Nigeria's Boko Haram militants help boost one of the things they hate most: Western-style education

Internationally backed initiative to help protect schools from militants helps refocus national spotlight on the quality of learning.

Boko Haram’s founding raison d’etre was to oppose secular values, specifically Western education. Yet its reign of terror may ironically have succeeded in turning Nigerian attention to the quality of schooling in Africa’s most populous country.

As the 80th day since the April abduction of more than 200 girls from a school in Chibok to the north-east ticked by this week, there is growing sentiment that an internationally-backed initiative to protect other schools in the restive northern region was lining up tens of millions of dollars that could have been better used in improving the overall quality of education. 

The Safe Schools Initiative, backed by UN special envoy for global education Gordon Brown, launched in May with a $10 million seed fund pledged by leading Nigerian business leaders. President Goodluck Jonathan put in another $10 million as he came under domestic pressure over his government’s handling of the abductions.

The plan, whose price tag has since risen to $100 million, targets more than 500 schools in the northern states following repeated Boko Haram attacks. The cash would be used to improve security infrastructure such as solar-powered lighting and alarm systems, build sanitary facilities, train staff, and bolster community policing.

However Nigerians are now questioning the huge outlay, which they say is more than the country’s annual budget for school grants, even as they continue to hold daily marches under the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. 

So far, a petition to make schools safer has gathered 400,000 signatures.

The Safe Schools initiative comes on the back of Nigeria’s exponential population growth, which has stretched educational public services and infrastructure.

According to UNICEF, Nigerians under 15 years account for nearly 45% of the population, but despite a significant increase in net enrolment rates, about 10.5 million children remain out of class.

Deep cultural bias
The North is particularly hard hit, with 40% of children aged 6-11 not in school, predominantly girls, in part due to the insecurity but also due to deep-seated cultural biases.  

Many public schools there have already shut down, while at the local university, the number of people applying for admission this academic year dropped to under 4,000, compared to 25,000 the year before.

The government this year allocated $303 million to its education sector, 90% of which is recurrent—for paying salaries and other bills, leaving little money for improving schools. The military got the highest allocation, at two times that of education. 

The quality debate comes as a $295 million universal education fund reportedly lies idle at the central bank because some state governments have not provided counterpart funding, a requirement for accessing the funds.

The transition to tertiary institutions is also dire: of 1.5 million candidates who sit examinations for the 150 universities, 900,000 missed out, swelling the unemployed ranks, and also contributing to the country’s famed brain drain.

‘Educated insurgents’
With this, Nigerian anger continues to simmer over the Safe Schools plan. 

Writing in the Daily Independent, Les Leba, the pseudonym of a respected Nigerian analyst, questions what happens to the content and quality of education, and the welfare of teachers even if the initiative achieves its objective of providing security to the schools. 

“Furthermore, what happens also when these youths finally leave school, with very limited opportunities for further education or job placement? We may belatedly discover that well educated insurgents may have replaced the current unlettered breed,” he says. 

Also, northern Nigeria has more than 5,000 schools, meaning the targeted amount under the safety initiative may just be a drop in the ocean, even at its current increased level. 

The education budget is also under 10% of the total budget, a long way off from the nearly 30% ideal share of their annual budget suggested by UNESCO for countries to invest in education.

With this growing focus on the quality of Nigeria’s education, Boko Haram may just have achieved something several leaders have failed to do: get Nigerians talking animatedly about it.


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