In this blog, Hannah Hoechner responds to a recent post by Eliza Griswold on Boko Haram. She argues that we know very little about Boko Haram’s recruits but what we do know suggests that we should steer clear of sweeping claims that recruits are drawn from ‘West African madrassas’ . Hannah is a Wiener Anspach postdoctoral fellow at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, having recently completed her doctorate on traditional Qur’anic schooling in northern Nigeria at the University of Oxford.
On 28 April, Eliza Griswold published a passionate piece on ‘Why fear Boko Haram’ in the online magazine Slate, which was received with great interest both inside and outside Nigeria, and which was widely distributed through social media. Griswold draws interesting parallels between the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls from Chibok on 14 April, and the terror tactics of other insurgent groups like the Taliban and Joseph Kony’s LRA. She also raises important points about the barriers that make it difficult for poor children in Nigeria to attain modern education, including its costs and increasing state withdrawal from public service provision.
Alas, her explanation of who joins and supports Boko Haram leaves much to be desired. ‘Boko Haram’s swelling ranks are filled with boys and young men who attended almajiri schools, West African madrassas. An estimated 23 million boys and girls in Nigeria alone are educated in these Islamic schools,’ she writes. Griswold’s piece is a textbook example of how many people have come to think and write about institutions of Islamic learning in northern Nigeria since the escalation of violence there. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, for example, has repeatedly declared that Boko Haram’s recruits were ‘bred in madrassas’ where they have presumably been ‘rendered pliant, obedient to only one line of command, ready to be unleashed at the rest of society’. Such writing rests on a weak empirical footing and thus has little to offer to readers seeking an honest account of what we actually know about Boko Haram. It also implies that Qur’anic school enrolment can somehow explain why some young people decide to join Boko Haram. It suggests easy answers where they do not exist.
Griswold asserts boldly that it is almajirai, boys and young men living with an Islamic teacher to study the Qur’an, who provide the ‘foot soldiers’ for Boko Haram. But how does she know this? She does not provide or cite any evidence to support her accusations. Almajirai may well be, and probably are, amongst the followers of Boko Haram. But there is no systematic evidence to support such assertions. To date, very little is known about who actually supports Boko Haram. Initiates, for fear of the sect’s revenge, are reluctant to volunteer information. People passing on hints on Boko Haram to the security forces have been detained as putative sect members, which further undermines people’s willingness to provide insights. In the absence of empirical knowledge, it would be wise to stay clear of blanket accusations.
This is particularly important as we have reason to believe that Boko Haram recruits its members from diverse educational backgrounds. At the beginning of the insurgency, young university graduates attracted attention when they demonstratively tore apart their graduation certificates in the process of joining the sect. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (Curbing Violence in Nigeria II) documents that the educational trajectories of known sect members are diverse and not uncommonly include sojourns in formal educational institutions. Aminu Sadiqu Ogwuche, for instance, who is suspected of co-masterminding the bus station bombings in Abuja on April 14, attended a UK university.
Boko Haram developed as an offshoot of the Salafi movement in Nigeria. Salafis, however, have long been critical of traditional Qur’anic schools. They consider it unislamic that young Qur’anic students should beg for their living. The fabrication of potions and charms that is taught in many traditional Qur’anic schools moreover runs contrary to Salafi ideas. Such subtleties disappear in accounts declaring traditional Qur’anic schools the principal ‘breeding grounds’ for Boko Haram.
Many authors are, moreover, sloppy in their use of statistics and terminology. ‘23 million boys and girls in Nigeria alone’ are educated in almajiri schools, Griswold writes. No source is given for this figure. Yet, ‘23 million’ is by all means a gross overestimate of the real number of almajirai. According to the only existing official statistics, compiled by the Ministerial Committee on Madrasah Education in 2010, around 9.5 million children attend Qur’anic schools across Nigeria. This figure comprises both ‘boarding’ students (i.e. almajirai) and day students, both males and females, who stay with their parents and potentially attend modern school in addition to Qur’anic school. Girls do not become almajirai: they may attend local Qur’anic schools, but they do not leave their parents’ home to board with an Islamic scholar as boys may do. These considerations suggest that the actual number of almajirai is likely to be well below 9.5 million.
What is problematic about inflated numbers and blanket accusations is the sense of crisis they nurture. If people conceive of the almajirai as a problem that needs to be contained, they will act accordingly. Several recent policy initiatives seek to control and even eliminate traditional Qur’anic schools, through bans on students’ mobility or on begging, for example. Whether such moves will actually help solve the Boko Haram crisis is highly questionable. It is more likely that they will, instead, further agonise a group whose social standing is already low and whose room for manoeuvre is already limited. In view of this, it is all the more important that we admit the gaps in our knowledge about Boko Haram and stay clear of bold narratives that point accusing fingers despite having little, if any, sound empirical support.