(This post is based on a paper I wrote in 2015, in which I argue that we need to focus on the life and rights that Africans need and what the ones we think they should have.)

On 14/04/2014, the world suddenly realised that over 200 Chibok girls had been in captivity for two years. To darken the picture further, Amnesty International suggests that over 2000 girls and women have been abducted by Boko Haram in the North of Nigeria during this period. Boko Haram is the sobriquet for a group whose activities are predicted on a violent abhorrence for ‘Western’ education. Their vicious campaigns have kept an estimated 120000 students from attending school of any kind. Obviously, if any case is to 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 120000 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 this?

Lesson 1: The history of northern Nigeria should not be ignored in discussing education in the region. Islamic education was introduced in 700, 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 36000 students, while Northern Nigeria had less than 1000. This unequal development has resulted in uneven levels of poverty, disease and illiteracy. 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. These tensions still fuel resistance to the state, which is sometimes seen as nothing more than a colonial successor. History is always important. History overtakes the present.


Lesson 2: The demarcation of rights into two covenants does not cater for the needs of African post-colonial states characterised by influential cultural communities, powerful non-state actors, and direct international community activity. In SERAP v NGR (2009) the ECOWAS Court confirmed that the right to education was justiciable. However, citing available resources as a distinguishing mark of aspirational ESC rights ignores the fact that every right requires some sort of resource provision for implementation. The right to fair trial cannot be implemented without a judiciary. Therefore, the aspirational nature of a right depends on the nature and extent of deprivation, the needs of the community as well as the importance of the right. This 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. Implementation of international human rights law continues to ignore the African context.

Lesson 3: Different approaches to implementing human rights should become mainstream. The IACrtHR has formulated and enforced the right to a ‘project of life’. The court’s jurisprudence reflects this in its ‘Panchito López’ v Paraguay, judgement where it held that violating the right to education destroyed ‘life plans/projects,’ thus violating the right to life. In a plural world we need to embrace plurality of ideas.

panchito lopez

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. However, 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, presently it does not. Schooling is done in English, creating a sense of ‘foreignness’ of education, also the curricula is externally assessed for suitability. By focusing on the mechanism of state and bypassing cultural communities IGOs show that they misunderstand the nature of African states. 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. African people’s needs have to be at the centre of our discourse.

Boko Haram has taught Nigerians many things –

To live in fear, knowing that any day, your home may go up in flames and your time on earth would be remembered by nothing more than charred remains not even fit to fertilise the soil on which you lived…

To stare into the face of darkness; to know that you can imagine the worst depravities on earth and know that those horrors are being experienced by girls who should be in school…

The deafening sound of silence from a non-functioning government, which seems to grow fat on the tears and blood of parents, sisters, brothers bereft of hope…

But there IS hope, there is always hope.

boko haram


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