While sitting in the office reception, we engaged in a discussion about the conflict in Sudan when Aysha suddenly asked about the educational disparities between the Northern and Southern parts of the country. Curious, I inquired about the reason behind her question, and she mentioned the controversy surrounding it on social media. I smiled affectionately in response.
Education in Northern Nigeria holds significant importance and has undergone various transformations throughout history. The region has a rich educational heritage deeply rooted in Islamic traditions and the quest for knowledge.
Islamic education has been a cornerstone of learning in Northern Nigeria for centuries. Quranic schools, known as Almajiri schools, have played a crucial role in providing basic religious education to young children. Students in these schools focus on memorizing and reciting the Quran, gaining a strong foundation in Islamic principles and teachings. The system often involves a teacher-student relationship, with students living with their teachers and receiving both religious and practical instruction.
Historically, Islamic scholars and centers of learning in Northern Nigeria have attracted students from across the region and beyond. Cities like Kano, Sokoto, and Maiduguri have been renowned for their vibrant intellectual and educational environments. Scholars from Timbuktu and other parts of the Muslim world have taught in these centers, contributing to the dissemination of knowledge and the development of Islamic scholarship.
As I sipped my tea, memories of my conversation with Mallam about the educational disparities between the North and South resurfaced. The history of Islam in West Africa dates back to the 8th century A.D. when it reached the Savannah region. The spread of Islam led to commercial connections with North Africa, which facilitated the introduction of new elements of material culture and intellectual development. The Sudan region became renowned for its literacy and scholarship.
Islam was embraced in Kanem by Umme Jilmi, a ruler, during the 11th century. Correspondence with Tunisia and the establishment of a college and hostel in Cairo for scholars from Kanem-Borno region further strengthened Islamic knowledge. In the 14th century, Borno’s capital was relocated to N’gazaragamu by Ali Ghazi. The true Islamization occurred during the reign of Mai Idris Alooma, with the establishment of Islamic schools called Madrasahs.
Hausa land embraced Islam in the 14th century through traders and scholars. Mosques were built, and Islamic teachings were introduced. Scholars from Timbuktu arrived in Kano during the reign of Muhammad Rumfa to teach and preach Islam. Muhammad Rumfa even sought the counsel of scholars on governance matters, resulting in the renowned book “The Obligation of the Princes” written by Al-Mughili.
Arabic played a significant role in West Africa as the classical language, primarily due to its connection to the Qur’an. In Nigeria, Arabic and Islamic teachings were intertwined in Qur’anic schools, especially in the North. The spread of Western education in Nigeria began with Christian missionaries in the mid-19th century. Their primary objective was to convert Africans to Christianity and educate catechists.
Initially, Western education focused on religious teachings and preparing individuals who could read, write, and interpret the Bible. As commerce and colonial administration grew, the purpose of Western education expanded to include training minor administrative personnel and middle-class clerical assistants. However, its influence in the North was limited due to the dominance of Islam and the Quran.
Before Muslims in the North realized the political and administrative benefits of Western education, Southern Christians had already made significant progress. The colonial administration restricted the activities of Christian missionaries to the South and non-Muslim areas of the North. This historical circumstance, combined with the religious basis of Western education, led to the uneven spread of educational attainment between the North and South, resulting in socio-political consequences.
Our conversation continued until Mallam suggested that I should rest and emphasized the importance of extensive reading to understand our history. He recommended A. Babs Fafunwa’s book, which extensively covers this topic. Feeling enlightened by this newfound knowledge, I left his room and returned to mine, making a cup of tea as the night still held its youthful allure.
But, I reflected… Over time, Northern Nigeria has witnessed efforts to bridge this educational gap. Government initiatives and collaborations with non-governmental organizations have aimed to increase access to quality education, particularly in formal Western education. Schools and educational institutions have been established to provide a broader curriculum, encompassing subjects beyond religious studies.
On the other hand, The Southern region has a higher concentration of universities, colleges, and specialized institutions compared to the North. This has contributed to the region’s reputation as an educational hub, attracting students from within Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Education in Southern Nigeria has witnessed advancements in various areas, including infrastructure, teacher training, and curriculum development. The region has seen the establishment of prestigious institutions known for their academic excellence and research contributions.
However, challenges persist in the education sector. Access to quality education remains an issue in some rural and economically disadvantaged areas. Issues such as inadequate funding, overcrowded classrooms, and a shortage of qualified teachers can impact the quality of education.
Efforts are being made to address these challenges and ensure inclusive education in Southern Nigeria. Government initiatives, partnerships with international organizations, and community-driven interventions aim to improve access to education, particularly for marginalized groups, such as girls and children from low-income backgrounds.
The region’s commitment to education is evident in the growing awareness of the importance of education for personal development, social mobility, and national progress. Southern Nigeria continues to prioritize investment in education as a means to empower individuals, foster innovation, and contribute to the overall development of the region and the country as a whole.
Finally, for us in the North, challenges such as inadequate infrastructure, limited resources, and socio-economic factors continue to impact education in the region. However, there have been notable advancements in recent years. Efforts to promote girl-child education, vocational training, and adult literacy programs have gained traction, aiming to ensure inclusivity and empower individuals with knowledge and skills.
*Sumayya Abubakar is a development worker, she is an educationist, and peace builder. She is the lead of Plateau based Muryar Fulani Peace Initiative Network Inc. She runs a schools’ system for marginalised populations in Plateau state, North central of Nigeria and can be reached at email@example.com