The rise of Boko Haram has plunged North Eastern Nigeria, and particularly Borno State, deeper into educational crisis. While rebuilding infrastructure is already underway, and is certainly a good step, ensuring that the region is in a condition to recover must involve a much more careful and all-encompassing drive to ensure the state’s youth are given the opportunities every child needs and deserves.
The name ‘Boko Haram’—roughly translated as ‘Western/formal Education is sinful’—alone tells the story of the group’s position on formal education. While the numbers are tentative at best—Nigeria lacks sufficient disaggregated data for adequate appraisals of local situations—UNICEF estimated 1.8 million Borno State children remained out of school in 2016, largely owed to the presence of Boko Haram. The numbers are likely to have reduced since then, but the lack of reliable data makes the current damage difficult to estimate. Furthermore, the net-intake rate in Borno State—that is the number of children entering first grade at an age considered to be appropriate—stands at a measly 19%, and is amongst the lowest in the country.
Access to education according to the World Bank, “is a basic human right, and is central to unlocking human capabilities.” The current attack on educational opportunities in the North is certain to have long lasting ramifications on the prospects of the region’s development. Out-of-school children not only “face a higher risk of recruitment by armed groups, child marriage, early pregnancy and other forms of exploitation and abuse,” but also remain fundamentally ill-equipped to productively contribute to a post-conflict economy—further enhancing the malcontent that fuels tensions in the first place.
However, poor attendance is far from being the only problem facing the education sector in Nigeria, and more specifically in the North East. Learning poverty, a concept introduced by the World Bank to measure not just ‘quantity’ but also the quality of learning in developing countries, is rampant and damages the prospects of children irrespective of whether they succeed in attending school. For example, only 23% of the children in the North East that have attended formal school could read and comprehend a simple sentence either in English or local languages, highlighting how being in school, on its own, is not an automatic precursor to learning and human capital development.
The learning deficit experienced in the North-Eastern Region is placing its population at a severe disadvantage. Irrespective of whether children are able to attend school, without foundational learning of skills like reading and writing they will often fail to flourish later in life, whether in more advanced stages of their schooling or when they join the workforce. They thus fail to acquire the necessary human capital to have access to productive activities that can allow them to provide for their families, as well as engage as citizens in their communities. High learning poverty, therefore, is a structural obstacle to Nigeria’s progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals given the integral nature of job creation, structural transformation, sustained growth and poverty reduction to Agenda 2030.
The Boko Haram Effect
While the causes of learning deficit in North Eastern Nigeria are undoubtedly diverse, the growth of Boko Haram over the last decade has given rise to a number of interrelated effects that are severely deleterious to the prospects of education for local youth, and underlie the damning statistics of learning paucity and regional inequality described above. A severe lack of access to schooling from violence and infrastructure destruction; poor teaching numbers and quality; insufficient managerial capacity to ensure the observance of standards; and an ill-conceived educational approach, are all exacerbated by the insecure climate in the states, and combine to create to learning crisis as witnessed in recent times.
It is estimated that Boko Haram has destroyed more than 5000 classrooms and school buildings in Borno State alone, systematically depleting the infrastructure required to extend education to communities particularly in rural, sparsely populated areas. To this end, the government’s drive to build “mega-schools” in the state to replace the lost infrastructure is certainly commendable.
Yet Boko Haram’s attack on schooling opportunities for Borno children goes beyond the destruction of infrastructure, and includes the creation of a climate of fear that shrouds the mere act of going to school in a veil of deep insecurity. Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in Borno State was merely the most extreme and widely-reported symptom of a broader, often underappreciated threat: the methodical attack on schoolteachers and students to undermine the very institution of formal education. As of the end of 2018, more than 2300 teachers had been killed, aggravating the lack of avenues available to extend education to children across the region.
The killing of teachers is inextricably linked to the issue of learning poverty, and compounds with other factors to severely limit the effectiveness of teaching and education even when children are able to attend school. Not only has Boko Haram turned teaching into a dangerous profession, but it has also damaged the societal reputation of the profession. Fear of violence, and decreased reputational benefits of the job make hiring teachers committed to the betterment of the lives of their students increasingly difficult, which has led to a severe scarcity of teachers. The dearth of teachers, in turn, has led to a teacher-to-pupil ratio well below national guidelines thus damaging the classroom experience of children, so crucial in ensuring attendance translates into learning.
