What Boko Haram Taught Me about the Right to Education

By Dr Foluke Adebisi, Teaching Associate (University of Bristol Law School).*

© Tony Karumba / AFP

On 14 April 2017, it will be three years since we heard the news that 230 schoolgirls had been kidnapped by Boko Haram, causing global shock and horror. Since then, some have been released, and some escaped. However, focus on the Chibok schoolgirls, often overshadows the greater tragedy.

Amnesty International suggests that over 2,000 girls and women have been abducted by Boko Haram across the North of Nigeria. Though, Borno state, (with a landmass slightly larger than Croatia) and its people have borne the brunt of Boko Haram. Boko Haram is the sobriquet for a group whose activities are predicted on a violent abhorrence for ‘Western’ education. The Arabic names they call themselves translate into ‘Group of the People of Sunnah for Preaching and Jihad’ and ‘Islamic State West Africa Province.’ Their vicious campaigns have kept an estimated 120,000 students from education of any kind. Andrew Walker’s book ‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel examines how Boko Haram trades on the currency of religion and the politicisation of education to sell violence to its adherents.

Obviously, if any case is to be made against them as regards the abductees, a cause of action would properly lie within national criminal laws or for crimes against humanity. However, due to the ESC nature of the right to education, the 120,000 students who have been excluded from school seem to have very little recourse to contest the violation of their right to education. This is because ESC rights are largely seen as non-justiciable. Also, the demarcation of rights into ESC and civil/political rights does not reflect the historicity and needs of the populace. An interesting approach to this incongruous distinction is taken by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACrtHR). What lessons, I ask, can we learn from the court?

Lesson 1: The history of northern Nigeria cannot be ignored in discussing education in the region. Islamic education was introduced in 700 AD, colonial education around 1900. During British colonialism, to avoid internal resistance, very few missionary schools were established in the North. In 1912, Southern Nigeria had 36,000 students in school, while Northern Nigeria had less than 1,000. This unequal development has resulted in uneven levels of poverty, disease and illiteracy; the inequalities are also a major driver for Boko Haram’s ideology. Because Islamic education was ‘othered’, it lost relevance, disconnecting Northern Nigeria. It should be noted that colonial education was a vital tool of control and oppression, resulting in the erosion of African languages and precolonial identity. So there is cultural erosion in the South, and violence in the North.

Lesson 2: The demarcation of rights into two covenants does not cater for the needs of African post-colonial states which are characterised by influential cultural communities, powerful non-state actors, and direct international community activity. This is especially so because ESC rights are supposedly non-justiciable. Though, in SERAP v NGR (2009) the ECOWAS Court confirmed that the right to education was justiciable. However, we continue to cite available resources as a distinguishing mark of aspirational ESC rights, ignoring the fact that every right requires some sort of resource provision for implementation. For example, the right to fair trial cannot be implemented without a judiciary; the establishment of a judiciary requires resources. The demarcation presupposes that the structures for implementing civil and political rights already exist. This is not always the case in African states. Therefore, the aspirational nature of a right in reality depends on the nature and extent of deprivation, the needs of the community as well as the contextual importance of the right. ESC categorisation also falsely relies on a strict Westphalian understanding of the relationship between individual and state as well as a linear concept of state development. ESC rights are only aspirational, in this sense, where a state is taking a unidirectional journey through identifiable, fixed advancing points of development. Aspiration suggests time allowances that cannot be properly mapped onto the vicissitudes that characterise life within a state and the vagaries and fluctuations of national development.

Lesson 3: New and innovative approaches to implementing human rights should become mainstream. The IACrtHR has formulated and enforced the right to a ‘project of life’, which has been applied across several cases. The court’s jurisprudence reflects this in ‘Panchito López’ v Paraguay, where it held that violating the right to education destroyed ‘life plans/projects,’ thus violating the right to life. The IACrtHR thus combines both ESC and civil/political rights, based on the argument that the rights subject to adjudication were rights necessary for the advancement of a dignified life. The cases before the IACrtHR in which the right to a project of life has been adopted, all involve developing states with developing human rights protection systems and developing state infrastructure. The court takes a purposive approach to the requirement to provide education.

Lesson 4: A right to a project of (African) life may help resolve the tensions between culture and human rights. Boko Haram (and similar groups) feed on these tensions; they trade in these tensions. Where education seems to isolate the individual from her community, education and its proponents become a communal enemy. The purposes and content of education have to be regionally analysed, especially in light of the revival of decolonising movements. The content of education needs to reflect the needs of the society. Education should serve three paramount purposes – to make literate; to conform, to develop/liberate. Culture should be practical bridge between concept and practice, a conduit through which human rights can be implanted within indigenous consciousness without diluting the content of human rights or community feeling. Education is not beneficial if it becomes a means by which a person’s identity, culture and language becomes obscured. Education should prevent violence, not foment it.

Note that appropriating culture as a human rights tool does not presuppose its primacy, nor remove contestation. However, it is impossible to mitigate the negative effects of a force with which you fail to engage and which forms a key part of a people’s identity.

This post is based on a paper I wrote in 2015.

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