Boko Haram (Western Education is sinful) a look behind the slogan
Last year I was due to go to lecture and deliver workshops at the University of Nigeria. I got my yellow fever injection, malaria tablets, went through the rude and depressing process of getting my visa at the Nigerian Embassy in London. In the end, the trip was pulled. The University had received bomb threats from Boko Haram. These people wanted to blow ME to pieces. But why? Why is ‘education’ the target?
What’s with Boko Haram?
Boko Haram means ‘Western Education is sinful’. What does that mean or at least signify? Why have they targeted education in particular? Why the gender war? Surely education is a universal good? Well, we must look behind the horror to see what’s happening there, as education, in particular our model, is NOT seen as a universal good by all.
Let’s start at the top. The African elite send their kids to Western Universities, many of whom return (if they return at all) to continue the cycle of despotism and corruption that their parents used to enrich themselves. Note that much of the money laundering takes place right here in London by our own breed of university-educated lawyers and city accountants. This is relevant, as the resources that should have gone to northern Nigeria, have gone to a tiny elite both in Nigeria and here in the UK. Western Education at that level is as much a problem as a solution. It is corruption by the Nigerian Government, both in the power that now remains in the south, starving the north of resources, and in the north itself, particularly in Borno state, the poorest state in Nigeria, that has caused a loss of hope in the large numbers of young, employed youth. We have seen these viscious fundamentalist groups arise across Africa, some with Christianity at their heart - take Uganda's Lord's Reststance Army.
The answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. Just get every child into school and all will be well. Well – no. As a goal in itself, and it is a Millennium goal, it is not nearly enough. The problems occur when these kids leave school. School is not always relevant. The standard image of African kids, in colonial type uniforms, sitting in rows, with a chalk-board and teacher, is not what is needed. Africa, above all, has a form of schooling that is deeply colonial, defined by the academic systems in Britain and France.
In fact, it is a dated and inefficient system, with poorly trained teachers, limited and irrelevant curriculum, with massive teacher absenteeism. The experience is often an irrelevant ‘going through the motions’ process of rote learning, with little effort put into making it relevant to the lives of those children. Do they really get what they need to know in terms of their farms, health, energy needs? Does it give them what they need to be autonomous adults when they leave their schools? No. Our model is a knowledge-based model and that’s what we export to them, often ignoring the cultural and practical context in which education is delivered.
Western schooling in itself is not a solution. Gordon Brown and the educational evangelists confuse the means with the ends. School is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end. Yet, so often in poorer countries, it is just an end. Children leave school. We all leave school, except educators and academics, who stay on to deliver more schooling. So let’s not see schooling, as if it were a universal, intrinsic, objective good-in-itself.
At the tail end of this educational colonialism in Africa are the pat solutions parachuted in by the technological evangelists such as Sugata Mitra (my critique) and Negroponte. Let’s not pretend that the solution here is a hopelessly utopian Rousseau-inspired idea that children will do it for themselves, if only we just parachute tablets into their villages and drill holes in their walls for computers. This is a disgraceful form of utopianism that promises technological salvation but it’s a con. The holes in the wall are now precisely that, empty holes, that leave a nasty legacy of failure. Believe me, I’ve seen them and spoken to the people whose lives were affected by this nonsense.
Is it any wonder that many of the people on the receiving end of this patronising process feel resentment? I have no sympathy with Islamic religious education or fanaticism and it’s attitudes towards education and women, nor their form of education, which is based on recitation and rote learning. But that also means I have little sympathy with faith-based education full stop – be it Jewish, Muslim or Christian. We are not without fault in out own country with a huge slug of Church of England bishops ensconced in our House of Lords and a rise in problematic faith schools. But let’s not export our idea of education to the rest of the world as if it were a silver bullet leading to the emancipation of women and growth in all economies.
Education does not in itself create jobs
Ha-Joon Chang and several other economists buck the orthodox trend among neo-liberal economists, who state that education is what makes countries richer. This is simply not true. In addition to education, you need a stable political system, and post-school infrastructure that creates jobs for young people when they leave school. Paper-pushing education can in fact hinder this process. 18th century Britain, 19th Century US and Germany, more recently South Korea, Taiwan and China, did not surge forward on the back of ‘education’. If anything, education was a by-product. They had a holistic view of government, policies, targeted spending and purpose. The failure in northern Nigeria is the presence of colonial type schooling in a world without hope. It promises everything and delivers precisely nothing.
It’s easy to Boko Harum them as lunatics but look beyond the headlines and you’ll see a general revulsion of Western interference and values. In many places our ‘schooling’ is received with suspicion and resentment, as it doesn’t change anything. In fact, it eats away at your existing culture, isolating children from the realities of that culture and economy, then spits them out at the end – into nothing. Is it any wonder that they turn to stable, ideological causes, whether it be fundamentalism or insurgency. In that context they have a purpose, a job, a community-they are respected. The vast majority of Boko Haram fighters are boys and young men who had nothing but see, in Boko Haram, something that gives their lives meaning, a gang, a place and a purpose. Education without employment doesn't give you this. Until we waken up and see contextualised education as the solution i.e. real practical, vocational skills, not just chalk and talk lessons to wooden benches, we’ll reap what we sow.
As I was writing this piece King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died. Let's not forget that it is the Saudi Wahhabi Salafist form of Islam that Boko Haram follow and that the first BOKO Haram leader, Yusuf, was given sanctuary in Saudi Arabia.