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Is Western Education Fuelling Nigeria's Insurgency?


By Rafiu Ajakaye

02 June 2014

As far back as the 16th century, northern Nigeria was regarded as a centre of learning, mainly in the Arabic language. Indeed, most accounts of pre-colonial Nigeria and West African history were reportedly documented by scholars of northern Nigeria origin.

Sheikh Othman Dan Fodio (1754-1817), the scholar-warrior credited with building Nigeria's revered Sokoto Caliphate, is believed to have written over 200 scholarly works on various subjects — from the sciences to the humanities to Islamic jurisprudence. The Kanem Borno Empire, headquartered in modern-day north-eastern Nigeria, was also considered a beacon of knowledge.

"This duo of state [the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kanem Borno Empire] was culturally, religiously and intellectually structured long before the European infiltration," Ahmad Bukhari, a university don, told Anadolu Agency. "Their religion is incontestably Islam, and their written and official language is noticeably Arabic," he said. "Due to their vast education, both domains were centres of learning and scholarship that have received worldwide accreditation," added Bukhari.

So widespread was learning across northern Nigeria that parents from across the country would send their children to far-flung areas in the north to study under different scholars in what became known as "al Majiris."

In its pure form, which can be traced to the 11th century, long before the British conquest of Nigeria, the al Majiri system is said to have produced countless scholars of the Quran, the Hadith (the sayings of Prophet Muhammad) and other branches of learning.

The al Majiri system was a community-based system of education in which both the teacher (Mallam) and students (al Majiris) were taken care of by the local community in which they were located. They were given access to farmland on which they could grow food, and supported through Islamic Zakat (almsgiving).


According to Ahmad Ibrahim, a researcher in Zaria, a major city in Nigeria's northern Kaduna State, everything changed with the British colonization of the country in the early 20th century.

"Government was sponsoring these scholarly activities until the coming of the colonial masters, who stopped funding for it and encouraged western education instead," he told AA. "They stopped employing these scholars and trained some other people in administrative jobs to take over their jobs," added Ibrahim.

"The anger runs deep among most northerners — especially anytime people from the south call northerners "illiterate." They see it as a conspiracy against the north," said the professor. For this reason, he said, "Ilmin Boko" — roughly translated in the local Hausa-Fulani language as "western education" — is still resented.

Respected newspaper columnist Garba Shehu agrees. "When the British conquered the north, they didn't limit themselves to merely supplanting the political institutions with cooperative or pliant institutions," he told AA. "They engaged in cultural and literary vandalism of the type never seen anywhere."

"When they came, they found a thriving literary environment in the north. They said it was heathen," he added. "They pillaged it. They levelled everything to the ground."

Western, Christian

Abdullateef Abubakar Jos, a broadcast journalist with northern Nigeria's first private radio station — Freedom Radio — blamed the belated acceptance of western education in the north on its relationship with Christianity.

"Northerners, being predominantly Muslim, had reservations about western education because the Christian missionaries brought it," he told AA. "And westerners never taught people education for the fun of it — they did so because they would be able to read the Bible," said Jos.

Musadiq Aruwa, a public affairs commentator based in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, said northerners were wary of western education because they feel it might "corrupt their morality."

"The majority of northerners... rely more on Arabic education," he told AA. "It is believed that western education has so many immoral values, but it is not outright condemnation per se." He added that any attempt by those promoting western education to stand in the way of northerners' religious beliefs would be resisted.

Aruwa cited the case of early marriage as an example. "Many people in the north believe that, once their girl-child has had secondary education, she should get married in order not to get corrupted," he said. "If she wants to go to university that is between her and the husband," Aruwa added.

Arabic Education Marginalised

Ismail Alogba, a fashion stylist who has lived in north-western Kano State all his life, said many locals "resent the federal government for prioritizing western education over the Arabic, which they have embraced and mastered."

Alogba told AA that northerners believe this priority "makes them second-class citizens until they go for western education." "Stupid as this sounds," he said, "it is a factor — but not the only one — in the ongoing crisis."

