8 September 2014

BOKO HARAM, THE NORTHEAST AND NIGERIAN LITERACY | Guest Post for International Literacy Day

"Thought provoking. The words reach for you, unlock your mind and nail home their points."--Editor's note

“Praise be to God who created writing as a means of communication between distant men, an interpreter between neighbours, a vehicle of greeting between friends, a source of delight amongst the ulama (scholars) and of sorrow amongst the unlettered. Verily, had it not been for it, communication would have ceased and transactions would have been impossible.”

These words are instructive because they were written in Nigeria’s northeast, now held in the thraldom of the sect known as Boko Haram. The name Boko haram easily translates as “Western learning is forbidden” and, amongst the pedestrian elements who form the bulk of its members and the common folk to whom it is of the greatest danger, it forbids all learning beyond the Islamic as prescribed, naturally, by the sect. Schools have in consequence been burned and bombed, students killed and raped and all elements of education and literacy have become the targets of Boko Haram. Over 200 girls have remained in captivity for several months now, having been kidnapped from their school in Chibok by Boko Haram. The Nigerian State has failed to #BringBackOurGirls

Yet, the words quoted above are those of Mai Uthman ibn Idris, who, as the ruler of Kanem-Bornu in 1391, wrote them to the Sultan of Egypt. The obvious question is: how did a people who had produced a leader so confident in his learning that he felt comfortable displaying his erudition and literacy in the manner in the opening of this letter become reduced, in about 700 years, to men and women cowering beneath the paws of Abubakar Shekau’s extremist sect today?

Today on the United Nations Calendar of global observances is International Literacy Day and it would seem that the answer to this question lies in the failure of the Nigerian State, and successive Nigerian governments, military or democratic, to understand the importance of literacy in the way their pre-Nigerian predecessor Uthman ibn Idris had. He understood that the purpose of literacy was to clarify and to share the greatest resource of human civilization and culture--the ideas of its diverse people. When ideas are shared through the vehicle of literacy and language—and it is interesting that Mai Idris calls it a “vehicle”—differences are blunted by understanding and do not bloom into conflict. There is no record of conflict between Kanem-Bornu and its northern Egyptian neighbour.

Image Credit: UNESCO
But perhaps even more crucial is the role of literacy in the formation of national identity? With a background of colonial welding, often with fractures and deliberately build in fault lines, literacy on the back of a fitting educational system can act as plaster holding diverse peoples together. For, in demonstrating literacy, they clarify themselves and share in a larger, national culture.

The present situation in the northeast is, in part, a symptom of cultural insularities that have come to be in a place in which literacy has not been seen as a thing to be fostered by the State. Therefore, frustrations are bound to arise. And where there is frustration, there is always a latent power vacuum. It is into this vacuum that ideologues of extremism like Boko Haram have smuggled in their toxic wares and committed their outrages. None of the activities carried out by Boko Haram are consistent with the history of the northeast; Boko Haram are not Idris ibn Uthman’s heirs.

There is a side issue to literacy in the northeast. At the time Uthman ibn Idris wrote that letter, northern Nigeria was already fully integrated into the Mediterranean and Levantine world of trade and ideas--the vehicle in use, in which he wrote his letter, was Arabic. Colonialism, coming long after, saw the rise of English and German and French. At that moment, for all the one thousand year culture of Kanem-Bornu was borne of the back of Arabic literacy, it was important for the Bornoan scholars to have sought to appropriate the new European languages of literacy in service of local history and ideas. A society highly literate in Arabic became illiterate in English and English, not Arabic, had become the language that “mattered”.

Perhaps it is in this that we find the roots of the social schizophrenia that Boko Haram has exploited? Literacy is tied umbilically to language and history. It is important to make our languages matter if our histories are to matter. Whatever may be said of the Pahlavi Shahs of Iran, their education corps which saw soldiers teach Peasants basic literacy helped hold Iranian notions of Iranian-ness and Persian historicity together up until now. The Persian is another way of doing things, with the same validity as the Turkish, the Arabic, and the European. The Iranians are thus one with their history. And the world is richer for that.

I believe the United Nations has singled out today in recognition as much of what is lost by a lack of effective literacy as what is gained by it. What is lost is culture and identity, a one thousand year old culture and identity, learning, and history, as in the case of north-eastern Nigeria. Without literacy, we cannot clarify ourselves and we cannot share our ideas, interrogate our notions, state our fears, seek solutions to local problems solved elsewhere, learn new techniques and master technologies. Without literacy, people lose their history, and they lose the intellectual ammunition necessary to remain independent cooperators in this humanist world.

If Boko Haram and similar extremists in Nigeria are to be countered correctly, it can only be by a sincere system of quality education and effective literacy. It is hoped that the Nigerian State will rise to this necessity, its responsibility.


Richard Ali is a Nigerian poet and novelist. His debut novel, City of Memories, was published in 2012. He practices law in Abuja Nigeria and co-owns Parrésia Publishers Ltd. He is the Publicity Secretary (North) of the Association of Nigerian Authors.

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