Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Pedagogy of Boko Haram


THE PEDAGOGY OF BOKO HARAM

By Biko Agozino


When Boko Haram is reported as saying that Western education is sin or forbidden, they are not saying anything new for even European thinkers have made similar critiques from Socrates, through Marx to Derrida and Foucault, without always being greeted with the exhibitions of hysterical and murderous authoritarian populism of the sort exhibited by security forces in 2002 and again in 2011 when dozens of suspected followers and leaders of Boko Haram were reported to have suffered extra-judicial execution in Nigeria perhaps because they posed a military challenge to adherents of western education as if massacring those who appear better educated in the western sense would even the field in blissful ignorance.

To say that western education is suspect for an African is to agree with a whole school of thought exemplified by Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, one of the Founding Fathers of Pan-Africanism who observed that: ‘We must not suppose that the Anglo Saxon methods are final…we must study our brethren in the interior, who know better than we do the laws of growth for the race.’ – Dr Edward Wilmot Blyden, The Aims and Methods of Liberal Education for Africans, inaugural address as President of Liberia College, January 5, 1881. Can even Boko Haram teach us anything valuable?

What Blyden was suggesting, especially in his book on Christianity, Islam and the Negro Race, is that some of the teachings of Islam are more relevant to Africans than simple mimicry of white men. Although he focused on the absurdity of black Christians being taught to wish that they were blue-eyed and snow-white like a western-self image of God, we could use the example of the prohibition of alcohol consumption by Islam to promote public health in Africa. This should be taught more widely in Africa given that one of the reasons why violence is so endemic and public health so poor in Africa is that alcoholism is not recognized as the disease that it is. In such matters of addiction, education would be more effective in getting people to drink in moderation or to abstain than force or terrorism as America discovered when alcohol was prohibited, leading to the quick ending of prohibition.

In another sense, western education is indeed forbidden (Haram) to the masses of the people and can only be acquired often through personal struggles with significant sacrifices and it is often dished out miserly and grudgingly by the western elites to a select few. As ‘children of books’ or umu akwukwo (students), we knew this very well and so used to sing as we marched from the assembly ground to the ‘houses of books’ (classrooms): ‘Books are sweet-sweet but they are hard to learn (imuta, literally, give birth to), if you have patience, you will learn (muta, or give birth to) books, provided your mother and your father have money’.

This astonishing thirst for ‘western’ education by a people who were traditionally educated in the science, arts and crafts through hands-on Afrogogies (not pedagogies) for centuries was earlier noted among the descendants of enslaved Africans who helped to defeat the slave-holding sates in the American Civil War and demanded in return that public funds should be made available for the education of the poor rather than leave education in the hands of philanthropists and missionaries or price it out of the reach of the masses of the poor. Accordingly, W.E.B. Du Bois credits the founding of public education in the southern states of America to black initiative and called for at least 10% of black leaders to be given opportunities to gain higher learning rather than be satisfied with only training in the crafts or they would remain subordinate laborers in America. As he put it:

‘This, historically, has always been the danger of aristocracy. It was for a long time regarded as almost inevitable because of the scarcity of ability among men and because, naturally came to regard himself and his whims as the only end of civilization and culture. As long as the masses supported this doctrine, aristocracy and mass misery lived amiably together.’ - W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘The Talented Tenth: Memorial Address’ in BoulĂ© Journal 15 (October) 1948, 1-3.

The western colonial authorities were very mean with building enough ‘houses for books’ (uno akwukwo in Igbo or ufot nwed in Efik, probably ile akowe in Yoruba and gida boko in Hausa). For example, the British only established four secondary schools in Nigeria between 1909 (when Kings College Lagos was established) and 1929 when the three Government Colleges of Kano, Ibadan and Umuahia were established. They rightly suspected that the more schools they built, the greater chances that they would be training more gravediggers of colonialism. Accordingly, they screened the students and selected only those who had promise as Obedient Boys of the Empire (OBE) for further training in Europe or in colonial university colleges. Our people resisted by building their own schools through communal efforts and healthy rivalry between missionaries, towns, families and individuals saw many rise from relative obscurity to master western education as they rallied to Azikiwe’s clarion: ‘each one train one’ in higher education or flocked to Awolowo’s free lower education. In 1947 Azikiwe, the first President of Nigeria, addressed the colonial Northern Nigeria Regional Assembly and prophetically stated that the region where he was born would regret opposing the modern education of their children on the mistaken assumption that modern education has a corrupting influence. According to Zik, it may be true that many educated children are disobedient but it remains the task of parents at home to make sure that their children are well brought up while the schools must contribute to their training in learning, critical thinking, and character.

If Boko Haram is today still protesting that Western education is Haram, it may not be unconnected with the fact that ‘The ‘educated Negroes’ have the attitude of contempt towards their own people because in their own as well as in their mixed schools Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, (the Arab, we may add), the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African’. – Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro, Washington, D.C., 1933. Rather than respond to this legitimate critique of western education in Africa with the sledge-hammer or sharpen the critique through terrorism, we need to engage the masses in a dialogue designed to transform our educational system away from irrelevancies and focus our educational energies on the urgent eradication of mass illiteracy among our people, with emphasis on functional literacy and with the cultivation of creative and critical thinking crucial for survival and prosperity in the knowledge-based economy of today.

It is not controversial at all to observe that western education has something that Nigerians would call a problematic K-leg: ‘Okigbo was assimilated into a western unconscious, as was every ‘privileged’ member of his generation who had the same opportunities of  an elitist English education. The allure of their intellectual pursuits led them all towards a deeper encounter with western cultural values. Through their distinctly English education, they grew apart from the rest of the community’. – Obi Nwakanma, Christopher Okigbo, 19340-1967: Thirsting for Sunlight, London, James Curry. Killing people like Okigbo is no solution to our national crisis as Nigeria must admit following the Igbo genocide that consumed 3.1 million of some of our most talented citizens. 

