Before Government Forecloses the Education of Poor Nigerians

The dailies reported on Tuesday 2/11/2010 that the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Education, Abubakar Bungudu, had, while visiting the National Universities Commission, hinted that the governing councils of universities may soon be empowered to arbitrarily charge students tuition and sundry fees. A similar suggestion was made on AIT by the Minister of State for Education, Mr. Kenneth Gbagi, on Monday 16/8/2010. He advocated a hike in tuition fees in tertiary institutions, arguing that if Nigerians can afford to go overseas for education, then they should be ready to pay appropriately for same in Nigeria. The Minister claimed that government’s subsidization of education is not relevant anymore, arguing that government alone can no longer continue to bear the “heavy” burden of providing education for Nigerians.

I make haste to say that, contrary to the Minister’s claims, there is no free education anywhere in Nigeria. The only governments that provided free education in Nigeria were the Action Group and Unity Party of Nigeria administrations of the former Western Region during the First and Second Republics. I attended primary school in the old Imo State during the Universal Primary Education policy of the Obasanjo military regime and I paid school fees! Currently, “free education” in Nigeria takes this form: state governments noisily and falsely claim the provision of free education at primary and secondary school levels but simultaneously impose sundry levies (development, PTA, equipment, lesson, etc fees) which sum up to more than double the “waived” tuition fee. The South-East States have become notorious for this sort of “free education.”

Now, who are these Nigerians Mr Gbagi claimed can afford to go or send their children overseas for studies? Are jobless persons, petty traders, artisans, drivers, conductors, labourers, junior and middle level civil servants, teachers, unpaid pensioners, rural farmers, hawkers, etc, most of whom earn less than N5,000 monthly, part of them? Experience shows that it is only past and serving political office holders (like Senator Bungudu), political appointees (like Mr Gbagi), political contractors, private sector businessmen who defraud the state, high-ranking public servants and all who walk the corridors of power at the federal, state and local governments’ levels that go or send their children overseas for studies. For instance, around the last week of September 2010, Mr Gbagi confessed that his daughter is an undergraduate in a Ghanaian university! Once a Nigerian secures a [usually very lucrative] political office, he makes haste to send his family members abroad to enjoy the social amenities the provision of which in Nigeria is anathema to him.

If such anti-people, insensitive suggestions represent the mindset of our government, then poor Nigerians should gird their loins to embrace ignorance. The provision of quality, affordable and highly subsidized (if not free) education for its citizens with qualified, well-remunerated teachers, adequate teaching materials, well-equipped schools and a conducive learning atmosphere is one of the time-honoured and core social responsibilities of every government. People-oriented governments worldwide take the provision of this and other social amenities passionately and responsibly. Is Nigeria not wealthier than Ireland, Argentina, Brazil, Greece, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, etc which provide free education at all levels for their citizens, and even foreigners? For those who always use our population to explain away our failings, know that Brazil is more populous than Nigeria, while China (the most populous nation) has plans to make education free at all levels. Many other nations provide free education at primary and secondary levels and a very subsidized tertiary education for their citizens.

Nigeria’s pioneer political leaders such as Azikiwe, Awolowo and Bello appreciated the value of education and government’s scared duty to provide it to the citizens. Azikiwe saw education as necessary “to restore the dignity of man.” It is interesting that without huge earnings from oil, these leaders provided free education (in Western Region) or highly subsidized education and credible scholarship schemes and, thus, laid robust foundations for human capital development in Nigeria. Sadly, the era of government commitment to the education of the masses ended with Gowon’s regime which took over mission schools, in realization of government’s duty to educate the citizenry.

Most Nigerian rulers since the 70s benefited from the free or highly subsidized education and scholarship programmes initiated by the nationalists before and immediately after independence. Unfortunately, these beneficiaries, even with stupendous funds at their disposal, resolved against the provision of free or affordable education for succeeding generations of impoverished Nigerians. Their recurring arguments go this way: “government alone cannot fund education because it lacks the funds to do so”, “public schools should generate revenue to run themselves”, “it is not government’s duty to build and equip schools”, “public schools should be privatized or commercialized”, “the private sector should take over the provision and running of schools”, “schools formerly taken from religious bodies must be returned to them”, etc. What a country! What a government!

