the United Nations.

Many children in the Muslim-majority north have little choice, with schools closed or destroyed by six years of fighting between Boko Haram and the military.

But experts warn that even with recent successes against the militants, Nigeria needs to take urgent action to prevent an entire generation of children missing out on education.

"If nothing is done quickly now, in the next 10 years the Boko Haram insurgency will be child's play," said Mohammed Dongel, who runs a committee to re-open primary schools in Borno state.

"These out of school children are vulnerable to recruitment into evil-doing," the former state education commissioner added.

"More people are being recruited into Boko Haram because of ignorance, poverty and lack of education. If nothing is done about these children, we are sitting on a time bomb."

- Fears for the future -

Boko Haram's rampage in northeast Nigeria, particularly in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states, has had an appalling human cost.

More than 13,000 people have been killed since 2009 and some 1.5 million others left homeless. Healthcare provision, agriculture and education have all been devastated.

Of the 1,357 primary schools in Borno alone, accounting for 495,000 pupils, just 400 have reopened, said Dongel.

Boko Haram, which is against "secular" education, has repeatedly attacked schools, students and teachers.

A recent report by the Africa Health, Human and Social Development Information Service indicated that in the northeast, some 52.4 percent of men and boys over the age of six had no education.

The figures were worse for girls and women, rising to 61.1 percent.

But within the average, the figures rose to more than four in five (83.3 percent) of the 1.4 million males in Yobe. In Borno, it was just under two-thirds (63.6 percent) of 2.6 million males.

"Exclusion and marginalisation from modern society on this scale translates into a large pool of resentment and potential sympathisers for Boko Haram," the report said.

"It does not take much imagination to see how the introduction of extremists like Boko Haram... can quickly translate into a significant anti-social movement leading to mass insecurity."

The Nigerian military, hamstrung in its fight against the militants until recently, has enlisted many hundreds of jobless, uneducated young men and boys as civilian vigilantes.

Most them were teenagers and armed with crude, homemade weapons such as bows and arrows, sticks and cudgels. What happens to them when the insurgency is declared over has been a nagging question.

- School programmes -

Efforts are being made to address the situation, particularly in the north, where the "Almajiri" system has been revived, teaching Koranic education alongside "Western-style" subjects.

The authorities in Borno, for example, encourage attendance by providing free school uniforms and one meal a day to pupils, said Dongel.

The government and international partners are working in particular to boost girls' attendance at schools, with some 60 percent of girls in the north out of education.

There are teacher training programmes while a UN-backed Safe Schools scheme, established in the wake of Boko Haram's kidnapping of more than 200 girls last year, has raised $30 million.

Earlier this month, the first stone was laid to rebuild the school in Chibok, Borno state but nearly a year on, there are no signs that the 219 girls still being held will be released.

The Borno Elders Forum of retired military personnel and civil servants has warned that rebuilding will be a long process, both in terms of bricks and mortar and lives.

A "well thought-out plan of action" that enables people to get back to normal was required, the body said last week, recognising that "their trauma will take years to overcome".