Lessons From Zamfara State

by Banjo Odutola

This is a period in our democratic dispensation that anyone in his or her right senses is unlikely to accept an offer to stride in the shoes of; or be made over and presented publicly as Governor Ahmed Sani Yerima – the executive state governor of Zamfara. The man must be feeling alone – even, when on this occasion that much cerebration has been denied to think through the criticisms of his State’s school fees policy. What Zamfara State Governor and his Executive Council present with their school fees policy is an aged problem that requires solutions from the Budget Planning Office in the Presidency. It is not one for which, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation, Mr Akin Olujimi has the executive power to “read the riot act” to the governor. The job of the Attorney General is to advise the Federal Government on complexities of the law – and not to issue threats for which he has no executive power to effect. The minister’s utterances are wrong and empty; and they should be treated with disdain. This is what ought to happen when a chief law officer oversteps his brief. Mr. Olujimi should keep “studying” the situation and thereafter give his counsel to the president. This school fees levy on non-indigenes debacle from Zamfara State – no doubt throws up many lessons.

If newspaper editorials of “The Guardian“, “The Punch” and “ThisDay” to mention a few are to be believed and not considered selective in their attacks of Zamfara – it is easy to accept the levy of school fees on non indigenes is “discriminatory” and a “security threat” as some editorials have stated. This is hogwash! The positions of these editorials are melodramatic and in many respects, imbalanced at focusing on the problem as if it were unique to Zamfara State. It is not unique to the State and Mr. Sani’s explication makes clear the same policy prevails in other places such as: Lagos, Rivers, Imo, Kaduna and Sokoto. To heap blame on a Budget Planning Office deficiency on the governor is unfair. It is perhaps unsurprising that many of these commentators have never thought the problem as an element of budget planning.

Before detailing the arithmetic, persuasive and though distinguishable example from a different jurisdiction – Zamfara State Governor and his Information Commissioner must be commended for the way and manner at which they have so far handled the unfortunate analysis and news reporting of the school fees policy. Their good example is worth emulating by those in charge of media strategy at the Presidency and particularly, Lagos State Government.

At each turn that Zamfara State has been criticised over the levy on non-indigene – its commissioners and governor have painstakingly provided superior arguments against various unfair news reports and editorials. That is civilised politics. Whereas, an example of Lagos State Government at the time of the differences between its state governor and former deputy governor, Mrs Kofo Bucknor-Akerele – the handling of news was a season for bad news management, reckless and irresponsible utterances by the state commissioner for information and strategy. At that time it was usual to read the commissioner’s reference of the former deputy governor as “Iya Agbako“: an infantile and crude reference for which he was not censured for decorum expected in public service. He is at it again. The current difficulties between the Federal Minister of Works, Mr. Adeseye Ogunlewe and the state governor showcases the same commissioner as incapable of better submissions than the critics of his principal. His responses are nothing but bad language and inelegant boorishness. What do we keep such bad mouth public servants in office? Your guess is as good as mine.

Lagos State Government officials are not on their own in the capacity to resort to bad language – when they ought to proffer better arguments than critics. Whilst, Mrs Remi Oyo is a good example at explaining the president’s viewpoint – Mr. Femi Fani-Kayode prefers the use of uncouth utterances in defending his boss and his stance. Vituperations in public service hardly elevate debates or disagreements. They demean public servants and reflect inability to master their grounds. Our polity is richer when public servants emulate officials of Zamfara State in explaining policies rather than name-calling and abuse of opponents.

To another lesson from Zamfara State. Placement of children at state secondary schools outside “catchment areas” – which from the facts of Zamfara is similar, was a problem that preoccupied many local governments in the United Kingdom for a long time. It was only in the Education Act 1996 that the British Parliament finally resolved a similar problem to what is now rearing its ugly head in our nation. Our country has so far not dealt with the main issue because of the long period under military governance. This problem is peculiar to a democratic dispensation – as it has to consider demography and migration amongst variables of budgetary and education policy planning; and importantly, negotiations between state education ministries need to be in place to resolve the problem.

