Nigeria's Boko Haram thrives on lack of basic education

Posted on December 10, 2015

The world has been thrown into chaos with the rise in extremist attacks across the globe.  News headlines around the world were set ablaze by the seven coordinated terror attacks in Paris on the evening of 13 November 2015, for which the Islamic State (IS) has taken responsibility.

Africa has not been spared the effects of this trend. Boko Haram’s insurgency in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, which pitted neighbour against neighbour, claimed thousands of lives, displaced close to half a million people, destroyed hundreds of schools and government buildings, and devastated an already ravaged economy in north-eastern Nigeria, one of the country’s poorest regions. Boko Haram, an Islamic jihadist and terrorist organisation based in north-eastern Nigeria, has claimed responsibility for many terrorist attacks on the African continent. Disparities between the country’s north, which is mainly Muslim, and the predominantly Christian south are important in understanding the conflict. The north is far behind the south in terms of education and wealth, owing to a complex brew of cultural, historical, religious and other factors. 

Although Boko Haram’s terrorist activities – such as the kidnapping of 276 young female students from the government secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno state, Nigeria in April 2014 – have become increasingly publicised of late, their continuous insurgence has been consuming the country and its people for years.

In his PhD thesis, ‘Realising the right to basic education in Nigeria’, Dr Onuora-Oguno Azubike Chinwuba, a native Nigerian based at the Centre for Human Rights (CHR) in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria (UP), links the rise of Boko Haram to the education sector in Nigeria.

Dr Onuora-Oguno did his thesis at UP under the supervision of Prof Michelo Hansungule, a researcher at the CHR. In it, he reveals that close to ten million children in Nigeria do not attend school, and that the country is estimated to have the largest number of children not attending school in the world. He posits that this tragedy is largely owing to the increasing number of attacks on schools as a result of the rejection by Boko Haram of the ‘Western’ style of education. Interestingly, the phrase ‘Boko Haram’ can be translated into English as ‘Western education is a crime’.

Based on this, Dr Onuora-Oguno advances the recognition of basic education as a fundamental right in Nigeria as a needed shift from the present situation where it is considered merely an objective of state principle. In tracing the history and philosophy of education in Nigeria, Dr Onuora-Oguno uncovered some surprising facts related to present-day terrorism in Africa. His research also covered South Africa and India, with the aim of identifying how the judiciary and national human rights commissions approached the issue of basic education. He also examined vulnerable groups like girl children and children living with physical disabilities.

Among the objectives of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are the provision of certain rights to protect children, such as the universal right to primary education, as well as the promotion of gender equality in education.[1] Despite the existence of these provisions, the situation of Nigerian children remains abysmal.

The research advances that the pivotal nature of education necessitates a comprehensive approach. The term ‘comprehensive’ is used to show the functional, sociological aspects of education. The struggle approach depicts the present agitation and the demand for basic education that best suits the needs of the people, especially, given the activities of Boko Haram, in north-eastern Nigeria. 

Dr Onuora-Oguno highlights the recent attacks on educational facilities in northern Nigeria as presenting a serious hindrance to access to education. Besides the activities of Boko Haram, core cultural and religious practices such as those of early child marriage of girls and almajiri (hawking/begging) also hinder access to basic education. This challenge finds further expression in the recent killings, by the members of Boko Haram, of teachers and learners in northern Nigeria.

In 2012 Boko Haram, in defiance of the ‘Western way of education’, burnt down 14 schools in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, forcing over 7 000 children out of formal education, pushing down enrolment rates and bringing about the closure of schools. In 2013, Boko Haram gunmen stormed student dormitories at a college in the northern state of Yobe and opened fire on sleeping students, killing 40.

In a recent paper presented at an International Law conference on Boko Haram in Johannesburg, Dr Onuora-Oguno stated that, according to Amnesty International, the attacks were not just on people, but also on the right to education. In a YouTube video clip posted in July 2013, the purported leader of Boko Haram, Abubakarr Shekau, stated that they were attacking schools because they are ‘un-Islamic’, and called for more teachers to be killed. He was specific in his instructions that only ‘teachers who teach Western education’ should be killed and their non-Islamic schools burned down.

According to Dr Onuora-Oguno’s research, religious and cultural activities impact extensively on limiting access to basic education in Nigeria. A cursory look at all these factors reveals religious intolerance, fundamentalism and extremism. Indeed, this precarious tripod carries a hotchpotch of religious conflicts in Nigeria and is fuelled by a lack of education that is based on a sound philosophical foundation.

In conclusion, Dr Onuora-Oguno found that legislation is one of the main ingredients in the quest for eliminating the challenges that have hindered access to basic education in Nigeria. He recommends a review of the legal framework of institutions like the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria (TRCN), the Nigeria National Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) and the judiciary, among others. He encourages further cooperation and synergy among institutions, particularly among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) represented by the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA).

Dr Onuora-Oguno’s findings have been accepted for upcoming publication in the South African Yearbook on International Law. He has also featured on eNCA as an expert advisor regarding the recent Boko Haram attacks.




[1] United Nations Millennium Development Goal 3.


- Author Elzet Hurter and Myan Subryan

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