Education / Religion, Spirituality, and the Supernatural / West Africa

On Secular Education and Boko Haram

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 corruption, maladministration, and poverty, the logic being that the political, bureaucratic, and technocratic culprits in these problems 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, poverty, and Western education. One of those who responded to my earlier essays seems 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 extolling 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 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 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 be rewarded with paradise.” For youths with very little economic prospect in secular, mainstream Nigerian society, this is an attractive proposition. It’s no surprise then that thousands of these youths have 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 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 ban Christian missionaries from the emirates. The British didn’t care about offending the emirs, but they cared about what offending the emirs (by allowing the influx of missionaries into their domains) would lead to: alienating the key indigenous operatives of the indirect rule system, which would have undermined or jeopardized every facet of colonial rule. The tone was set early when in 1903, shortly after the Sokoto Caliphate fell to the British, Frederick Lugard issued his famous declaration that “government will in no way interfere with the Mohammedan religion,” a gesture he continued to uphold by refusing most requests for permission from missionaries seeking to work in the emirates. Lugard did not want to lose the cooperation of the emirs or the lucrative raw material exports that the traditional rulers helped to secure for British merchants.

The restriction on missionaries in the emirates is well documented in both primary and secondary sources. Lugard’s two volumes, Memoranda, and The Dual Mandate comment on it. Albert Ozigi and Lawrence Ocho also discuss the influence of the restriction on education in emirate provinces in their book Education in Northern Nigeria. There is also the autobiography of Rev. Walter Miller, which was published in 1953. The last text is perhaps the best source for reading about the restrictions, since Rev. Miller, one of the pioneer CMS missionaries in Northern Nigeria, had a famous, often cited clash with the Emir of Zazzau (Zaria) and with Lugard, Capt Abadie, and other colonial officials after he set up his mission station in Zaria in 1902.

The back-and-forth between Miller, seeking colonial intervention to enable him expand his mission’s operations inside in the walled Zaria city against the emir’s wish, and the colonial authorities is quite interesting, as he was repeatedly reminded in reply after reply to his petitions that the colonial policy in the emirates prevented the setting up of mission stations. Stubborn and determined, he continued his work to the dismay of the emir, who also kept complaining to the colonial authorities. Finally, in 1929, a compromise satisfactory to all parties was found that allowed Miller to move his mission to Wusasa, a village just outside Zaria city, where land was allocated to Christians to settle and build their structures. This station is the origin of the large Anglican compound in Wusasa, which grew to include a school, a cathedral, and a hospital. Several published articles, books, and memoirs have discussed Rev. Miller’s struggles against the restriction, as well as the implications of these limitations on missionary educational, medical, and evangelizing work in the emirates.



Frederick Lugard, First Governor of Colonial Northern Nigeria

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Church Missionary Society (CMS) and the Sudan Interim Mission (SIM) led by Bishop Tugwell and Rev. Bingam respectively obtained special permissions from Lugard to work in Kano, but due to hostility from the emir and their failure to attract people to their missions, they left shortly after they started work. Later in the colonial period, restrictions were gradually relaxed and individual emirs granted one-off permissions to specific missionaries, especially those doing medical work. As long as they didn’t seek to convert people, they were sometimes allowed to set up hospitals in certain districts. Also, many of the missions began to copy the successful formula in Zaria, which was to set up the mission station away from the walled city, in the strangers/migrants quarters, or Sabon Gari, where they were sure to be patronized by Southern Nigerians and non-Muslim northerners.

A few of these medical missions operated in the emirates with the permission of emirate and colonial authorities, and many of their patrons were lepers, blind people, and people with other diseases or disabilities who had been ostracized from society. My colleague and friend, Professor Shobana Shankar, has completed a strong book manuscript on these medical missionary works with lepers in the Kano-Jigawa area. The book is based on her UCLA dissertation.

The colonial authorities later set up some government schools in the emirates beyond the elite Katsina College and Barewa College, but they were very few. In the absence of missionary schools outside the few urban (Sabon Gari) mission compounds that catered mostly to the children of Southern Nigerian traders, teachers, and clerks, access to Western education remained closed to the vast majority of children in the emirates.

In provinces outside the emirate, where the restriction on missionary activities did not exist, such as Plateau Province, Benue Province, Kabba Province, and parts of Ilorin Province, the Southern parts of Zaria Province and the non-Muslim areas of Adamawa Province, Western education and schools spread at a faster rate, with missionary schools springing up in many districts and government schools complementing them. This is one of the reasons why the non-emirate provinces of Northern Nigeria are today more advanced, to varying degrees, in secular education terms than the former emirate areas — primarily the Northwest and Northeast.

The historical educational lag in the Muslim areas of Northern Nigeria was not caused by a failure of government to set up schools. It was caused rather by the fact that the government set up too few schools and by the fact that, in the absence of missionary educators and schools, secular education remained out of the reach of the majority of youths in these areas.

