Over the last three weeks, we have seen Nigerians rise up in the most unprecedented ways in response to the violent kidnapping of three hundred school girls in North Eastern Nigeria. Aged between 13 to 18, the girls, indigenes of the Chibok community in Borno state were at the Government secondary school hostel, where they temporarily lived, while they wrote the West African Examinations Council’s secondary school certification exam (WASSCE) when the incident occurred. They were tricked out of their hostels by religious insurgents pretending to be military personnel, loaded onto trucks and driven away. When news first broke, there was a trickle of lamentations about the missing girls. People wondered who would fight for them to be rescued and appealed to the federal government. As the days passed and it became increasingly obvious that the federal government was content to pretend the kidnapping had not occurred, Nigerians took the matter into their hands.
A national campaign hash tagged #BringBackOurGirls was started on twitter, quickly picking up momentum and attracting the attention of foreign media and well-meaning citizens of the world. With each day, the pressure mounted, and slowly, torturously, finally, the campaign began to yield results. The president after a forthnight of playing ignorant, finally publicly denounced the incident and inaugurated a committee to gather intelligence and decide on a plan of action. Foreign governments offered and are still offering assistance. The list of kidnapped girls was requested of their families. When the names of the missing girls were finally released by a Christian religious organization and the girls formerly assumed to all be Muslim because of the state from which they were taken were confirmed to be mostly Christian, accusations about religious favouritism were thrown around. But nobody asked the obvious question. Why were there so few Muslim girls writing WAEC at Chibok and by extension Borno as a whole? Few are eager to connect the dots; there were so few Muslim girls among the Chibok 234 because most Muslim girls do not have the opportunity to attend school all the way up to SS3. What is going on in the North concerning education?
This isn’t the first time that schools have been attacked or disrupted by religious insurgency. Since 2010 there have been several attacks on schools in Borno, Yobe and other South Eastern states of Nigeria. As early as February 2014, 59 students were killed in a hostile attack on Federal Government College, Buni, in Yobe state. Now; FGC Buni is one of thirty six ‘unity’ colleges instituted in all states of the federation, to provide a subsidized, mingling ground for young people from all parts of the country. The Unity College project was created to foster patriotism and lessen the effects of tribalism and along with the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) to foster unity post-civil-war Nigeria. Whether both have succeeded is something an entirely new article could spawn of, but what matters is that FGC Buni is the equivalent of a federal government parastatal. A terrorist attack happened at a federal government parastatal and 59 innocent people, literal wards of the Federal Government of Nigeria were killed and the government did nothing. It is surprising anyone expected the Federal Government to act when a state owned Government College in an embattled state already abandoned under a ‘state of emergency’, was attacked and civilian girls from the poorest of the country’s population were kidnapped.
Boko Haram literally translates to ‘Western education is Sin’. Many people argue that the term actually refers to what the terrorists refer to as ‘western influence’. But from their actions and the true victims of their many attacks, we can safely assume that Boko Haram is as literal in its threats and mission statement as it is, figurative. As of May 2014, attacks by Boko Haram have successfully shut down 200 schools. In a country where 40% of the entire population is under 20 and growing, its unimaginable how much education is needed to aid our evolution from a third world country to a developed nation. It’s important to note at this point, that Borno and Yobe, the states that have borne the most of the attacks by Boko Haram are part of the North Eastern geopolitical zone, an area that has come up repeatedly for abysmal rates of enrolment in all levels of education. In fact as much as 72% of secondary school age children in Borno state have never had any formal education (1). In a state struggling to encourage its largely illiterate population to embrace education, Boko Haram’s attacks and the consequential closure of what few precious schools exist is a serious, serious problem. The fifty nine students killed in the FGC Buni attack were all male, and the 234 kidnapped at Chibok were all female. Neither gender is spared in this systematic fight against education and the futures of the children of Nigeria. But Boko Haram is merely highlighting a problem that has existed in many forms prior to now.
