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On Western Education And Boko Haram By Moses Ochonu

July 17, 2014


Since publishing my essay “Toward a Better Understanding of Boko Haram,” I have received some feedback, with respondents raising questions and issues they feel merit further exploration, explanation, context, and elaboration. One of these issues is the question of whether or not Boko Haram rose out of societal problems supposedly caused by Western education — corruption, poverty, and poor governance, or whether in fact these problems are traceable to Western education as Boko Haram claims. 

In its early, preaching phase, Boko Haram consistently advanced some emotive themes sure to resonate with the people in order to win some popular support. One of these themes was couched in the polemic that Western education is responsible for the problems of corruption, maladministration, and poverty, the logic being that the political, bureaucratic, and technocratic culprits in these deficits are Western educated people. 

The argument found some sympathetic ears in a climate of disillusionment with politicians and bureaucrats — all of them Western educated. This initial support quickly dissipated when the group started showing its proverbial true colors and killing the very people it claimed to be fighting for through its critique of corruption, maladministration, and poverty. One of those who responded to my earlier essays tends to agree with the rhetoric of Western education being the remote causal agent in the prevailing problems of society — the idea that there is a causal connection between Western education and corruption, maladministration, and poverty. I don’t agree. 

Western education, like any other kind of education and knowledge system, can be and is often used as an instrument of empowerment. There are verses in the Qu’ran that extol the virtues of knowledge and education, including secular knowledge. On the other hand, those who want to demonize knowledge, enlightenment, and education, secular or otherwise, can rhetorically tie these endeavors to certain vices and problems in society. Many bigoted people in the West blame Islamic education for the scourge of violent extremism, and many Luddites and the nineteenth century Romantic movement in Europe blamed the Enlightenment, Reason, science, and technological education for all that was wrong with modern Europe and yearned for a return to a more rustic, less scientific and less industrialized past. We now know that these were/are at best impulsive devaluations of unfamiliar types of education and knowledge. 

Once one buys into this rhetoric of Western education being the foundational sin it is easy to then argue, as does Boko Haram, that the solution to corruption, poverty, and maladministration is total implementation of Sharia (complete with the hudud punishments) in a multireligious society, or the creation of a theocratic Islamic state, with all its fantastical promises. This is obviously an unrealistic vision, given Nigeria’s socioeconomic alchemy, and a Utopian project, since we know from many historical and contemporary examples that theocratic paradises do not exist and that theocracies do not necessarily solve society’s problems and often create a few of their own. 

I do not agree that corruption, maladministration, and poverty “generated Boko Haram,” as one interlocutor asserted. Not only is this claim not factually true; if one subscribes to it one would have to explain why the prevalence, even if less, of these problems in other Muslim-majority parts of Northern Nigeria or other parts of Nigeria have not produced ideologically nihilist groups like Boko Haram. My point in the piece was that Boko Haram tapped rhetorically and opportunistically into the resentment caused by the existence of these problems to win some popular support initially, support which enabled it to rise and even acquire a veneer of legitimacy at its early stage. That said, I do believe that the existence of these problems and the existence of people victimized by them (unemployed, economically disenfranchised youths) enabled Boko Haram to find ready recruits to its ideology. 

Here is the scenario: you have a bunch of youths in the Northeast who did not go to secular schools and are, for good measure, products of the Almajiri system of “exiled” urban Islamic education for kids. Upon completing Islamiyya education and/or coming of age in the urban milieu, these youths realize that, without Western education and its credentials, they have absolutely no shot at economic mobility in Nigeria’s secular economy, especially given the reality that even those with college and graduate credentials have no assurance of employment and upward economic mobility. These youths are basically without a future, are helpless, and have no place in Nigeria’s secular economy and political system. 

Normally, they would survive on their wit, learn a petty trade to survive in the urban area, return to the village and become farmers or artisans, or a few of them would engage in further Islamic study and become clerics or Khadis (Islamic judges). All of these are no longer happening partly because the graduates of the Almajiri system are increasingly choosing to remain in urban centers, the only place they can call home, having been separated from their families in the countryside throughout their period of study. 

