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Education and violent extremism in Nigeria

Violent extremism is at the forefront of security concerns across Africa.

From Mali to Somalia and from Sudan to Tanzania, there has been a rise in the number and activity of militant groups. In contrast to Western concerns, these groups are more interested in targeting state, social and religious institutions that oppose their aim of establishing ‘pure’ Islamic states than they are in attacking Western interests.

This has been happening in Nigeria for the past decade. Nigeria is the continent’s most populous country, fastest growing economy and main oil exporter. State and local institutions, religious places and education facilities have been repeatedly attacked. Insecurity has ultimately led to the imposition of a state of emergency by the federal government in the northeast of the country. Despite Abuja’s military advantage, militant groups are proving to be extremely resilient.

A chain of events in Nigeria has recently spurred an international debate about religious extremism in the country. Most recently, in late September 2013, students at an agricultural college were shot dead as they slept in the college dormitory. According to Amnesty International, militants have so far killed around 170 teachers and students in school attacks during 2013.

The importance of education

According to UNESCO, the number of children in Nigeria without access to education increased by 3.6 million between 2000 and 2010 and now one in six children (10.5 million) do not go take part in formal education. The number of illiterate adults in the country has increased by 10 million over two decades, so that today 35 million adults in Nigeria are unable to read and write properly.

The north of Nigeria is the most affected region, according to UNESCO’s World Inequality Database on Education. By 2008, 54% of children aged seven to 16 years did not attend school in the northeast and 48% in the northwest. In contrast, a rate of 2-5% was reported in the south. In the northeast and northwest, respectively 73% and 75% of children from the poorest families do not attend formal education. In contrast, in the south the majority of children from poorer families attend school. It is also important to note that nationally 43% of Muslim children do not attend school, while only 5% of Christian children are in this situation.

Regions with low levels of school attendance will not attract the domestic and foreign investment necessary for development and job creation. Formal education provides students with the essential knowledge in maths, science and the humanities that employers require. An educated population allows the economy to grow, leads to more jobs and increases tax revenues. Education also emancipates people’s minds. The south of the country thus enjoys a comparative advantage over the north.

Poor economic well-being and lack of opportunities particularly affect the youth. Those affected by these conditions face an uncertain future and must improvise their livelihoods and conduct their relationships outside the usual frameworks. Such improvisation may lead to positive and prosperous ideas but more often than not it risks corruption – leaving people prone to involvement in illegal activities or open to manipulation by political, social and religious leaders.

The almajiri system of education

P­­oor Muslim families in Nigeria have two options. They can either keep their children at home in order to labour and contribute to the family’s survival or send them away to reduce the burden on the family’s resources and to provide them with some kind of education. If the latter is possible, children are mostly sent to free boarding schools, often in other states.

In northern Nigeria, Chad and Niger, there is a type of Qur’anic schooling called the almajiri system of education. Almajiri means an individual that moves from one place to another in search of knowledge. Children sent to these schools are separated from their families and communities, with virtually no means of maintaining contact. The emotional vacuum leaves them particularly reliant on their professors and fellow students. An estimated eight to 10 million children live in almajiri schools in Nigeria.

The curriculum at these schools is built around studying Arabic and the Qur’an and on attaining knowledge of the various branches of Islamic studies. Extremist philosophies are attaining a toe hold in many of the almajiri schools. Radical clerics are teaching students to hate everything that is Western or influenced by it, including the Nigerian government.

The almajiri system of education has been rooted in northern Nigeria since long before British colonialism in the 19th century. It is eulogised for having produced regional leaders, religious reformers and clerics, administrators and scholars across northern Nigeria. The schools were typically maintained by the communities where they were located and, in return for the education and care provided by the schools, almajiri students would contribute to the community with simple tasks, such as weaving, gardening and sewing.

The almajiri education system was obliterated under British colonialism. The British administration funded and promoted Western education across Nigeria and halted funding to Islamic schools. As a result, the almajiri system was left adrift. Madrasas were neglected and left to be managed by often unfit and unprofessional individuals, who pursued their own caprices and selfish goals. Lack of regulation and accountability was rampant in this deteriorated system. These schools lost much of their former glory.

Today, students are required to pay their teachers but since the majority of these children come from poor families they are sent on to the streets to beg for money and food. The almajiri system has degenerated to such an extent that the very word almajiri has become more associated with child beggars than students.

Upon finishing their education, the almajirai find themselves with few job prospects or any kind of support. Isolation, impoverishment and lack of prospects become an integral part of these former students’ lives within the underdeveloped context of northeast Nigeria. Organised groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Boko Haram are able to provide support to these individuals, regardless of whether the former almajirai are moved by religious belief or simple material necessity. It is thought that Boko Haram draws most of its recruits from those who grew up under the almajiri system. In this way, an entire generation of Muslim northern Nigerians is at risk of radicalisation.

Tackling the problem

Shortly after Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian security forces in July 2009, the group’s acting leader, Sanni Umaru, issued a statement in which he explained its opposition to Western civilisation:

First of all that Boko Haram does not in any way mean ‘Western education is a sin’ as the infidel media continue to portray us. Boko Haram actually means ‘Western civilisation is forbidden’. The difference is that while the first gives the impression that we are opposed to formal education coming from the West, that is Europe, which is not true, the second affirms our believe in the supremacy of Islamic culture (not Education), for culture is broader, it includes education but not determined by Western Education.

The group’s objective is to eradicate western influence and implement its own interpretation of shari’a across Nigeria. This is why it targets secular and Islamic schools alike across northeastern Nigeria. For example, Boko Haram has been attacking Islamiyya schools, which are very similar to the almajiri schools in their Islamic teaching but they also draw inspiration from Western educational models.

In an attempt to tackle some of the roots of the problem, the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, has initiated a programme of model almajiri boarding schools. The federal government guarantees funding for the building of schools and accommodation; the provision of equipment, furnishings and textbooks; the designing of the curriculum; and the provision of capacity-building training for teachers. Once established, these schools are handed over to the control of state governments and are monitored to ensure compliance with minimum academic standards for basic education.

Nevertheless, this programme leaves two crucial elements of potential radicalisation unaddressed. Firstly, it does not reform the core of the almajiri education system, which still focuses on Islamic studies at the expense of vocational skills and other subjects. This does not mean that Islamic education should be abolished, simply that the curriculum would benefit from widening. Further steps also need to be taken to ensure that extremist teachers are not active in these schools. Secondly, it does not tackle the structural socio-economic problems in northern Nigeria, which make almajirai vulnerable once they leave the school system. A wider programme of economic development for the region would do much to undermine the militant groups.

It is essential that the Boko Haram threat in Nigeria be neutralised. Education is not a panacea for Nigeria’s security ills. But providing proper formal education to the millions of vulnerable children would be a significant step forward in tackling militancy in the country.

This article was co-published with openDemocracy.