Nigeria: Boko Haram’s School Burning Campaign

Since the rebel sect Boko Haram burst into the international media with an uprising against police in Northeastern Nigeria in 2009, journalists and analysts have frequently translated its name as “Western education is sinful/forbidden.” Yet the group’s primary targets have been: first, the security forces; second, religious/cultural targets like bars, churches, and Christian gatherings, as well as Muslim leaders who speak out against the group; and third, banks. Another major target was the United Nations headquarters in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, which was the site of a Boko Haram suicide bombing in August 2011. Some now believe that Boko Haram is involved in kidnappings.

So it was not until this year that Boko Haram began systematically attacking what one might have expected to be its original target: schools.

Here are two questions, then: Why start a campaign of burning schools now? and What does the school-burning campaign tell us about Boko Haram?

On the first question, I’m afraid I don’t have deep insights, just guesses. According to the New York Times (link above), Boko Haram’s elusive spokesman Abu Qaqa “said they were in response to what he called a targeting of this city’s abundant open-air Islamic schools by authorities,” but NYT writes, “Officials here have denied any such campaign. Indeed, young boys can be seen receiving Koranic lessons, untroubled, all over Maiduguri.”

One possibility is that the state of siege in military-occupied Maiduguri (where most of the school burnings have occurred, even though Boko Haram’s broader campaign of violence now ranges over a larger area) has prompted a search for new tactics. Certainly Boko Haram has changed direction before; its present incarnation as a guerrilla movement in many ways reflects the failure of its open and unsuccessful confrontation with authorities in 2009. Another possibility is that Boko Haram, or part of Boko Haram, wants to scale up the “culture war,” either to complement or change the tone of its larger war with the state. Perhaps the movement even believes it can win support in this way, though NYT suggests the tactic has mostly produced backlash and confusion so far.

On the second question, I think that the fact that organized school burnings have only begun at this late stage of the rebellion confirms that “Boko Haram” has a much broader meaning than just an assault on Western-style education. I have long thought that for Boko Haram, the “Boko” refers to much more than just schools or curricula – it seems to refer above all to a system run by ‘yan boko (literally: the people of boko), ie the elite produced by Western education.* In other words, the idea of “boko” can encode a whole set of meanings related to alleged corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, inequality and stratification, marginalization of dispossessed groups, etc. Burning schools, it seems, will now be a part of Boko Haram’s resistance to this system, but only a part. Attacks on the state and other targets continue.

In related news, the BBC reports on President Goodluck Jonathan’s proposal to build Islamic schools in Northern Nigeria as a means of preventing radicalization – and, presumably, as a gesture of goodwill. Such a proposal will obviously raise some eyebrows, both among some non-Muslims who see “Islamic schools” in a negative light and among some Muslims wary of deeper federal involvement in religious education. In political terms, I would say the proposal is a fairly natural move to make at this point for a government worried of losing an entire generation in a vast region. In terms of effectiveness in preventing radicalization, I would say first that much depends on details – “Islamic schools” is a catch-all term to broad to have much meaning – and second that education is only one part of a broader matrix involving other institutions and how people perceive them. Building schools without addressing systemic governance problems will only go so far in changing the way people see government.

*I am aware that the group is often known by the Arabic name Ahlussunnah lid-Da’wati wal Jihad (there are other ways to transliterate that, of course), with Ahl meaning “people”, Sunnah referring to the pattern of conduct demonstrated by the Prophet Muhammad, Da’wa being the call to Islam, and Jihad meaning (in this context) armed Islamic struggle (so you get something like, “The People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad”). But this name carries no special significance in my eyes. The phrase “ahlussunnah” is standard – indeed, “ahlussunnah wal jama’a” (jama’a=community) can be a synonym, depending on who uses it, for “Sunni Muslims” – and there are non-violent groups in Northern Nigeria who are more thoroughly associated with the name ahlussunnah than Boko Haram. So the idea of “Boko Haram” offers more to ponder, for me, even though this is only an unofficial nickname for the group.

5 thoughts on “Nigeria: Boko Haram’s School Burning Campaign

  1. I think what President Jonathan is trying to do is to merge Western education with the curriculum of already existing Islamic schools. To that effect, the Islamic Development Bank is giving a (loan?) grant of about $90 million. It is hoped that since the IDB is Saudi led, that the Saudis have enough “street cred” to pull it off.

