A 2018 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicated that 69 per cent of the over 10 million out-of-school children (highest in the world), between ages six and 14 were domiciled in the Muslim northern region of Nigeria. The report also revealed the northern states of Bauchi and Katsina led as educationally disadvantaged states, with 1.1 million and 781,500 out-of-school children, respectively. Out of this number, young girls constituted the largest demography at 60 per cent. Unfortunately, two years later, in 2020, the number of out-of-school children has increased to about 14 million, with no signs of the menace abating.
Over a century after 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 in education between the North and South is wider 60 years later than was the situation at independence in 1960. All efforts by successive administrations of the Federal Government to help the North out of 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 quotas 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 ethnicity, geography or religion, by the state. However, when a people are unwilling to be educated on the basis of their cultural and religious orientation despite the effort of the state to take education to their doorstep, such people are at best described as educationally backward.
To accept the designation of oneself as educationally disadvantaged on the basis of the biological accident of being domiciled in a particular part of Nigeria is an inherent form of self-discrimination that the Muslim North has adorned as a badge of honour for a very long time. 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, viewed with suspicion 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 six decades since independence is suggestive of an inherent unwillingness to embrace education because of a religious culture that considers education inconsistent with northern Nigeria’s unique form of the Muslim religion. This disdain for education is clearly demonstrated in the utter abandonment of the Tsangaya model schools, which is the most comprehensive initiative in recent times to arrest the menace of out-of-school children, commonly misrepresented as Almajirinci 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 President 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 traditional Muslim Madrasa and formal educational curriculum, former President Jonathan demonstrated a rare determination more than any other Nigerian leader in history to effectively take the Muslim North from its unenviable status of educational backwardness.
Starting from the seat of the caliphate in Sokoto State in April 2012, Jonathan launched the first of the planned 400 Almajiri schools, complete with facilities such as classrooms, language laboratories, dormitories, clinics, 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 complemented with the establishment of nine federal universities in nine states of northern Nigeria that had no 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 President Muhammadu Buhari administration has also discontinued the policy targeted at achieving 400 Almajiri schools, while pupils have mostly deserted their classrooms and returned 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-geographic and religious sentiments as a form of election protectionism, the illiterate population of the North forms the bulwark of the power base of the conservative northern political establishment, which depends on the Almajiri as political foot soldiers to execute 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 by conservative elements as an attempt to alter the status quo 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 power game is the Muslim North. The Almajiri menace, which is beginning to overwhelm northern Nigeria, and the intractable Boko Haram insurgency have 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 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 is no longer willing to share the burden of the consequences of wrong choices of the Muslim North.