The natural question to pose then is, why did the colonial government not set up more schools? Albert Ozigi and Lawrence Ocho have since answered this question in their book, Education in Northern Nigeria. The government was hampered by 1) lean resources, 2) its ideology that liberal education would corrupt Northern Nigerians, turning them into agitators and floating populations in colonial society like it had purportedly done to the African intelligentsia of Southern Nigeria, whom the British hated with a passion and described in both published and unpublished colonial sources in derogatory and even racist terms as confused, undignified black Englishmen wannabes.

The perfect colonial depiction of this caricature is the Mr. Johnson clerk character in Joyce Carey’s Mister Johnson and in the movie of the same title based on the novel. In both of his works, Lugard railed against the dangers posed by the educated Southern class to colonial society and to their fellow Nigerians and was determined to keep that “problem” from occurring in his “beloved” Northern Nigeria.

Other colonial officials simply followed Lugard’s lead and tone in their emphasis on the supposedly dangerous influence of Western education on the “native” mind. Most of their memoirs and comments in colonial documents conveyed this suspicion of the “negative” impact of liberal Western education on “natives” who were supposedly not ready for it and would misuse it.

Acting on this belief, colonial authorities restricted the building of government schools, building schools only for the purpose of producing clerks and other workers for the colonial bureaucracy, educating 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. As Albert Ozigi and Lawrence Ocho further demonstrate in their book, many emirs were actually demanding that government build schools in their domains, having realized the importance of Western education to socioeconomic mobility in colonial society. The Northern Nigerian colonial authorities refused to meet most of these requests, hampered by budgetary constraints but more by their theory about the supposed damage that a rapid expansion of Western education might do to the minds of “native” Muslims.

The fear of, and disdain for, Western educated Africans like those protesting colonial policies and making demands in Southern Nigeria caused the Northern Nigerian colonial authorities to limit investments in education. Thus, although suspicions about Western education and especially about missionary education persisted in the emirates, once the benefits of secular education in colonial society became apparent, many people in the emirates yearned for government schools. Demand for Western education far outstripped supply because the colonial authorities did not desire a rapid expansion of Western education in the North. This left the legacy of educational lag that I discussed in my earlier essay.

This legacy has since been compounded by inattention to secular education by successive governments in the Muslim-majority states corresponding to the former emirate provinces of colonial Northern Nigeria, and by a resurgence of negative attitudes to Western education as a result of the influx into Northern Nigeria of religious doctrines that devalue or condemn Western education as un-Islamic. Boko Haram has been both a beneficiary and a promoter of this new suspicion of Western education.

In the non-Muslim provinces of Northern Nigeria, this colonial reluctance to build schools also restricted the spread of Western education, but missionaries filled the gap, and so the resulting educational lag was less than it was in the Northeast and Northwest, where missionary educators were restricted from operating. And, of course, in Southern Nigeria, government’s larger but inadequate investment in schools had a limited negative impact on educational advancement given the unhindered spread of missionary education and the long history of missionary educational work in the region.

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

3 thoughts on “On Secular Education and Boko Haram

  1. Moses
    You are doing yourself a disservice by understating the issue. ALL political movements from Marxism, the levellers, Nazism seek to mobilise supporters by addressing some present needs. Neither Marx nor Lenin ever suffered the pains of being a working class labourer ..but so what? Many early Nazis came from well to do backgrounds… so what? By confounding ‘modern education’ and ‘western education’ you obscure some serious issues. If we separate the two we can more easily identify these. Western education as being the acculturation through western institutions is a highly suspect process … consider even the widely quoted and in my opinion unrealistic statement that the role of a British education for Indian leaders was to make them so English that they would be more at home with England than in their home country! British colonial leaders saw British education as a weapon of control. By not recognising the point ( agree or disagree on its actual effectiveness – that is irrelevant) you seriously weaken your analysis. Not all Lugard’s views were universally shared by the British ruling class.

    There is an argument that the British education system selected and promoted for Africa a certain kind of malleable African that they thought they could control and ‘failed’ those who were ‘troublesome’ by nature. For their own system they sought persons of strong independence of mind but not for Africa. However a malleable person is malleable for other forces. When bad/evil people in Africa arose they immediately spotted that these senior civil servants/advisers etc were malleable and controlled them to Africa’s shame. What Boko are saying in their attack on ‘western education’ is that the current leaders lack legitimacy, are stooges to both foreign and local powers, that they cannot be negotiated with as they have no real autonomy and only force will get anything out of them/ this system.
    There is an argument here that you are clearly missing by your instinctively defensive position about ‘Western education’.
    I support your wish to show the historical and social roots of Boko but hope to show you a sub-text that you may be missing.

    • Thanks, Dapo, for your thoughtful comments. Two points by way of a response.

