Beyond a culture that holds education in contempt in northern Nigeria, the conservative political establishment appears to be very comfortable with an illiterate population.
Once again, the educational backwardness of northern Nigeria has been brought to the fore in a recent report by the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), which states that 69 per cent of the over 10 million out-of-school children [highest in the world] between ages six and 14 are domiciled in the region. Northern states of Bauchi and Katsina top the list of educationally disadvantaged states with 1.1 million and 781,500 out-of- school children, respectively. Out of this number, young girls constitute the largest demography at 60 per cent.
Over a century after the amalgamation in 1914 and several decades after independence, the gap in education between the north and south of Nigeria has not been narrowed but has geometrically widened. The gap is wider 58 years later than was the situation at Independence in 1960. All efforts by successive federal governments to help the North out this problem have not been successful. Increased funding to ease access to education and deliberate affirmative policies such the use of federal character as a basis for quota system in favour of educationally “disadvantaged” states of northern Nigeria have not solved this problem.
Contrary to this entrenched narrative, northern Nigeria does not qualify as educationally disadvantaged. To be regarded as educationally disadvantaged, a people that are willing to be educated must be seen to be institutionally and systematically denied access to education on the basis of their ethnogeographic and religious beliefs by the state. However, when a people are unwilling to be educated on the basis of their ethnogeographic and religious orientation despite the effort of the state to take education to their doorstep, such a people are best described as educationally backward. To accept the designation of oneself as educationally disadvantaged on the basis of ethnogeographic and religious orientation is an inherent form of self-discrimination. The problem of educational backwardness in the Muslim North of Nigeria is as a result of a traditional and religious culture that holds education in contempt. Education is mostly met with deep suspicion in the North as it is regarded as a Judeo-Christian heritage.
The seeming inability of the Muslim North to take advantage of the numerous opportunities available to it to advance educationally in over five decades since Independence is suggestive of an inherent unwillingness to embrace education because of a religious culture, which considers education inconsistent with northern Nigeria’s unique form of Muslim faith. This disdain for education is clearly demonstrated in the utter abandonment of the Tsangaya model schools, which is the most recent initiative to arrest the menace of out-of-school children, commonly referred to as Almajiri in the Muslim North.
Worried by the increasing menace of a growing population of out-of-school children roaming the streets in northern Nigeria in desperate destitution and surviving on alms for survival, the Goodluck Jonathan administration launched an unprecedented programme of mass literacy in northern Nigeria. Bending over backward to fund with federal money the establishment of the Tsangaya model school system, which was a hybrid of Madrasa and educational curriculum, former President Jonathan demonstrated a rare determination more than any other Nigerian leader in history to effectively remove the Muslim North from its unenviable status of educational backwardness.
Starting from the seat of the Caliphate in Sokoto State in April 2012, Jonathan would launch the first of the planned 400 Almajiri schools, complete with facilities such as classrooms, language laboratories, dormitories, clinic, dining halls, vocational workshops, recitation halls and living quarters for teachers. By the end of his tenure in 2015, the Jonathan administration had built 165 Almajiri schools that were fully operational throughout Nigeria. This was also complimented with the establishment of nine federal universities in the nine states of northern Nigeria without a federal university and the upgrading of
two colleges of education in Kano and Zaria to fully fledged universities of education in a bid to take access to tertiary education to the doorsteps of the Muslim North. Unfortunately, the Almajiri schools have mostly been abandoned by the state governments of northern Nigeria; the Muhammadu Buhari administration has also discontinued the policy targeted at achieving 400 Almajiri schools while pupils have mostly deserted their classrooms and returned back to their previous lives of destitution and roaming around scavenging for survival. Similarly, the upgraded federal universities of education in Zaria and Kano were downgraded to colleges of education.
Beyond a traditional and religious culture that holds education in contempt in northern Nigeria, the conservative political establishment appears to be very comfortable with an illiterate population. Deploying ethno-religious and religious sentiments, as a form of political protectionism, the illiterate population of the north forms the bulwark of the power of the conservative northern political establishment. The conservative northern establishment depends on the Almajiri as political foot soldiers to executive a predetermined political agenda through mob action. Furthermore, the spiritual power of the conservative northern establishment depends heavily on the giving of alms to the Almajiri in hope of divine favours. Therefore, when Jonathan attempted to uplift the educational status of the Muslim North, it was interpreted as an attempt to alter the status quo by conservative elements and was met with hostility. The political leadership of the North now wears the dishonourable barge of educational backwardness with seeming pride. They have used and are still using the false impression of being “educationally disadvantaged” as a tool of subtle blackmail to extract more from the Nigerian state through quota system, using federal character principle as a basis for benefit of the ruling elite.
The biggest loser in this complex web of power game is the Muslim North. The Almajiri menace, which is beginning to overwhelm northern Nigeria and the intractable Boko Haram insurgency, has reduced the North to the most underdeveloped and most insecure part of Nigeria. Socio-economic conditions in the Muslim North are substantially responsible for Nigeria’s current designation as the poverty capital of the world.
With poverty, disease and insecurity ravaging northern Nigeria, it now begs the question, of what use is political power without socio-economic development?
The current heightened clamour for restructuring from other component parts of Nigeria is a clear signal that the rest of Nigeria are no longer willing to share the burden of the consequences of wrong choices of the Muslim North.