However, when Boko Haram is put down, what then? What can be done to prevent its revival, or the emergence of other, similar groups? There is no need to search far and wide for solutions when the answer to the problem is very much within reach, already tried and tested.

The question, to begin with, is how did education in Nigeria come to be considered “bad”? Free universal primary education (UPE), as introduced by the army general (and later president) Olusegun Obasanjo in 1976, was well-intentioned but a disaster. Functioning as a Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) top-down military initiative—to which some were not committed—UPE was hastily introduced without reliable census data, clear policy directives, or technical planning capacity during a contractor-driven oil boom remembered for its big spending, mobilization fees, and abandoned contracts (1).

UPE’s impact was especially harmful in the educationally disadvantaged and poverty-stricken Muslim north, where the sheer numbers of illiterate people represented a logistical and financial nightmare (2). The results included so-called primary “schools” staffed by “grade 3, failed” teachers, along with secondary and tertiary institutions attended by increasing numbers of illiterate children in need of remedial studies. Meanwhile, adult literacy programs, starved of government funds, ceased to function (except in theory).

In the mid-1980s, angry community leaders in Borno State complained to then military governor Major Abdulmumini Aminu’s Task Force on Education (3), stating that government schools had ruined their children: they failed their exams, could not find work, and, upon returning home, refused to farm, turning instead to drugs and petty crime, or worse. Aminu himself had earlier toured the schools, summoned their principals and ministry officials, and bluntly abused us (4) for producing “students [who were] only fit to be ‘houseboys’ for the rest of Nigeria.” In 1993, only a dozen secondary students in Yobe State qualified to progress to tertiary education: two to social studies, the remainder to Islamic studies. None went on to become doctors or engineers.

Does this help explain why Boko Haram is so called? Perhaps not entirely, but it certainly does help to explain why the people’s incredibly vast store of patience with governments’ failure to deliver basic services was eventually exhausted and why some turned to fight, claiming to do so under the banner of traditional religion.

As we hope for peace to return, let us now plan to address and rectify the root causes of Boko Haram’s most explicit reason for being, by fomenting an “attractive revolution” that, in broad terms, changes the attitude of “education is bad” to “education is good.”

In practical terms, how can we do this? We could, on the one hand, let governments continue to try to improve their educational systems from the top; it would be unrealistic and harmful not to, as existing human capital needs to be enriched to its fullest capacity. So, by all means, let there be new and better schools, colleges, and universities. Let us also face the fact, however, that building them will take time and, in the short term, benefit few.

An alternative approach would be to start all over again by creating much more, new human capital from the bottom up—inclusively, reasonably quickly, fairly inexpensively, and maybe even on a grand scale. This is based on our experience with the North East Arid Zone Development Programme (NEAZDP), which, years ago, “won the trust of both the government and the communities as a highly efficient service provider”(5).

From 1990–95 NEAZDP was one of Nigeria’s first comprehensive attempts at interactive, participatory, community-driven, sustainable, and integrated rural development. The program was funded by the FGN and the European Development Fund (EDF) until the Europeans withdrew their support in 1995, in protest against General Sani Abacha’s misrule of the country. After Abacha, despite recommendations (6) to the contrary, though EDF aid was not renewed Federal funding continued until 2006. Since then the program, though it is still locally appreciated (7), has survived only through minimal funding from an impoverished State Government.

Consider what NEAZDP accomplished at its height. Its literacy initiative, which encompassed children and nomads as well as rural men and women, was both relatively cheap and effective. Entire villages gathered on mats under corn-stalk shades, and learned how to read and write about themselves in their own local languages. Their teachers were “literates,” hired and paid by the community. The terms of their contract were simple: “No teach, no pay! No pay, no teach!” NEAZDP provided blackboards, chalk, basic books, and facilitation. As literacy spread, the writings of one class became the reading materials of the next, and NEAZDP moved on to the advancement of primary education with an approach that included founding pilot schools, training teachers, and involving parents in decision making.