First, Obasanjo’s military regime stopped free meals and introduced the policy of hiking tuition fees in public schools, with the resultant Ali-Must-Go crisis in Nigerian universities in the late 70s. Subsequent administrations have maintained the ugly tempo. The fanciful “education for all by the year 2000”, promised by IBB in the 90s, died unrealized, despite the consistent extension of the magic year. Annually, huge sums are budgeted by Federal and State governments for education, but the allocations disappear into private pockets. Nigerian politicians scramble for appointments into the governing councils of tertiary institutions where they share the funds allocated to such institutions, only to turn around and lament the rot in the educational system.

Since 1999, the story has not changed. Our governments still feel that the provision of basic amenities must either be privatized or commercialized. Imagine that the Federal government sold Garki General Hospital Abuja to the private sector, and thereby took its services beyond the reach of poor Nigerians. How can a government think of generating revenue from social amenities? Not only have state governments been unashamedly returning schools to religious bodies with abandon, the Federal Government has also proposed the privatization of public schools, especially the Unity Schools.

I return to the suggestions by Senator Bungudu and Mr. Gbagi. I am not surprised. Such views reflect the daily refrain in Nigeria. Such is the pastime of Nigerians who are privileged to occupy the very lucrative public offices in the country. While in such offices, they appear and sound removed from the realities on ground in the country. They turn their backs on public schools, use looted public funds to establish private schools, send their children abroad, and thereafter advocate hike in tuition fees and privatization of public schools. Why would a senator who undeservedly “earns” around N50 million per quarter not make such an outlandish suggestion? Such persons are the ones “whose palm kernels were cracked by a benevolent spirit”, as Prof. Chinua Achebe stated in Things Fall Apart.

During his tenure as Minister of Education, Dr. Sam Egwu severally and vehemently denied allegations by ASUU that the government had plans to hike tuition fees in Federal tertiary institutions. Do we take Sen

ator Bungudu and Mr. Gbagi’s comments as indicative of the government’s mindset and position on the matter? How can anybody sensibly argue that quality education is a function of higher tuition fees? Before and immediately after independence, Nigeria (with free or subsidized education) produced high calibre primary, secondary and tertiary school graduates who held their own anywhere. Nowadays, what do we have, even with very high tuition fees?

While our nationalists worked to get the masses uplifted through education, successive rulers have been bent on taking poor Nigerians back to the Stone Age. As public schools are abandoned, private schools (guided by profit motive) spring up ubiquitously with high tuition and sundry fees, without improving the quality of education. I doubt if any other country can boast of more private primary, secondary and tertiary schools than Nigeria. Our government complains of scarcity of funds to provide social amenities, yet channels huge funds to irrelevant programmes like the Technical Aid Corps Scheme, Joint Commissions and other policies which cater for the welfare of other nations. Our country, like the proverbial cat, leaves the rats in its owner’s house and chases the ones in a neighbour’s house. Nigeria should stop playing Santa Claus outside while her own suffers dire want at home.

What purpose does a government serve if it can no longer provide basic amenities for the citizenry, with all the resources at its disposal? So, it is the private sector (comprising looters of public funds, their fronts and accomplices), guided by profit motive, that is better suited to provide same? It is high time the Nigerian government stopped alluding to “paucity of funds” as excuse for our abysmal failure over the years. Nigeria is, beyond any doubt, a very wealthy nation. Who can believe otherwise in the face of the mind-blowing allowances and opulent lifestyles of our political office holders, high level corruption, misapplication of public funds, etc?

If our government can check corruption, reduce the allurements of public offices, slash the unjustified huge allowances of political office holders, phase out private schools, accept the education of the citizenry as its responsibility, revive public schools, provide free education at all levels, employ quality and well-remunerated teachers, channel funds to education and ensure their honest utilization, stop the politicization of the governing councils of tertiary institutions, etc, then we can reverse the misfortunes of education in Nigeria. This country has the resources to provide free education at all levels for her citizens. It is time Nigerian federal, state and local governments stopped shirking their primary responsibilities to the people.

POSTSCRIPT: On Wednesday 10/11/2010, the Federal Executive Council approved the establishment of six new federal universities for the six geo-political zones of Nigeria. If we lack adequate universities in the country, one would have commended the decision. Again, the propriety of the approval is questionable mindful that the existing federal and state universities in Nigeria have been abandoned and are littered with dilapidated infrastructures. The government should rather use the money to renovate and maintain the existing ones, for the new ones will eventually face abandonment and dilapidation.

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