      1. You’re absolutely correct about the colonial ideological intentions of Western education, something which I alluded to in my first essay where I made it clear that historical suspicion against Western education and Boko Haram’s opposition to Western education are not just visceral oppositions to Western education qua Western education but were/are rooted in resentment of what Western education represents or convey–its sociopolitical contents–as well as in resentment of those seen to have inherited its institutional, social, political, and cultural baggage as interpreted by those doing the opposition. The other other point that I didn’t develop for lack of space is that having tried the “Western education as a tool of control” template in Southern Nigeria (Colony of Lagos and Niger Coast Protectorate) and reaped (from their perspective) a disastrous outcome, namely, the refusal of Western educated Southern Nigerians to perform docility before the British colonizers and the former’s transformation, for good measure, into “troublemakers,” Colonial officials in Northern Nigeria led by Lugard were determined not to repeat that “mistake” in their new protectorate, which they thought was peopled by innocent, impressionable Muslims and “pagans” who would catch the Southern Nigerian disease of troublemaking if exposed liberally to Western duration. In other words, the deliberate colonial policy of restricting the spread of Western education (by missionaries and governmental agency) in Northern Nigeria, which was itself a product of the the British disillusionment with and abandonment of Western education as an instrument of control, makes the valid point you make irrelevant to Northern Nigeria. So, even though you’re right about colonial assumptions about Western education as an instrument of control (an assumption confounded everywhere historians and postcolonial scholars have documented) it is of little analytical value when discussing Northern Nigeria. In fact in Northern Nigeria one could argue that the British, led by Lugard, saw restrictions on the spread of Western education as a tool of control. The belief of the British by the time they came to Northern Nigeria was that they had trouble asserting control in Southern Nigeria precisely because of the unrestricted spread of Western education in the mid to late nineteenth century. They would not let this happen in the North, hence the length to which they went (read Lawrence Ocho and Albert Ozigi’s book that referenced) to restrict the spread of Western education there, limiting Western education only to the education of specific elite groups useful or indispensable to colonization.

      2. Although “not all Lugard’s views were universally shared by the British ruling class,” in Northern Nigeria, Lugard’s beliefs and administrative vision for the North, articulated through published and unpublished writings, correspondence, instructions, notes, memos, etc, were regarded as definitive operational guides for colonial officials. In fact, several contemporaries of Lugard said so themselves. And later, after the publication of Lugard’s The Dual Mandate, many colonial officials carried it with them to their areas of colonial assignment as a reference for administrative decisions and colonial relations. Many of them referred to the book in their colonial correspondences, in their diaries, and in their published and unpublished autobiographies and memoirs as the bible of colonial administration in Northern Nigeria. Following this, many scholars of Northern Nigerian history, including me, have sometimes used the same term to refer to Lugard’s Dual Mandate. Subsequent colonial governors of Northern Nigeria venerated and upheld Lugard’s vision and understandings of Northern Nigerians, of the damage unregulated Western education could do to them, of their administrative needs,etc. The only governor to challenge an aspect of Lugard’s legacy was Donald Cameron in the 1930s, who tried to reduce the powers of the emirs over their own immediate subjects and over non-Muslims communities put under their rule. He tried to grant some administrative autonomy to non-Muslim communities and to introduce deliberative councils into the emirate and Native Authorities to, as he put it, reduce the rural autocracy of the emirs. Virulent opposition from emirs and colonial officials in the field alike frustrated this reform and the Lugardian status quo was maintained, again underscoring the continued sway and longevity of Lugard’s foundational understandings and policies in colonial Northern Nigeria.

      I salute you for your reflective engagement with my essay.

      • Moses
        thank you for such a detailed and considerate response. Can I expand on the point I was seeking to make? During the 60’s the Yoruba elite looked on the social structure of the North with some disdain but the idea was that the principle of state autonomy was what was protecting the South from too much interference by the reactionary North. If we tried to influence policy in the North it would establish a precedent for the Northerners to interfere down South. In any case the poor in the North seemed to accept their fate. Though the argument was genuinely felt there was no sense of urgency about the situation of the poor in the North.
        Fast forward: I was on a British trade mission to Lagos and there was a presentation by a colleague of the Governor of Kano State. He said the Governor felt the proper response to Boko Haram was not more security but social change. This was his second time as governor but this time he had now introduced universal free education to university level, focused on jobs for young people and better health care. My question: Did it take Boko Haram to make these changes or could a different approach to the Northern social situation much earlier have made such changes arrive before Boko Haram? If there was nothing the South could have done to effect such change then Boko Haram was a necessary evil? If there was something we could have done then the leadership failed. Pat Utomi and similar minded people are arguing for social change in the North. Such changes would have a dramatic effect on Nigeria’s development as the North would become an ally in development not a threat to it. Unless we (intellectuals, academics, advisors, journalists, politicians civil servants etc) press this home with urgency and deprioritize the security challenge, we will certainly be failing our society and with much less excuse.

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