Since they kidnapped more than two hundred schoolgirls from Chibok, Northeastern Nigeria, Nigerian Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, have become the object of global outrage. But the group’s atrocities had been going on since at least 2008, escalating into a full scale Islamist insurgency about four years ago.
Anti-Boko Haram activism, although justified and commendable, is often animated by a facile understanding of the group and its entwinements in deeper societal realities. To understand Boko Haram and the foundations of its rage, one has to understand two phenomena associated with the group’s rise.
One of these is historical, going back to the relationship of the Muslim Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri peoples of Northern Nigeria with Western education and occidental modernity — both initially conveyed to the region by British colonialism. The other is what one would call the de-legitimization of the Nigerian state, an acute postcolonial problem of which Boko Haram is one symptom.
Translated from Hausa, Boko Haram means Western education is forbidden. The name references the theological opposition of the group to Western education and other signs and symbols of Western modernity. The group’s theology — an eclectic collage of beliefs cobbled together from controversial medieval Salafi sources, from Wahhabi doctrines, from expedient idiosyncrasies, and from ideologies modeled by the Afghan Taliban — forbids Western education. Boko Haram sees secular Western ideas, acquired in the formal setting of Nigeria’s Western education system, as as the foundation of many sins and problems.
In Boko Haram’s heterodox theology, Western education begets mannerisms, institutions, technologies, and forms of recreation and entertainment that are haram — antithetical to pious Islamic living and outside the moral and judicial permissions of Sharia law.
This implacable opposition to secular education throws up a contradiction. Although Boko Haram decries the expansion of Western education in its Northeastern Nigerian stronghold and blames this for all of society’s undeniable ills — corruption, maladministration, and poverty — these problems are more plausibly connected to the paucity of Western education in that part of the country, not to its influence.
Access to Western education for Northern Nigeria’s youth has not kept pace with population growth. Boko Haram’s complaint about the ubiquitous evils of Western education is thus rather ironic, since large swathes of Muslim-majority states in the region have actually escaped the influence of Western education and the modernity associated with it.
One could stretch this point even further. Preeminent in Boko Haram’s leadership are men without Western education, men possessing only Quranic learning. Given this reality, it is easy to see the source of the group’s ideological insularity and cultural parochialism. The acquisition of some Western education might have moderated the group’s disdain for it or caused its leaders to appreciate its instrumental usefulness even in a Muslim-majority society such as Northern Nigeria. At the risk of advancing a counterfactual, then, one could argue that there might not be a Boko Haram as we know it if these men had been exposed to Western education.
Moreover, Boko Haram’s foot soldiers are largely young men without Western education, who were driven to the insurgency by economic disenfranchisement in a society where credentialed Western education and secular knowledge are requirements for upward socioeconomic mobility. It is thus doubtful if these young men would be in Sambisa Forest fighting for Boko Haram if they had had the opportunity to acquire Western education, its credentials, and its trappings.
It is no coincidence that Northeastern Nigeria, Nigeria’s least Western-educated region, is also arguably the country’s poorest constituency. This makes the area a fertile ground for both the populist and nihilist messages of Boko Haram. Educational deficit, the resulting poverty index, and extremism are intricately connected in a causal cycle, reinforcing one another.
Contrary to the claims of Boko Haram then, Western education is not the problem but part of a menu of solutions to problems such as unemployment, poverty, and crime, which the group’s leaders highlighted during its preaching, proselytizing phase. A legitimate question to pose then is whether extremist ideologies like Boko Haram would find positive reception and recruits if Western education had been more democratized and access to it subsidized for Northern Nigeria’s poor Muslims.
The dearth of Western education afflicts all Muslim-majority areas of Northern Nigeria, where a combination of British colonial policy on education and a strong suspicion of both secular and Christian missionary Western educations severely restricted the spread of secular schools.
Northern Nigeria became a British Protectorate in 1900 and colonial control was consolidated between then and 1907. Unwilling to offend the Muslim populations of many provinces, and wary of alienating Muslim elites the colonizers were cultivating as allies in their rule, British colonial authorities decreed a ban on Christian missionary activities in the Muslim emirates, cutting off these regions from the missionary educational enterprise, the major instrument for the spread of Western education in much of Nigeria and Africa.
The British went even further, establishing a two-tiered educational system that made colonial education an elitist affair, reserved for a few privileged Northern Nigerians. The first school system, exemplified by the prestigious Katsina College founded in 1921, catered exclusively to the sons of Muslim aristocratic allies of the British. The declared goal of the school was to educate potential emirs and aristocrats who would succeed their parents and continue to help the British administer their constituencies while British officers supervised — a colonial system called indirect rule.
