Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Educational Backwardness of Northern Nigeria

I recently came across a comment by some ignorant character who claimed, on the basis of his proclaimed 7 years residence in Nigeria, that the fairer-skinned Northerners had managed to hold the reins of power in Nigeria at the expense of their darker-skinned fellow citizens in the south in large part because they were "more intelligent" and "better organized", with the presumption no doubt being that there was some sort of linkage between fair-skin and intelligence. The article linked to above (written by a Northerner, for those worried about bias) should lay to rest any notion that ridiculous claims of this sort have even the slightest bit of merit.

According the United States Agency for International Development (USAID/NIGERIA), for example, ‘the current state of education in Nigeria can be summarized by three simple statistics. Today, just 60% of age-eligible children are enrolled in primary school. Of those who do enroll, nearly half (40%) eventually drop out. Among those that remain in school to the sixth grade, just 40% would be considered literate. Clearly, Nigeria's schools are failing to serve the needs of its children’. One may hasten to add that northern Nigerian schools are the ones leading in this colossal national failure. For example, the 1991 Population Census Analytical Report (NPC, 1998) showed that age-specific literacy rate for ages 6-9 in northern states like Benue, Borno and Kebbi were 21, 35 and 18 per cent respectively. For the same age group, some southern states like Anambra, Lagos and Rivers recorded literacy rates of 51, 80 and 52 per cent respectively.

The truth of the matter is that the educational disparity between the Northern and Southern states is gargantuan - one would be hard-pressed to believe such variation possible in a single country (then again, who says Nigeria really is a single country?). Nor does the difference between the two halves of the country end with education; not only do the vast majority of professionals hail from the south, but nearly all commercial and industrial activity is concentrated there as well. If Northern elites have been able to exercise an inordinate grasp on the reins of power, it has been for one reason only - the top ranks of the army are dominated by people who hail from that region, because in the closing period of British colonial rule, only those from the mostly illiterate Northern Region were willing to opt for what was seen at the time as a low-pay, low-prestige career in the armed forces.

PS: If there's one reason I'm not as sanguine as most African-Americans are about affirmative action, it is that I've been on the other side of the aisle where such policies are concerned. Nigerian educational institutions also have admission quotas, for those who hail from the Northern states, and the sight of Northern students gaining entry into prestigious schools and universities while far better qualified Southerners are rejected has long been a major source of friction in the country. The American situation isn't completely analogous - African-Americans, unlike the Hausa, really have been the victims of a historical wrong - but the feelings of resentment that are stirred up are largely the same.