In 2013, there was uproar when a law was modified to permit marriage to under-aged girls, a practice that is common in all rural communities of Nigeria but particularly endemic in the North. Early marriage practices along with a devaluing of the worth of girl children to domestic help and potential brides along with the fear that exposure would make pliable brides too headstrong, has made many a parent already struggling with too many children wary of formal education. An argument Boko Haram is currently taking to extremes. There is also the almajiri culture, where children are sent by their families to learn about Islam by ‘apprenticing’ under religious teachers. In precolonial Nigeria where most occupations were labour intensive and educational materials were rare and carefully preserved, this was an honourable gesture that showed great devotion to Islamic tenets. Today with the proliferation of Islamic literary materials (Qur’ans and the Hadith) and white collar occupations offering parents the option of hiring tutors to impart Islamic knowledge as well as freeing children from menial labour at very young ages, the need for Almajiri colleges has waned. Now only the poorest and the most devout send their sons to these informal schools.
Even the process itself has been perverted; the almajiri used to grow their own food and meet their own needs while learning vocational training specific to Islamic such as calligraphy (needed when transcribing the Qur’an) which took a good chunk of their time. Many former Almajiri would return to their families with life skills that kept them useful productive members of society. Technology has phased out many of these jobs. Most of the students Almajiri tutors take nowadays are from the poorest of homes, so there is literally nothing coming in for the upkeep of these students while they devote their time to study of the Qur’an. With financial support gone and life skills that are useless anywhere else but as an Almajiri tutor, many tutors end up accepting their apprentices into a kind of indentured service as payment for their services. The students are used as beggars and domestic workers partly to pay for their upkeep, which is why in Nigeria many mistake the word itself to be a nickname for beggar. According to UNICEF data there were as many as nine and a half million almajiri in Northern Nigeria as at 2011, a number that is constantly on the rise. These are nine million disillusioned illiterate young men, all primed for indoctrination by religious insurgents. The perpetuation of a destructive cycle.
Education has always been under attack in Northern Nigeria and Nigeria as a whole, from the primary all the way to the tertiary levels. Brain drain, unqualified teachers, child marriages, perversion of the Almajiri culture, academic corruption. The kidnapping of the two hundred and thirty four Chibok girls is merely shining an international spotlight on a terrible situation, but somehow forgetting to address its main victim, Education in Nigeria. Nearly twenty percent of Nigeria’s 2013 budget was dedicated to Healthcare and Education (702 billion naira) and a quarter of the four trillion naira total dedicated to security (905 billion naira). With those kinds of figures, there is no reason why any girl or boy in Borno state should be afraid to leave for school every morning. The Chibok girls shouldn’t have had to worry about being kidnapped while they worry about passing their WASSCE’s. Boko Haram might be fighting against education, but that should only make us fight back even more. Because Borno and Yobe are only a start; if the current plight of education in Northern Nigeria that Boko Haram has inadvertently exposed is not addressed, then we will see problems like Boko Haram surface all over Nigeria, closer to home, to us in our civilised cities of Lagos and Benin-city and Port Harcourt with its false illusions of isolation from the problem. It is already happening, kidnappings rife in the East, insurgency in the south by disgruntled militants. The neglect of education by successive governments and our indifference to it is already bearing fruit.
While we impress on our government to rescue the Chibok 234, let us not forget where they were taken and the reason why they risked their lives and exposed themselves to Boko Haram reach. Let us not forget to add in our international pleas that the Chibok girls, especially the Muslim ones were taken because they dared to seek an education, they were brave and not helpless victims as our posters and narratives seem to paint them. Let us ask our government to fight for better, safer and all inclusive education. Only then can scourges like Boko Haram be truly silenced and the future of our generation and the ones to come assured.
This think piece was written by Edwin Okolo | Twitter: @edgothboy.
This think piece was written by Edwin Okolo | Twitter: @edgothboy.