The other branch of the colonial school system consisted of a few schools reserved almost exclusively for the sons of non-Muslim chiefs and big men who also played a supporting role in colonization. This group of schools was designed to train teachers, clerks, and workers for the colonial civil service.
While missionary education was restricted to a few non-Muslim provinces of colonial Northern Nigeria, and the exclusive state-funded schools educated a select group of privileged boys, the vast majority of Muslim Northern Nigerians remained without any form of Western education. This educational lag also persisted because there was suspicion in the Muslim emirates that Western education was a vector for ideas and practices deemed un-Islamic.
The region’s educational disadvantage remained until independence in 1960 when its leaders began to play catch up. To this day, the educational gap between Southern Nigeria and Northern Nigeria is visible and is captured in Nigerian policy parlance by the designation of many Northern Nigerian states as Educationally Less Developed States (ELDS). The educational needs of these states remain huge.
This educational heritage, or lack thereof, provides an important context for understanding the rise of Boko Haram. Boko Haram’s name and mission suggest that the root of Northern Nigeria’s many challenges is Western education. The truth is that the problem is inadequate Western education, not its presence.
The second issue that helps explain the rise of Boko Haram is twofold. The Nigerian state erodes its own legitimacy by failing to fulfill the most rudimentary obligations of a modern government. There is also a tendency by groups in both North and South to portray the state as illegitimate in order to justify their efforts to undermine it.
When militants in the oil producing Niger Delta launched an insurgency to fight for resource rights — a rebellion sporadically infested with criminality and carnage — they justified their struggle with the claim that the state was an illegitimate imposition, fair game for attacks.
Corruption is one of Nigeria’s main challenges and has in fact hampered the military effort to combat Boko Haram. This corruption thrives partly because many citizens and groups understand the state to be illegitimate, undeserving of loyalty, an entity whose resources can be appropriated for personal gratification.
This belief finds expression in various acts of malfeasance across the country and in multiple religious settings. There is, however, a distinctly Islamist variant of it that is prevalent in Northern Nigeria. In an essay published in 2009, when Boko Haram was escalating its campaign of violence against the state, Aliyu Tilde, a prominent Northern Nigerian Muslim pundit, described a phenomenon in which some Islamic clerics teach their followers that the secular Nigerian state and its governmental organs are haram, illegitimate.
The theological end-point of this Islamic teaching, Tilde argued, is the assertion that “public property and finances belong to nobody, so they can be looted whenever possible.” Many Nigerian Muslims, like many of their Christian compatriots, see the state and the patrimony it superintends as zones of easy largesse — perhaps even a site of divine favor where God authorizes his worshippers to profit at the expense of the government.
People who try to stand in the way of this systematic undermining of the state through theft and sabotage are taunted with the words, na ya papa money?/is government money your father’s property? It is a not so subtle threat to back off. It is also a profound enunciation of the notion that the state is an illegitimate orphan, belonging to no one, to be used when needed and destroyed when it stands in the way of one’s parochial agenda. This view of the state removes any moral constraints on individuals and groups determined to attack or plunder the state.
If government is haram and its assets, including military resources, can be legitimately stolen to promote personal and religious interests, undermining that government through violence and sabotage is halal, not only permitted but a legitimate religious obligation.
Boko Haram’s anti-government insurgency is partly driven by this belief that the secular Nigerian government is, by virtue of its illegitimacy, a legitimate target of violence — a sacrilegious entity that should be replaced by a state governed by Sharia.
Although also contemptuous of the state’s legitimacy, many Nigerians do not necessarily wish to have it replaced because that perceived illegitimacy helps to justify their appropriation of state resources for themselves. Boko Haram on the other hand considers it a religious duty to remove and replace the illegitimate state.
The conundrum outlined above calls for a two-pronged approach. One approach is to gradually reduce the number of Muslim youth susceptible to the macabre allure of violent extremism. This will require massive investments in Western and instrumental Islamic education as well as the expansion and diversification of the economies of the affected regions.
The second approach, institutional and constitutional, is to reinvent the legitimacy of the Nigerian state by devolving considerable power and control over developmental initiatives, natural resources, revenue generation and allocation, and law enforcement to states and local governments, or to some other new, more locally entrenched and thus legitimate entities.
Moses Ochonu is Associate Professor of African History at Vanderbilt University and is the author, most recently, of Colonialism by Proxy: Hausa Imperial Agents and Middle Belt Consciousness in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2014).