Such a genocidal state policy supported by members of the international community is partly to blame for the normalization of mass violence in Nigeria today (as Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe emphasized in Biafra Revisited and Chinua Achebe did in There Was A Country). The country should issue a public apology to the Igbo who have continued to be model citizens in spite of the atrocities visited against them. Nigeria should dedicate massive funding towards Igbo reparations and desist from killing and criminalizing Nigerians who wish to fly the Biafra flag or buy commemorative car plate numbers or re-enact civil war battles in honor of the dead and in the defense of history as is done in advanced democracies where such activities help to sustain a thriving tourist industry while educating the younger generation. A national day of mourning for the innocent dead should be celebrated annually (not just a one off by Anambra State) to help socialize the conscience of the citizens against genocidal impulses that continue to be rewarded by treating genocidists as national heroes who are awarded lucrative oil blocs and by denying reparations to the survivors of genocide.

The Boko Haram should stop thinking that fellow Nigerians, especially the industrious Igbo who sacrifice so much to provide essential services in the remotest parts of the country, are their enemies because the snake that is problematic in the house of the rat is also problematic in the house of the lizard. The problem in Nigeria is that of mass illiteracy all over the country although it is worse, much worse, in the northern parts of the country. Let us join hands and eliminate this national shame from our land by implementing an urgent program of compulsory education for all with the masses of the unemployed graduates mobilized and re-trained as teachers and with a target of achieving 100% literacy in four years!

The reported assertion of Boko Haram that western education is Har(a)m-ful to Africans is echoed by no less authority than Paulo Freire whose classic book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, has just been banned in the US state of Arizona for teaching that there are oppressors and oppressed people who must learn in different ways in order to thrive in a society structured in dominance. Alice Miller would add that the type of education that Freire rejected as the banking concept of education is also harmful to European children because pedagogy as ‘child-rearing’ has been historically an abusive practice that produced moral monsters like Hilter in Europe to the detriment of tens of millions who died fighting for or against Nazism. I have argued elsewhere that we should reject the term, pedagogy, and adopt the alternative, Afrogogy, when our focus is on the education of Africans.

African American students came to the conclusion in the 1960s that Eurocentric education is harmful but instead of bombing and killing their fellow citizens to make their point, they adopted the peaceful revolutionary strategy based on the ancient African philosophy of non-violence by demanding for the funding of programs in Black Studies or Africana Studies and African American Studies which have now enriched the higher education system in the US and internationally even though educational disparities still exist in the Americas.

We need a similar peaceful revolution in education at the basic and advanced levels to tackle the problem of the prohibition of education to our people while we strive to make the contents and methods of our education truly African and not necessarily western exclusively given that some of what we call western education, such as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, agriculture, medicine, to mention but a few, were African inventions that were stolen by the West a long time ago, according to Cheikh Anta Diop in Civilization or Barbarism.

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Director of Africana Studies Program, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA Agozino@vt.edu

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Poor news - Syria's 'mutilation mystery' deepens...

Anonymous said...

Do you really feel that Syria spying on dissidents?

Chi-Chi said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful analysis of the whole Boko Haram issue. I think our first inclination is to react to the unfortunate situation emotionally, and it's really hard to review this sort of thing dispassionately, and to know where to even begin to find solutions. You've succeeded in doing so, though, and have hit the nail on the head: education is the key. As my Dad once asked me, "What causes 'witchcraft'?" His answer to his own question was that 'witchcraft' only exists when some people are perceived has having so much more than others - but that if you give everybody a little something, it totally takes care of the issue of people trying to bewitch each other. That was one of the reasons, I see, why he tried to educate everyone he could.

Very deep write-up!

Odozi Obodo said...

Thanks Ada Eze, Prof always made that point to us by asking us why millions of European women were burnt alive for being witches and only few African ethnic groups adopted similar hysterical reactions to people labeled witches while the Igbo have no record of such witch hunting? His answer was that the Igbo believe that everyone has a deal with his/her Chi and no one can hurt us unless our Chi is in agreement, otherwise we hold Ofo or innocence against all evil plans. So rather than look for someone to blame for failure, the Igbo would petition his or her Chi for a better deal with the full awareness that if one agrees to a deal, his or her Chi also agrees to it; hence the emphasis on imu ahia or traditional Igbo business school in addition to the competition for western education as means of equalizing the playing field in line with the Igbo philosophy that all heads are equal - Ishiakaishi.

Anonymous said...


This piece of literature is very interesting as well educational. As a caribbean person with a background in sociology. I am trying to understand the African culture/history, especially to date the insensitive thinking of that of Boko Haram. Reference would have been made by intellectual thinkers which give rise to opportunities to alleviate the struggles of the Black Man. However astonishingly it is such an insult to society that the massacre of enslavement stills progresses in the world. It is sad to know that this upsurge is escalating to a level where it impacts on the economy, politics and by extension governance of the country. I would like to know when will it end and what is the dissimilarities between Boko Haram and the Government of Nigeria? When will there be peace? It is so sad!

Odozi Obodo said...

Thanks for your comments, Anonymous. Culture is not a way of life chosen by consensus, contrary to the perspectives of colonial anthropology. Culture is a struggle between attempts to dominate the world and attempts to resist domination. The difference between the government and terrorists is not clear because the reign of terror was a system of government in revolutionary France while the President of Nigeria confessed that Boko Haram had infiltrated his government and recently dozens of soldiers were sentenced to death for refusing to fight the militants. It is now clear that the challenge is not a military one to be solved through conquest but a political one to be resolved by addressing past wrongs and by educating future generations to embrace non-violent means of struggles.