Almost all of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims live in the north and a rise in religious fundamentalism is being blamed for the increasing number of attacks carried out by Islamic militants. Some see better education as a key way to tackle the appeal of the militants.
The BBC’s Mark Lobel has recently visited a new school initiative in the Sokoto region in the extreme northwest, where the Nigerian state has begun to fund the building of Islamic schools. Currently, many children in Sokoto are taught in private and informal religious schools. Here students learn the Koran, often in harsh teaching environments where pupils are whipped if they make a mistake. Children are often sent to these schools from far afield and have to cope on their own, away from their families. Outside of lessons and with no support from the state, many beg on the streets for food or money.
Now a new school has been built in Sokoto. Though set up as a religious school where the Koran will be a key subject, children will receive lessons in other topics such as science and mathematics. Pupils will also learn computer skills and be taught languages such as English, Hausa and Arabic. Local officials believe that by providing a sound education, they can prevent youngsters from being attracted to fundamentalist groups and ideologies. The head of the school is keen to stress that children will learn in a kind and supportive environment. And poor youngsters will be provided with meals. Given that almost 90% of people in Sokoto state live in poverty, such provision is vitally important.
The Nigerian government plans to build hundreds of such schools across the north in order to tackle the security threat presented by militant Islamic fundamentalists. However, officials in some northern states are unsure how quickly families will be persuaded away from sending their children to informal Islamic schools. Many Koranic institutions have been in operation for a very long time and pride themselves in teaching only Islamic texts. Other subjects are seen as un-Islamic or Western. But the recent killing of a British and an Italian man being held by a militant group in Sokoto has shocked state officials. And there appears to be a new determination that action in this poorest of Nigeria’s northern regions must now be taken.