(This post is based on a paper I wrote in 2015, in which I argue that we need to focus on the life and human rights that Africans actually need, and not the ones ‘we’ think they should have.)

On 14/04/2014, over 200 girls were kidnapped from their secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. To darken the picture further, Amnesty International suggests that over 2000 girls and women had been abducted by Boko Haram in the North of Nigeria in the months prior to the kidnapping of the Chibok girls. It is against this backdrop that I examine the right to education in Nigeria.

Boko Haram is the sobriquet for a group whose activities are predicted on, among other things, 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 (economic, social and cultural rights) nature of the right to education, the 120000 students who have been excluded from school seem to have very little personal recourse to contest the violation of their right to education. This is because ESC rights are largely seen as non-justiciable – this means that those whose have been deprived of their ESC rights do not have recourse to personal redress in a court of law. Also, the demarcation of rights into ESC and civil/political rights does not reflect the historicity and needs of the populace, but rather results from the extension of a false universality from Europe to the rest of the world. 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 the foregoing?

Lesson 1: The Lesson of History

The history of Northern Nigeria should not be ignored in discussing education in the region. Islamic education was introduced in 700 AD, colonial education around 1900 AD. 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 [unequal access to European-ness] 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 Lesson of False Universality

I suggest that the demarcation of human rights into two covenants of unequal import does not reflect the past and present realities of African post-colonial states characterised by influential cultural communities, powerful non-state actors, and direct international community activity. It is noteworthy that in the case of SERAP v NGR (2009) the ECOWAS Court confirmed that the right to education was  actually justiciable. But this judgement has not resulted in practical redress. The entrenched non-justiciable nature of ESC is based on the fact that the implemention of most of these human rights – water, food, education, work etc, requires a state to have sufficient resources to provide for them. However, I suggest that this distinction is a red herring. Citing available resources as a distinguishing mark of aspirational ESC human rights ignores the fact that every human right requires some sort of resource provision for implementation. The right to fair trial, for example, cannot be implemented without a functional judiciary. Setting up a judiciary requires resources. 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. Splitting the human rights covenants at the time reflected the schisms in Europe and not the needs of countries unequally allied to Europe – states often designated as ‘developing’. Implementation of international human rights law continues to ignore the African realities. [See previous article]

Lesson 3: The Lesson of Learning from Others

Different approaches to implementing human rights in ways people actually need, should become mainstream. For example, the IACrtHR has formulated and enforced the right to a ‘project of life’. A right to harbour a ‘project of life’ has been described as a canopy approach that incorporates component rights based on the core idea of human of dignity. The Inter-American 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. The case revolved around a ‘re-education’ centre in Paraguay. Between 1996 and 2001, around 4000 children were subject to inhumane prison conditions in the Panchito López centre for minors. This prison had the capacity to accommodate 15 inmates, however, it housed between 200 and 300 children at a time. Due to these conditions, during three fires that occurred between 2000 and 2001, twelve children died and dozens of others sustained injuries. The IACrtHR held that a correct interpretation of Article 4 of the IACHR meant that by not providing the inmates of the centre with an adequate education, their right to life was violated as the detention had the potential to ‘destroy their life plans.’ In a plural world we need to embrace plurality of ideas.

Lesson 4: The Lesson of Always Putting People First

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. International human rights organisations focusing on the mechanism of state and bypassing cultural communities, show a profound misunderstanding 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. I have also argued previously that if the choice is between preservation of culture and human dignity – especially the dignity of African women and girls – human dignity must prevail. African people’s needs have to be at the centre of our discourse.

In the long encounter with Boko Haram, and a myriad of other competing afflictions, Nigerians have learnt 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 we can also learn hope.

boko haram


Arat, Zehra F. Kabasakal. “Forging a global culture of human rights: Origins and prospects of the international bill of rights.” Human Rights Quarterly (2006): 416-437.

Beiter, Klaus Dieter. The protection of the right to education by international law: Including a systematic analysis of article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Brill, 2005.

Dennis, Michael J., and David P. Stewart. “Justiciability of economic, social, and cultural rights: should there be an international complaints mechanism to adjudicate the rights to food, water, housing, and health?.” American Journal of International Law 98, no. 3 (2004): 462-515.

Inter-American Convention on Human Rights

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Ipinyomi, Foluke Ifejola. “A Right to a Project of (African) Life: Boko Haram, ESC Classification of the Right to Education, and the Unjustifiability of Generationalising Human Rights.” Journal of Academic Perspectives (2015): 1.

Juvenile Reeducation Institute” v. Paraguay, Judgment of September 2, 2004, Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACrtHR)

Vierdag, Egbert W. “The legal nature of the rights granted by the international Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” Netherlands Yearbook of International Law 9 (1978): 69-105.

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