From "Western Education is Forbidden" to the World's Deadliest Terrorist Group: Education and Boko Haram in Nigeria

Boko Haram — which translates literally to “Western education is forbidden” — has, since 2009, killed tens of thousands of people in Nigeria, and has displaced more than two million others. This paper uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine the relationship between education and Boko Haram. It consists of i) a quantitative analysis of public opinion survey data, and ii) a qualitative approach, including interviews conducted with students, education officials, journalists and practitioners in the field of countering extremism during a September 2019 field visit to Nigeria, as well as a study of textbooks and curricula and a review of the broader historical narratives in the country. Boko Haram arose in Nigeria’s northeast, which is mostly Muslim and has poor educational outcomes relative to the south. The ideology of Boko Haram’s founder, Mohammad Yusuf, explicitly attacked Western education as well as Nigeria’s democracy and its constitution. Boko Haram’s focus on education is unique among peer jihadist movements. The terrorist group did not emerge in a vacuum: Yusuf capitalized on grievances that already existed in Nigeria’s north against the country’s Western education system. These grievances rest on several factors. First, there is a lack of northern buy-in for the Nigerian state’s post-colonial, federally-imposed Westernized system of education. Many northern Muslims see this system as ideologically incompatible with their beliefs and as insufficiently representative. Second, Western education is also seen as responsible for poor educational outcomes in the north because it was imposed on a population not familiar with that system during colonization, in contrast to the south. Third, by virtue of the poor educational outcomes in the north, the system of Western education is then seen as responsible for the lack of job opportunities that even the educated in the north face — as a symbol of “dashed expectations,” leading to the youth “tearing up their certificates,” or degrees. Fourth, Western education is considered a symbol of the Nigerian state’s corruption because it is Western-educated politicians and elites who are seen as presiding over that corruption.