Education was not NEAZDP’s main purpose. Education was only one very relevant component of an integrated rural development program that addressed the core problems (e.g., a fragile production base, extremely low living standards, and environmental degradation) that continue to hound Boko Haram’s impoverished supporters today and help to explain its insurgency. However, rather than trying to solve the problems, NEAZDP showed community members how to empower themselves and manage their own local educational systems in partnership with government—an arrangement that made people stakeholders in, instead of enemies of, education.

Meanwhile, NEAZDP ran more than 9,000 social and economic micro-projects across 22,860 square kilometers, motivating and assisting the rural population to improve their standards of living by the proper use and management of natural resources. An established community-based rural extension system was key to ensuring effective service delivery at the community level. The program brought about substantial changes in the mindset of target communities and laid the foundations for a self-directed development process, over which it fostered the communities’ sense of ownership. This was done through mobilization, organization, and the use of participatory methods in problem analysis, planning, and budgeting, as well as by stipulating that the communities contribute to and increase their involvement in the micro-projects.

NEAZDP also played an important role in terms of local capacity building, an achievement highlighted by the large number of its staff who subsequently rose to high managerial (and elected political) positions in both state and local government. It improved rural life by training traditional birth attendants who helped reduce infant mortality, setting up dispensaries coupled with water supplies that contributed to better health, hygiene, and horticulture, improving infrastructure, and supplying basic materials and services.

In short, NEAZDP’s reported impact in qualitative terms was remarkable (8). Its productive loans (for the purchase of ox-teams and irrigation pumps, for example), together with improved essential services, effectively stopped and sometimes reversed rural–urban migration. Its bottom-up participatory methods proved considerably more effective and sustainable than traditional welfare approaches.

Today NEAZDP provides us with a new paradigm in terms of community service delivery. Its value, even from the state government’s viewpoint, lies in its orientation toward service delivery and being technically rather than politically driven, as well as its efforts to ensure that funds effectively reach the communities. Its added value is that it is popular, trusted, and can be restarted.

Although it now offers only skeletal services, NEAZDP still has substantial physical assets and a well-established extension service in place within its communities. Let us take advantage of these with funding to revive literacy and primary education initiatives in places where the program has worked already and is still working today. This would be particularly useful in communities that have not been directly or badly affected by Boko Haram (whose legacy will loom large for a long time) or related violence, as well as those that have considered the risks and opted to participate. With FGN and donor assistance, these initiatives and others can be scaled elsewhere, spreading out to other pilot communities and throughout Yobe, Borno, and beyond.

Restarting this process of building mass literacy could be a good way to revitalize all of NEAZDP’s components, rebuild trust, resurrect peace, and open the door to other community-driven integrated development initiatives. This time, however, we must engage communities from the beginning—or, better yet, make the initiatives truly participatory by letting the people own and drive the process on their own, as much in harmony with their culture and religion as they wish. The implementation will be supported by Nigerians’ proven capacity—when given the opportunity—to leapfrog ahead of the developed world in certain areas by adapting smart technology in ways not seriously considered by the latter. NEAZDP could also help to facilitate and spread services such as telebanking.

Carried out by and for the people, such initiatives would replace the slogan “education is bad” with “education is good,” and thereby begin to address the integrated problems of generations going back to the 1970s. Now that would make for an “attractive revolution.”

  1. Lalage J. Bown, ed., Maintaining Universal Primary Education: Lessons from Commonwealth Africa (London: Commonwealth Secretariat, 2009). 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. I served on this. 
  4. I was there, behind closed doors, after the “gentlemen of the press” had been invited to leave.
  5. National Authorizing Officer (NAO), Ministry of Finance, “Ex-Post Monitoring Report, North East Arid Zone Development Programme,” Abuja, May 2006, 2.
  6. External Mid Term Review Report, 1994, rated NEAZDP activities as the most successful rural development programme in Nigeria and strongly recommended an extension of the program into a second phase; NAO (op.cit) recommended incorporating “the lessons learned by NEAZDP …. into the programming phase of the 10th European Development Fund, which include(d) Community Development as a focal sector.” 
  7. Appeals made for revival of support for NEAZDP in 2013 by Senator Ahmad Ibrahim Lawan (during a presidential visit to Yobe State) and many others, including;; and
  8. NAO (2006), 2, 4.