Not a few people doubted the practicability of implementing free education in Imo State when Owelle Rochas Okorocha made it the head stone of his gubernatorial campaign in the historic quest for Imo governorship in 2011. Quite a number of well grounded reasons informed this skepticism. One, Imo is arguably the state with the highest literacy level in Nigeria and has been consistently supplying the highest number of candidates for public examinations in Nigeria since creation in 1976. Again, as at the time Rochas threw his hat in the ring for the Imo governorship position, the state was literarily in a quandary, with many yearning sectors demanding for attention so the huge outlay required for investment in the free education project was not just there. Also, there was this feeling that the prebendal politics at play as at the time of the governorship contest will not free enough fund needed to run this policy.
Even with the proven personal commitment of Owelle Rochas to the provision of free education to the less privileged all over the country through his Rochas Foundation scheme, most Nigerians believed that providing such in a state like Imo was an impossibility that no governor can pull off. This high degree of doubt provided the firing pin for his opponents who re-jigged their own campaign to reflect this skepticism. They therefore made a mantra of touring Imo with the message that whoever promises free education in a state like Imo should not be trusted for such was impracticable. This message nearly caught on the people who tagged along with the belief that no government can execute this gargantuan policy. So it was not only Rochas‘ opponents that doubted this electoral promise but his admirers as well approached this with a high degree of doubt. It must be clarified that in this debate about the practicability or otherwise of free education in Imo, the context was free primary and secondary education for the teeming Imo pupils. No state, not even the least advantaged ones, has been known to provide free tertiary education in Nigeria.
When Rochas came in, he surprised not a few Imolites with his revelation on how he will fund the free education programme. Simply, he said he would dedicate close to seventy per cent of his annual security vote to the programme. That was a complete knock out punch to those that doubted his intent. Hitherto, security votes are unaccountable slush funds those in political position in Nigeria leverage to enrich themselves and satisfy other political whims and devoting a huge tranche of such fund to such a noble policy was a novel that elicited mass approval when he made that announcement. Thus, the wheels of what is mutating to be a historic education revolution in Imo were rolled off. The purview and scope of that revolution have clearly over lapped the initial expectations of those that reserved doubts about the implentability of the programme to extend to free tertiary education for Imo State students in three state-owned tertiary schools. If this is indeed not a revolution, I wonder what is in a state where students used to pay through the nose to access downgraded secondary and tertiary education.
The components of the Imo State free education programme as presently implemented by the Rescue government of Owelle Rochas Okorocha include;
i. Free primary and secondary education.
ii. Free tertiary education for Imo students in three state-owned schools; Imo State University, Imo State Polytechnic Umuagwo and Imo State School of Health Technology in Amaigbo.
iii. Building of 305 model primary schools in the 305 electoral wards in Imo State.
iv. Provision of school desks, uniforms, sandals, books for all Imo pupils.
v. Allocation of imprest to the authorities of all primary and secondary schools in Imo State for the purpose of carrying out routine maintenance in their respective schools.
As at date, all these components are in full implementation. Close to two hundred of the 305 model schools have either been completed or at advanced stages of completion. The learning kits; uniforms, desks, books, lens, sandals are being distributed to the various communities in the state at present. Imprests have been paid to school authorities, cheques have been issued to Imo State students in the three state owned tertiary institutions to cover their tuition. As a symbolic affirmation of the free education policy in Imo, secondary school students and primary school pupils are being paid a symbolic allowance of N100!
As a consequence of this revolution presently going on in Imo State public school sector, the public schools have regained their bounce as they grapple with the renewed influx from private schools whose students do not want to miss this rare privilege. Again, teachers are closely monitored unlike before, to compliment government’s commitment to rescue the educational sector and this has rescued the sector and further pressed the huge advantage Imo State hitherto enjoyed among its peers as the lodestar in education in Nigeria. No Imo youngster would be deprived of basic education as a result of high cost of affordability and chances are a generation of Imo youths who hitherto would not have acquired education will pass all the way from primary to tertiary levels courtesy of the grand vision Rochas is unleashing on this vital human resources sector. One beautiful fact about this policy is that it has come to stay as successive regimes will find it hard to discontinue, as Rochas has shown the way and means to fund it in an educationally advanced state like Imo. It has become a template for the rejuvenation of education in Imo and making education accessible to hundreds of thousands of indigent youths of the state. On this lofty height, those who are coming to contest for power in Imo in subsequent years would be judged and voted for.
In Rochas educational revolution in Imo, I am seeing themes of a vibrant and well educated generation being scripted and Imo will be the better for this. We may not know the far reaching merits in this scheme untill we sit down and evaluate the social cost of having our young people stay off school for a certain period, we would come to appreciate the heavy investment we are having now with this free education scheme. Generations of Imolites to come will have cause to laud the wonderful vision and sheer dedication behind the present free education policy for the great upliftment it will afford a cache of Imo youths who otherwise would not have acquired education because their parents cannot afford the high school fees that was in place before this policy came in 2011. In years to come, the wonderful achievements of the present free education scheme in Imo would germinate in a robust citizenry with unrestricted access to education, which remains the single greatest pathway to social mobility.