These youths no long take on the rigors of further Islamic studies and do not have the patience to learn a trade. Instead, they constitute themselves into an urban population of unemployed (and unemployable), crime-prone, sometimes drug-addicted young men living on the margins of society.  Then a group like Boko Haram comes along and says to them, “we have a solution to your predicament. Come and join us and we will pay you and your family a monthly stipend, feed you, and make you powerful, important, and relevant — the very things that secular Nigerian society has denied you. And oh, by the way, you’ll be doing God’s work and if you die in the process you will be a martyr and rewarded with paradise.” For these youths with very little economic prospect in secular, mainstream Nigerian society, this is an attractive proposition. Thus, thousands of them flocked to Boko Haram as foot soldiers, lookouts, and spies. 

As is clear from my narration above then, these youthful victims were not “produced” by just corruption and maladministration but also by the history of secular educational lag that I explored in my essay, a history in which colonial policy and attitudes to Western education are implicated. To the extent that these youths were put in a vulnerable position by their lack of secular education in an economy which functions on secular knowledge and secular credentials, and by corruption, maladministration, and poverty, these problems of educational deficit and poor governance contributed to Boko Haram’s recruiting success. But the problems of economic disenfranchisement and youth unemployment in the Northeast didn’t “generate” or produce Boko Haram; they only made it easier for Boko Haram to recruit young men into their ranks.

Moreover, many Boko Haram leaders had not experienced the economic hopelessness that enables them to recruit youths. Several had been earning a living productively and a few were even university graduates who later disavowed their Western education and made a public show of burning their certificates as a sign of adherence to the group’s signature doctrine. Among youths not yet infested by extreme doctrines, the main problem is the main problem is that they lack the skills and credentials necessary to challenge for a place in Nigeria’s secular economy. It is the case in Nigeria that, as bad as things are, those who have credentialed Western education can still nurture some hope of economic mobility, while those without it have little to no shot, hence the centrality of secular education to my analysis in the essay. Education, no matter how long it takes to pay off, remains a firewall against the kind of economic hopelessness that enables young men to fall under Boko Haram’s spell.

In Northern Nigeria, the notion that Boko or Western education can teach skills that a criminally minded individual can use to perpetrate unethical acts, which is true, can quickly morph into a blanket claim that Western education is harmful to society, responsible for all of society’s vices, and thus un-Islamic. Western education — or, more appropriately, secular education — creates enlightenment and self-empowerment. It also imparts knowledge and skills usable in our modern, globalized economy. As I argued in the earlier essay, without the history of educational lag and the subsequent inadequate investment in secular education in the north, there would be no Boko Haram as we know it because, 1) the disdain for Western or secular education on the part of Boko Haram leaders, many of whom have no secular education, would not be so great, and they might appreciate the practical, instrumental benefits of that kind of education, and 2) the Boko Haram foot soldiers who carry out the familiar atrocities would most likely not be in Sambisa and other forests fighting for Boko Haram because they might have acquired secular educational skills that they could use to enter Nigeria’s secular economy and build a life or career for themselves. 

Lamenting this history or advocating for the expansion of access to secular education as one of the solutions to Boko Haram does not mean that one is suggesting that Islamic or moral education should be discarded — far from it. The two have to go hand in hand. Most Nigerian Muslims with Western education started with Islamic education, learning and memorizing the Qu’ran, learning Arabic and Ajami before they enrolled in a secular school. This is necessary to mitigate what many Muslims in Northern Nigeria legitimately believe to be the corrupting moral influence of Boko, or secular education. The problem is that in the Northeast especially, but also in the Northwest, many children are stopping at Islamiyya education and not proceeding to a secular school that would equip them with the skills and knowledge to be functional and productive in Nigeria’s secular economy. 

