CALABAR, Nigeria—Officials in Nigeria are always quick to attribute problems of education in the northeast of the country to the Boko Haram insurgency. But figures show that the country had the highest number of out-of-school children in the world, and a very poor standard of education of any kind, long before the sect began its uprising in 2009. And the numbers today are frightening.
According to A World at School, 40 percent of primary school teachers are not qualified; only 29 percent of students who start secondary school graduate on time at 17; almost half of students who have completed grade six cannot read; about 80 percent of children do not have textbooks for all subjects; there is an average of 49 pupils per primary school teacher; and 9 million children have never gone to school at all.
For all the talk about GDP growth and booming finances, Africa’s largest producer of oil and the continent’s largest economy lacks fully equipped primary schools, can’t adequately fund basic education, and, for that matter, can’t manage to rescue the Chibok schoolgirls more than a year after they were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Their tragedy is all the greater, it should be noted, because they were some of the relatively few students, especially girls, who did manage to get decent educations and they were just about to take exams important for university admission when they were abducted.
Although Boko Haram—whose very name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language— has made targeting schools and students a priority on its terrorist agenda, the sect is only one of many reasons why millions of children are without an education in Nigeria.
Nine-year-old Abba has spent five years steadily progressing through primary school. Like many students in rural Nigeria, he has no schoolbag, writes on just one notebook, and has very few textbooks. He still struggles to read and write, but, strangely, he passes his exams. He told me his teachers are more interested in seeing him complete his schooling than seeing him educated. So, he gets an undeserved promotion year after year.
To make matters worse, Abba and his school colleagues are sometimes taught in the local Hausa language, not official English. In fact, Abba can hardly construct a complete sentence in English. “I want more from attending school, but it’s hard for me,” he said. “I try to learn, but my teachers can’t teach in a way I understand.”
More sadly, his school in the northeastern town of Damasak, in a region where Boko Haram is active, has been shut to pre-empt attacks.
The record shows, ironically, that precisely the lack of education may have helped spawn Boko Haram. Almost 2.8 million children roaming the streets in northeastern Nigeria are easy prey for fanatics.
Let’s face it, it wasn’t Boko Haram that built dysfunctional school buildings and hired very poor teachers. This is a clear heritage of a failed system infiltrated by a handful of corrupt administrators who use their high offices to distribute patronage through jobs and contracts.
It wasn’t Boko Haram that refused to propagate laws stopping girls as young as 11 years old from getting married. It was Nigeria’s senators who rather than protect the country’s children, decided to protect the marriage of their colleague Senator Ahmed Yerima to a 13-year-old girl, and the marriages between influential men in the north and minors.
United Nations statistics show that virtually no married girls are getting an education: only 2 percent of married girls in the 15-19 bracket are in school, compared to 69 percent of unmarried girls. Some 73 percent of married girls received no schooling at all (compared to 8 percent of unmarried girls), and three out of four married girls cannot read at all. That’s how Nigeria fails its daughters.
Major teachers’ unions have requested that at least 26 percent of the country’s annual budget be devoted to education. But despite a 100 percent increase from what it was in 2011, only 9 to 10 percent (PDF) of Nigeria’s annual budget has been allocated to education in the last four years. The process itself has always been controversial. In the past, there have been allegations that certain senators demanded and received bribes from government officials to pass the budget for education.
Year in, year out, the country’s primary education program is interrupted by strikes, with teachers demanding better pay. In some states, teachers in public schools earn less than $100 a month. Meanwhile lawmakers take pride in being the highest paid parliamentarians in the world, earning above $1 million yearly in a country where over 70 percent of the citizens live on less than one dollar a day.
Clearly, Nigeria’s children are the real victims of its failed educational system. Their only small consolation is the hope promised by the new administration.
Recently elected President Muhammadu Buhari has promised to improve the state of the country’s education, and do “everything possible to bring the Chibok girls back home.” But in a country where promises are not always met with action, hopes can easily be shattered.
For a problem that didn’t take only a decade, but decades to deteriorate, fixing it will take time. And if Nigeria’s elites wash their hands of this problem, its children will bear the cross.