Malnutrition making children unable to learn; poor stimulation making them unwilling; poor teachers’ qualifications; lack of learning materials such as textbooks; unprofessional school management; and the lack of administrative capacity in education bureaucracies added to the low teacher numbers. These factor complement each other in determining poor learning outcomes, and must all be considered in addition to policies aimed at increasing attendance.
There is yet one more problem, however, that distinguishes youth development in conflict zones from other underdeveloped regions, and poses a challenge that extends much deeper than the all-too-common issues of low attendance and learning poverty. Children growing up surrounded by conflict are far more likely to develop psychological responses to trauma that greatly hinder their comprehension, ability to produce work, engagement in learning, and trust—all absolutely necessary in the education of a child. Without active focus on addressing the peculiarities of children exposed to violence, these children are far less likely to grow up to be positive, productive individuals in their society, oppositely exposing them to a life of criminality and compensatory violence.
Where we go from here
The multidimensional attack on education prospects of children in North Eastern Region requires a multi-pronged response. Again, the current government emphasis on rebuilding infrastructure, although necessary, is wholly insufficient if the ultimate target is to provide children with the opportunities required to grow up healthy, productive, and safe. The re-establishment of schooling facilities, therefore, must be complemented with a rigorous effort to end learning poverty, and ensure that children complete and leave school having learned the basic skills they will require. This will necessitate a drive to hire more qualified teachers which, again, may potentially be problematic given the adverse effects of the crisis on the motivation for teaching labour force. Hence, a concerted and well-thought out strategy—including perhaps financial incentives—to help make teaching a sufficiently attractive occupation will have to be developed. Furthermore, teachers are too often found to be insufficiently interested in the education of their pupils. Their lack of interest is exacerbated by an institutional lack of supervisory capacity, which therefore leave teachers unaccountable. Ensuring quality instruction requires effective supervision that will have to be part of the restructuring of education in affected region.
Improving numbers and commitment of teachers should be part of a more holistic attempt to improve the classroom experience, which is a prime determinant of children’s learning. A wider focus to ensure children are well fed, healthy, and committed to education, and that the facilities at their disposal act as a conduit, not an obstacle, to their development cannot be taken for granted or relegated as secondary issues. The success of any education project must be measured in terms of learning outcomes, whose sufficiency can only be achieved in environments suited to learning. Concerns, pecuniary of otherwise, leading to a lack of focus on classroom experiences in favour of the mere access to schools must take into consideration that attendance alone does very little in guaranteeing the requisite education outcomes.
Above and beyond education policies suitable to any environment where schooling access and quality are lacking, children in North East Nigeria require a strong initiative that is tailored to the needs of the children of conflict. This must begin with a re-education of teachers in the skills needed to help pupils coming from traumatic experiences, which should be compounded with greater access to guidance counsellors trained in trauma recuperation. Building positive relationships, fostering positive emotions through positive priming, and teaching character strength have all been shown to be paramount to the recuperation of children who have suffered. Education system must go beyond teaching their students to read (in itself not so easy, as highlighted above), but must be well-suited to develop the types of relationships that “children of conflict” require.
While the physical interactions with teachers are the most important aspect in helping children exposed to trauma, the effort to ensure this focus must begin at the policymaking level. Affected states in the North Eastern Nigeria, as well as the relevant Federal Government agencies like the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and the North East Development Commission must first acknowledge the need for special education initiatives, and subsequently seek creative solutions. Creating an inclusive partnership with local and international partners as well as with education policy experts with the aim of training teachers, and designing appropriate curriculums, will be vital for the children in the Northern Nigeria.
While Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc in Northern Nigeria, the local population, and children in particular, will inevitably be denied access to an environment secure enough to permit their thriving. While some efforts to re-establish a semblance of educational normality have been made, the only hope for the region is a concerted and radical restructuring of the paradigm guiding the education of the youth. Only then will children be afforded the opportunities they need and deserve to build themselves a life befitting of their needs and the suited to a positive societal contribution.