    Having said that, there is still widespread suspicion of “Islamic education” and “Islamic banking” among Nigeria’s Christian population. But President Jonathan’s move is the still in order.

    I need to comment on a few issues, issues that tend to be overlooked by most Western analysts.

    1. What about the local administrators? Who are they and what role did they have in (a) creating the conditions that led to Boko Haram and (b) creating Boko Haram? What are their responsibilities and what role will they play in establishing the conditions that will allow for peace to thrive in Northern Nigeria? What are their motivations? Is there a possibility that they could see Boko Haram as a useful tool for extracting more from the center, weakening a Southern Christian president and positioning themselves for the 2015 election? What are their names and what are their antecedents?

    2. What is the impact of Boko Haram on inter-ethnic /inter-religious relationships? What impact will it have on politics in Nigeria? How has almost two years of continuous attacks on Churches impacted on the already tense relationship between Muslim Northerners and Non-Muslim Middle Belters? What impact does it have on the perception of the Muslim North in the South? Will it strengthen the coalition that swept Jonathan to power (South + Middle Belt)? If so, what future does the North have?

    These questions are very rarely considered, they are begging for answers. Too often, Northern Nigeria and Boko Haram are treated in isolation. Most Western analysts see Nigeria as consisting of Northern Nigeria (Boko Haram), the Niger Delta and a vast black hole. Part of that black hole (the Middle Belt) is very poorly understood and very little is written on it. This is worrying, given that the future of Nigeria depends heavily on the stability of the Middle Belt.

  2. Let me just add that Pentecostal Churches are also heavily into education (there are several UNIVERSITIES owned by Pentecostal Churches). On the one hand you have money flowing into some form of Islamic education, on the other, you have massive investments in education (you really need to see the scale and scope of what these people are doing) by Christian denominations (Catholic, Evangelical, Anglican, Pentecostal).

    My worry is that the next generation will be even more religiously and ethnically polarised than mine (there is a correlation between religion and ethnicity). When I was growing up, the best schools were “Unity Schools” (Federal Government Colleges) – they were government funded and had students from all parts of the nation. I was privileged to attend one, and I made friends from all parts of Nigeria – both Muslim and Christian.

    Let’s take a second look at Northern Nigeria. The Muslim kids will go to these Quranic Schools and the Christian kids will go to private Church funded schools. What opportunities are being created for both Muslim and Christian children to go to school together and learn to tolerate each other?

    A lot of the problem is attributable to (a) a precipitous decline in the standards of government funded schools and (b) consequently, the rise of private schools. Private schools are inaccessible to the poorest of the poor and since Muslims tend to be poorer than Christians, they miss out.

    Another instrument of unity that has a shaky future is the National Youth Service Corps. It is becoming clearer by the day that the government may not be able to afford that program much longer.

  3. I think the blog author is on to something that Boko Harem isn’t just against the West, but the children of the West, which, in effect, includes the Northern Elite, as they embraced the British creation of schools (such as at Katsina) dedicated to their children, while forbidding Christian missionaries to educate the masses, as happened in “pagan” communities during the colonial epoch. These elites see themselves as having a divine right to use their power and the state institutions that they lead to benefit themselves and their families, but having little or no responsibility to the average person. Anyone who has ever lived in this region will be astonished at the class-based discrimination that dominates local life here.

    I believe this is a class war type of jihad that perhaps could be seen in the same light as Usman d’an Fodio’s jihad against the “corrupt” Hausa states of the 1800s, where the sarkis claimed to be Muslim but permitted (and followed) traditional practices at the same time. ‘Dan Fodio took on the traditional Hausa ruling class in the name of Islamic purity. Is this any different from some of Boko Harem’s larger goals? ‘Dan Fodio didn’t have to trouble himself with Western/Christian influence to any large degree, unlike Boko Harem, which blames modernity for much of its regions’ woes. However, the hypocrisy of the Northern elite is well-known, as they pretend to be pious, but engage in many practices which are condemned in the Koran and have little interest in justice or fairness.

  4. Pingback: Nigeria: Boko Haram’s School Burning Campaign « Afronline – The Voice Of Africa

  5. Pingback: Schools nigeria | Klushaka

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