Boko Haram — which translates literally to “Western education is forbidden” — has, since 2009, killed tens of thousands of people in Nigeria, and has displaced more than two million others. This paper uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine the relationship between education and Boko Haram. It consists of i) a quantitative analysis of public opinion survey data, and ii) a qualitative approach, including interviews conducted with students, education officials, journalists and practitioners in the field of countering extremism during a September 2019 field visit to Nigeria, as well as a study of textbooks and curricula and a review of the broader historical narratives in the country.
Boko Haram arose in Nigeria’s northeast, which is mostly Muslim and has poor educational outcomes relative to the south. The ideology of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammad Yusuf, explicitly attacked Western education as well as Nigeria’s democracy and its constitution. Boko Haram’s focus on education is unique among peer jihadist movements.
The terrorist group did not emerge in a vacuum: Yusuf capitalized on grievances that already existed in Nigeria’s north against the country’s Western education system. These grievances rest on several factors. First, there is a lack of northern buy-in for the Nigerian state’s post-colonial, federally-imposed Westernized system of education. Many northern Muslims see this system as ideologically incompatible with their beliefs and as insufficiently representative. Second, Western education is also seen as responsible for poor educational outcomes in the north because it was imposed on a population not familiar with that system during colonization, in contrast to the south. Third, by virtue of the poor educational outcomes in the north, the system of Western education is then seen as responsible for the lack of job opportunities that even the educated in the north face — as a symbol of “dashed expectations,” leading to the youth “tearing up their certificates,” or degrees. Fourth, Western education is considered a symbol of the Nigerian state’s corruption because it is Western-educated politicians and elites who are seen as presiding over that corruption.
My data analysis shows that support for Boko Haram in the north does not fall linearly with education, suggesting that the conventional wisdom that a lack of education is associated with support for extremism does not hold. The results are compatible with some Boko Haram supporters being uneducated, others being al-majiri (beggar children who live and study in religious seminaries), and still others being university graduates who “tore up their certificates.” In fact, the results show that for northerners with some years of Western education — peaking in most cases for those who had attended junior secondary school — support for Boko Haram is higher than it is for those with less education, indicating that experience with the system furthered their grievances against it.
Ultimately, the rise of Boko Haram is inextricable from post-colonial identity formation in Nigeria, a singularly diverse state, where the Westernized method of schooling already adopted by the Christian south during colonial times was imposed on the Muslim north post-independence, resulting in dangerous fissures and tensions.
In terms of policy, Nigeria’s government must go beyond taking kinetic action against Boko Haram to addressing the north’s grievances against its federal system of education. Nigeria’s northern citizenry requires a more representative education system than the current federal system, one that can both accommodate its religiosity and that can boost its educational as well as employment prospects.