More unrest in Nigeria

The BBC reports that the weekend’s violence in the city of Bauchi has spread to other parts of northern Nigeria, including the sleepy northeastern town of Maiduguri and Wudil, a town near Kano.  A BBC reporter counted over 100 bodies in Bauchi.

Blame has been placed on a militant Islamist group called Boko Haram, an organisation made up mostly of former university students who are opposed to the westernisation of education. Apparently (although nothing is clear), some of the group’s leaders were arrested, so their cadets took to the streets with guns to secure their release.

Most of northern Nigeria is under sharia law. On a trip there earlier this month for the Next Generation Nigeria project, I met sharia leaders in Kano, the north’s biggest city. They told me that resistance to western education had historic roots, as it was seen as an attempt by southern Christians, who had been educated by the British colonisers, to spread their religion to the Muslim north.

Only in recent years has this resistance weakened, and many parents are now very keen for their children to attend western schools. Trouble is, there aren’t enough places for the burgeoning numbers of children, so in many areas Islamic schools remain the only option. State governments are encouraging these schools to teach secular subjects like English and maths as well as Kuranic studies and Arabic.

The religious leaders I spoke to were generally fine with this, but it seems not all their peers are of the same opinion. Mohammed Yusuf, the leader of Boko Haram, has said western education is forbidden, and recruited students to advance his arguments. Given how bad Nigeria’s schools and universities are, and how slim graduates’ prospects of getting a decent job when they leave, the recruitment drive probably isn’t difficult.

If Yusuf’s campaign is successful, it will be a blow to northern Nigeria’s development prospects. Although Islamic schools may do a good job of inculcating values and morality, for the vast majority of their alumni what they teach is of no value at all to their careers.  I asked a sharia leader how Arabic and Kuranic studies help students find jobs, and he replied that they could work as teachers in such schools or as imams. This would be fine if everybody could become an imam or a teacher, I said, but then there wouldn’t be any congregation or students. He smiled patiently, and said that the rest would work in the fields or hawking in the street.  In the north, as in the country as a whole, too many leaders benefit from the status quo to concern themselves with progress.