Many observers believe that the violent northern Nigerian sect Boko Haram draws some of its recruits from the region’s large population of itinerant Qur’anic students or almajirai (Hausa; singular: almajiri). Observers often argue that such populations are vulnerable to recruitment by radical groups because the students grow from children who support themselves by alms into adult men who have few prospects for stable employment. Potential “radicalizing” agents include not only Boko Haram, but also youth networks linked to political violence.
Many state and federal authorities in Nigeria agree with the basic outlines of this argument, and various levels of government have initiated policies to provide alternative schools for the almajirai (for my overview of the system of Qur’anic education in northern Nigeria, see here).
In March 2012, the BBC reported on a counter-radicalization educational project in Sokoto:
The Nigerian city of Sokoto, where two foreign hostages were killed this month in a botched rescue attempt, hopes that a model state-funded school can help stop poor children from becoming possible recruits for Islamist militants.
There are plans to build hundreds of these schools across the north to deal with the increasing security threat.
Sokoto’s Almajiri Integrated Model, however, offers a different approach.
Started in 2008 with the blessing of the state’s governor, Aliyu Wamakko, it has grown in size from 30 students to 700.
The article is worth reading in full, as it goes on to detail both the alternative model the state is pursuing and various criticisms of it. The model is essentially to build more “Islamiyya” or “Nizamiyya” (from the Arabic nitham, “system”) schools, where religious subjects are taught alongside subjects like English, mathematics, etc. Worth noting also is that these efforts in Sokoto pre-date the mass uprising by Boko Haram in 2009; indeed, efforts to bring Qur’anic schools under state authority reach back to at least the first decade of the British colonial occupation of northern Nigeria (c. 1900-1910).
Niger State, in the Middle Belt, is also attempting to create alternatives to the traditional Qur’anic education system:
The Niger Universal Basic Education Board said on Tuesday that it spent N1.22 billion [around $7.8 million] to construct seven Almajiri Schools across the state.
This article, too, is worth reading in full. The Board’s chairman suggests that the purpose of the schools is to prevent radicalization of almajirai (“ensure that Almajirai were kept off the streets,” in the article’s words) and educate the children to at least the primary level. State authorities also plan to train and certify thousands of teachers. The article says, “The board set 2014 as deadline for all teachers to attain [a Nigeria Certificate in Education] or be flushed out of the system, because it would no longer tolerate unqualified teachers.”
For my part, I think it will be extremely difficult to bring the massive number of Qur’anic schools in the region under close state supervision, or to create enough alternative schools to serve the majority of the almajirai. Yet it will be important to watch how these state-level initiatives perform.