The challenge is to integrate moral/religious education and secular instrumental instruction. Although ethics and morality can also be taught under a secular curriculum, most Muslim and Christian parents often insist that their wards learn the moral and doctrinal foundations of their faiths outside the secular classroom, and this is understandable. In fact, some Islamic countries have found a way to integrate Islamic learning and secular subjects in one holistic curriculum. There is no reason why this cannot be done in Nigeria, especially in areas like the Northeast where most children of school age only go through the Almajiri system of madrasahs, away from the moral guidance and discipline of their parents.

One of the tragedies of the Almajiri Islamiyya education system in Northern Nigeria today is that it has departed from its original mission, in that the children sent from rural areas to study with urban-based teachers spend most of their time roaming the streets, doing bara (begging) to earn money, and doing chores for a fee, and very little time studying the Qu’ran. The result is that many of those who graduate from these madrasahs have no sound knowledge of the Qu’ran, the Hadiths, Sunnah, and other foundational Islamic texts, and are thus vulnerable to being indoctrinated with the twisted doctrines and interpretations of groups like Boko Haram. This is precisely why many prominent Northern Nigerian intellectuals and academics have been calling for a radical reform of the Almajiri system of Islamiyya education.

Another issue that has been raised concerns the nature of the restriction on missionary educators in the Muslim emirates of colonial Northern Nigeria as well as the issue of the British being wary of offending and alienating Muslim emirs who were instrumental to the workings of the Indirect Rule system of colonial administration. 

My point was simple: it’s not that the British didn’t want to offend the emirs because they were sensitive to Muslim suspicions of missionary educators; rather, they didn’t want to alienate them from the colonial system by allowing Christian missionary educators into the emirates. Some emirs told Frederick Lugard and other colonial officials that they didn’t want missionary educators in their domains because they feared that the missionaries would try to convert their Muslim subjects. Given how valuable, even indispensible, the emirs were to British indirect rule the British made a pragmatic decision to restrict Christian missionaries from the emirates. 

In addition to the restrictions on missionary educators, the spread of Western education in the emirates was further hampered by two factors. The first is the initial widespread suspicion of Western education as a carrier of un-Islamic ideas. This attitude, it must be said, quickly dissipated as many aristocrats and regular people saw how important secular education was to socioeconomic mobility in colonial society. In fact, later in the colonial period, many emirs were clamoring for colonial government to build schools in their domains, demands that the government refused to meet. 

This brings us to the second and most important factor that stunted the spread of Western education in the emirate provinces. Colonial authorities in Northern Nigeria refused to build schools liberally in the North because of a racist ideology that questioned the value of liberal (as opposed to vocational) Western education for regular African “natives.” Specifically, British colonial officials in the North believed that liberal education would corrupt Northern Nigerians, turning them into agitators and floating populations in colonial society like it had purportedly done to the indigenous intelligentsia of Southern Nigeria, whom the British hated with a passion and described in published and unpublished colonial sources in derogatory and even racist terms as confused, troublesome, undignified black Englishmen wannabes. Frederick Lugard and other colonial officials were determined that their “beloved” North would not be afflicted with this syndrome.

Acting on this belief, colonial authorities restricted the building of government schools, building a few schools only for the purpose of producing clerks and other workers for the colonial bureaucracy, producing so-called enlightened emirs and chiefs who would partner with the British in colonial administration, and training teachers who would teach in the few government schools. 

In non-emirate areas like Benue, Plateau, and Kabba Provinces, and in the non-Muslim parts of Zaria, Adamawa, and Ilorin Provinces, there were no colonial restrictions on missionary educators and so missionaries of different stripes built and operated schools. These schools in turn filled the gap left by government’s refusal to expand Western education in the North. Hence, today, the educational gap between these areas of the North and Southern Nigeria is not as great as that between the Northeast/Northwest and the South. 

In the final analysis, then, the foundation of the educational lag in the Muslim-majority states of the North was laid by colonial policy, which was founded on the theory that a rapid expansion of Western education would damage the minds of “native” Muslims. This foundational problem has been compounded over the years by the inattention of governments in these states to education and, more recently, by a resurgence of negative attitudes to Western education, itself a product of the influx into Northern Nigeria of religious ideologies denouncing or devaluing secular education.


Moses Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University. His is the author, most recently, of Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2014).