Recently I spent 3 days travelling in the far NW of Nigeria to the State of Sokoto, once the heart of the Islamic Sokoto Caliphate (kingdom), which ruled much of the interior of W. Africa in the 19th Century. Sokoto has long been renowned for its religious scholarship and even today the Sultan of Sokoto is considered the pre-eminent Islamic spiritual leader for Nigerian Muslims.
Accompanying me were Elizabeth Obaba from the UNICEF zonal office and Wale Samuel, representing a civil society alliance of Nigerian NGOs and groups that advocates for Education For All. Visiting Sokoto meant a long dusty drive through the Sahel, where camels start to appear amidst small thorn trees. We traversed Zamfara where the State Governor has recently switched political party and started his re-election campaign and local residents were receiving 5,000 Naira (~ $35) to show their colours; seemingly every roadside building had been whitewashed and adorned with political slogans.
Over recent years the absence of universal basic secular education has increasingly been identified as a binding constraint to growth and poverty reduction in the North Nigerian States. In particular the low number of girls receiving basic education led to DFID establishing the Girls Education Project (GEP) in 2005, which is managed by UNICEF in partnership with federal and state ministries of education. GEP has made excellent progress in promoting Women's rights under Sharia law in Nigeria, in particular the right of the girl child to education.
A long day of discussions was held with the State education leaders under the Hon. Commissioner for Education and GEP partners on the plans for the 2nd phase of GEP, encouraging the States to take on board pilot activities such as forming school based management committees in all communities and providing small financial grants to start to tackle the overwhelming lack of resources encountered in the rural areas. Another promising new initiative is scholarships for young women to become teachers; many rural areas have almost no women teachers, which acts as a deterrent towards girls attending schools.
The next day we visited a couple of schools that really emphasised the scope of need. At a ‘model' school very few of the eldest primary students could read or get beyond simple arithmetic, the children looked around 10 -11 years but none knew for certain their age. A teacher, Abubakar (in the Chelsea tracksuit), at the school fared little better in the maths test, although he could just about read simple English texts. Like many rural teachers he has no formal qualifications beyond completing a secondary education of very dubious quality.
Even in more prosperous Nigerian States such as Kwara the ability of teachers is astonishingly low: a recent assessment found only 7 out of 19,125 teachers making the grade. This puts into perspective the low level of student learning and the preference of many parents for private schools or Qu-ranic (informal Islamic) schools.
The next rural school visited had received considerable support in the 1st phase of GEP, but already there were signs of decay and stagnation; a broken pile of furniture awaiting repair and congested classrooms. Still popular however were the library room full of books and the water pump: providing potable water for both girl child and passing camel alike!
On a serious note the water isn't just popular for a drink on the way home; bringing home a bucket of clean water can often be the reason the girl is allowed to attend school in the first place.