If we start from the premise that state governments are autonomous in secondary school education policies regarding each state – that does not vitiate the responsibilities of the Federal Government from enacting statutes to provide what is referred as “money follows the child” from the point of migration before the child’s parents have not satisfied requirements of residence or whatever tests are required. These are my personal views and in no way must be regarded as superior. In the absence of a policy to address the problem, it is only a starting point. Where these States are now charging “non-indigenes”, arguably, Zamfara and others need to redefine “non-indigene”. Does it mean proof of residence by payment of tax in the States? Evidence of which, tax certificates are adduced. Or, is it proof of genealogy? If the latter were the basis – the policy is wrong and unconstitutional. As that target misguidedly will affect generations of families not born in the provinces of the States. But, if it is the former – it is mischievous to fault it – where a better policy is not yet in place. Aside from the disparity of school fees between “indigenes” and “non-indigenes” – the discriminatory fee charges for female students must be vacated. The governor must not be drawn into a policy that will distract from a problem that his policy has thankfully brought into national consciousness and debate.

As earlier alluded – before the 1996 statute in the United Kingdom – precisely what is happening at Zamfara State was the order of the day: difficulties in “cross border” schools placements. Local government areas at which good schools are located considered their primary duty in this matter – was to provide secondary school places for children in their boroughs. Is Zamfara State not doing the same? This is not difficult to understand. Parents who paid rates (local taxes) were assumed to have natural rights and expectations to be satisfied before children from other boroughs were considered. In the case of Zamfara State, not until the State defines the distinction labelled as: “indigene and non-indigene”; its policy will be ill judged – when, arguably, its governor and executive council are right to prioritise educating children in the State, within available resources.

Let me explain what happened in the inner cities of the United Kingdom under the 1980 Education Act and before 1996 on the same issue of secondary school education placements. Generally, good schools are found in areas where Conservative Party councillors are in charge of local councils. These councils are mostly in the suburbs of the inner cities and largely in the other areas of the same counties. Inner cities are built up areas in which migrants mostly settle. Hence, as a result of high class numbers and concentration of children from the minorities at these schools – many parents – indigenes and migrants exercise what in the 1996 Act provides as “parental choice” to send their wards to schools outside “catchment area” of the child’s residence: often times, across to another local government on the basis of laid down tests as provided in the statute. We do not have provisions in our statutes for any form of tests by which a child not resident in a State must be educated in another. This is where the present difficulties arise. It is nonsensical to talk or label a State Governor as a security risk!

The facts from Zamfara State are distinguishable only to the extent that it is not about “catchment areas”. The similarity does not deviate from “cross border” school placements. The United Kingdom statute provides criteria and parameters at which schools outside “catchment area” shall provide placement for a child and accordingly the local authority at which the child resides has to provide funds for the child’s education to the education department of the other borough in which the child is being educated. This arrangement resolved the age-old problem – as each recipient local authority was not burdened with provision of school places from its revenue allocation for educating residents’ children. What these States should attempt to correct is the present arrangement. Since revenue allocation is based on outdated census and provision for education does not account for cross border education of children. Our nation requires a better system than what obtains now. This is not to use the United Kingdom model as a perfect guide. Even though, our constitution provides for freedom of movement and rights to education – presently, these are not denied; they can hardly be effected where the funds are not available. What is required is for the Federal Education Ministry to sponsor State Education ministries to collate records of the pattern of cross border migration for education into each state. Through such statistics – the Budget Planning Office in the presidency is able to plan contingencies to allocate to each State for this specific purpose.

The Federal Government must address the “cross border” education equitably. In its attempt – it must not use the United Kingdom model. This is not because such States where the new Zamfara policy has taken hold will be the largest beneficiaries. The unintentional funding of migration from rural to urban areas will be the result. Invariably, agriculture will be neglected; the new migration will bring in its wake – unintended problems such as housing and congestions. The United Kingdom model will result in provision for health care, roads and security for the beneficiary States, which will lead to uneven development and regional conflicts. What we must encourage, is not throwing money unnecessarily at this problem. Whatever we do – the tests of entitlement of “cross border” education must be different to the test of residence to vote in elections at a State. Neither must the test be linked to tax payments of the parents. Education is an inalienable right of the child and such rights must not be extended nor connected to parents’ transgressions or inability to prove a time period residence.

In closing, the school fees policy of Zamfara, Imo, Rivers, Sokoto and Lagos States point only to one direction and it is easy to see through the actions of these governors at adopting these policies. This is a problem that Federal Planning units cannot ignore. The governors are aware that the present problems will have to be resolved and the intention is for more allocation from Federal coffers. In my view, that may well need to happen. But, before it does, the intended policy requires long term planning and not ad-hoc quick fixes devoid of good and sustainable planning. Quick solutions will no doubt disrupt other areas as earlier alluded. The lessons from Zamfara State call for clarity of thought to resolve a problem that is not the making of its executive governor or his commissioners. It is welcome time for our nation to start experiencing the drawbacks of planning without facts.

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