Senator Ahmed Zanna, who represents the Borno North district in Nigeria's parliament, believes this has to do with the emergence of the term "Boko Haram," meaning "Western education is forbidden," which has been espoused by the militant group that has adopted the term for its name.

"The major grievances — why this Boko Haram thing became a major headache — is that, when you are educated in Arabic and Islamic knowledge, you are not rewarded anything, while somebody who is educated in British education is rewarded abundantly," Zanna told AA.

The average child born to a northern Nigerian family traditionally receives an Arabic and Islamic education. Many subsequently travel to countries — such as Sudan, Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia — to continue their studies at the university level.

"The government does not even recognize these scholars, many of whom are in fact more learned than the so-called professors from western schools," Zanna said. "But whatever certificate they may have is not recognized." "There is anger over this. The grievances are so much, and they remain widespread across the north," said the senator.

"Somebody who is well versed in every aspect of learning in Arabic is not recognized unless he combines it with western education. But the same standard is never applied to those with a strictly western education," Zanna said.

No Place in the Economy

Today, northern Nigeria accounts for 19 of the country's 36 states. The population of these states, according to a 2006 census, stood at nearly 75 million — approximately 54 percent of the country's total population of 140 million at the time.

Yinusa Yau, a civil rights activist and researcher on Boko Haram, said the low rate of western education among northerners — and the resultant lack of skills with which to secure employment — ends up fuelling poverty, anger and despondency.

"In the past, the only skills that the al Majiris had were things like weaving caps and mats, which they used to supplement their income," Yau told AA. "But now, these are not useful skills. The Chinese have taken over making caps. So these guys, having acquired only Quranic education with no skills, can be easily recruited into whatever Boko Haram is doing," he said.

More than 1500 people have been killed this year alone in attacks blamed on Boko Haram insurgents, most of which have taken place in the north-eastern Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states.

Boko Haram first emerged in the early 2000s preaching against government misrule and corruption. The group later became violent, however, after the death of its leader in 2009 while in police custody. In the five years since, the shadowy sect has been blamed for numerous attacks — on places of worship and government institutions — and thousands of deaths.

Boko Haram's Role

According to Yau, Boko Haram is waging an ideological war with religion as a cover and mass discontentment as fuel. "Many of the [Boko Haram] leaders are well-educated people. So it is not really about western education," he told AA.

"Take for instance the one arrested for masterminding the Nyanya bombing — he is a graduate student in Sudan," Yau said, referring to the recent bombing of a car park in capital Abuja. "If Boko Haram is using sophisticated weapons, these are products of western science and technology. They use YouTube and they use email," the activist added.

Yau believes that the socioeconomic crisis in Nigeria in general — and the north in particular — has alienated many young people who will now buy into anything.  "Boko Haram as an intellectual and ideological framework is not necessarily fighting [for] the cause of the north or [for] Muslims that have been left behind, but they have found means to recruit people who are jobless and have no access to western skills," he said. "So their slogan, 'Boko Haram,' is just an ideological appeal to get a recruitment base," Yau added.

Shehu, the columnist, agrees. "I see no linkages between these terror activities and our [northern] colonial past," he told AA. "What we have going on in the north is not insurgency. It is terrorism. No one is safe from it." He believes that while Boko Haram has no link with the overall lack of western education in the north, it has managed to feed on widespread poverty. "Poverty provides a basis for recruitment, but it is not a justification for terrorism," Shehu said.

Jos, the broadcast journalist, said the gap in western education between Nigeria's south and north reflected the two regions' relative socioeconomic standing. "Of course it [socio-economic differences] does have effects," he told AA.

But Jos does not agree that the opportunities offered exclusively by western education — or the lack thereof — are responsible for fuelling the Boko Haram insurgency. "Boko Haram is a remnant of [a] political power play. It was a creation of politics," he insisted.

"I do not agree there are any correlations between any so-called backwardness in education and the insurgency." Jos adds, "If anything, northerners have embraced western education, despite the initial apathy — though the gap remains between the two regions."