The Undesirable Divide
I contemplated writing this article after paying a visit last Wednesday to Sakuwa, a village in Zaki Local Government Area of Bauchi State. What I saw there is the subject matter of our discourse today.
It all started with a trip to Government College Azare, one of the schools under the Special Schools project initiated by the Muazu administration. (I volunteered to head the Taskforce under the Governor’s office that is charged with setting up the schools) I have not visited the school since I closed it down last year after finding that the admission regulations that we outlined were violated. After going back to the drawing board and feeding the school with the qualified candidates, I decided to visit it to brief members of staff with our provisions on teaching and running of the institution generally.
A secondary objective was to visit Sakuwa village to see whether I can source students eligible for admission into GC Azare. Pupils from the village, as our team of examiners told me, have missed the selection test. I was bent on closing admissions that Wednesday and concentrating henceforth on teaching in the schools. But I know I will be left with the feeling of guilt if Sakuwa is not examined. There could be a qualified child waiting for a chance; his father may be anxious and interested in his education; and there I was, carrying the golden opportunity they needed. The state government has set up the three schools specifically for such students and parents. It has rehabilitated their infrastructure and provided all facilities required by teachers and students. Everything there is free – books, meals, uniforms, soap, transport money, etc. All that is required is for the indigene of the state to prove his worth academically and the sky becomes his limit.
While at a lunch, I inquired about Sakuwa to see if I can squeeze time to carry out the selection. I was told it was about 40 – 50 km away. I felt I could make it. We left Azare with a friend who I picked in the town, heading toward Zaki in a hurry. The teachers back at GC Azare might disperse. But I did not allow that to bother me. The PTF road before me was already seducing me to drive faster, just as did the CIVIC I was riding. I like being seduced and at 160km/hr (!), it took only few minutes to reach my destination.
We drove into the school that was full of trees and fairly good buildings. As we reached the two blocks directly facing the entrance, we were greeted by the emptiness of the premises. We looked around for signs of life. Only a block showed some. There were two teachers – a youth corper and one other – in two classes conducting lessons for the children.
The youth corper came out and greeted us. The principal was away to Bauchi. While I could understand the enthusiasm of the corper, I was surprised at the dedication of the other teacher. He could have as well been absent. Perhaps he is the only teacher apart from the Principal. From my experience, I have learnt not to ask questions. I was not there on inspection. I was only there to see if there is a child who deserves to benefit from this exceptional opportunity.
So without asking much questions, I stepped into the first class. It was a JSS 1 class, with about twenty-five children of relatively uniform age. The lesson was English. I went round asking each child to read whatever word or sentence I pointed at in his exercise book. Clearly, majority of the children did not understand what they were writing. Neither could they read it. I focussed on two of them that made a good attempt. I told one of them, Hasan Abbas, “Za ka tafi GC Azare, ka ci gaba da makaranta. Kar ka ki …”
I thanked the teacher and proceeded to the other class. It was JSS 3, according to the students. The youth corper was teaching them Integrated Science. I greeted them and asked whether any of them could make three sentences with the word “book”. The class was quiet. Those that attempted formed sentences that are ridiculous to print. Then I asked who takes the first position in the class. They pointed at a shy boy at a corner. I approached him and requested that he should make an attempt. He managed to say, “You are a book.” I cheered him saying, “Correct”. Another boy was anxious to answer. I gave him the chance. He made two good sentences, saying, “This is a book” and “The book is on the table.”
I looked at the remaining pupils. None could say anything meaningful. I felt terribly bad. I took a deep sigh, shook my head and could not resist saying, “An ci amana. Allah ya isa (Trust has not been kept. God is sufficient for us).” I was referring to past administrations that looted the resources of the state and allowed this sector to deteriorate so much. They have left us with a burden. What can you achieve with a system of education whose ninth grade child cannot make a sentence with the word “book”? There were students, few though, but ready to learn. There were buildings to house them and even some two teachers to teach. But the foundation was simply not there. They are completely off the track and they may never achieve their goal.
I told the two students, Usman Hadi and Haruna Adamu, that they would leave with me to Azare. I advised them that they should not bother into which class I place them. I knew they would not be in JSS 3. They will definitely attend a remedial JSS 1 class that they will share with students from other educationally disadvantaged local governments in the state. There they will undergo an intensive course in English and Mathematics only, a revision of whatever they have missed at the primary level. The following year they will proceed to JSS 2. By the time they go to JSS 3 reasonably conversant with the language necessary for the understanding of other subjects. They agreed.
While still in the class, I fought hard to withhold my tears. I pitied the remaining students. We are leaving them behind in this dry place with a corper teaching them a subject beyond their comprehension. Their fate and that of Usman and Haruna have separated almost forever. This is cruel.
We drove out of the school into the village to intimate their parents about the development. To my surprise, there were many of school age children in the village. I could not remember seeing a single girl in the school. In the village however, there were many. It appears that their parents have realized that the education sector is already made impotent. I agree with them.
I was however surprised at the warm reception I got from the parents. They were happy and appreciative of the concern and pain taken to sort out their children. They said it was God’s design. The grandfather of Usman Hadi, a scholarly looking septuagenarian, showered me with blessings as I drove away with his child, heading back to Azare.
Throughout the return journey, with my eyes focussed on the road, my mind remained fixed with the children in the school at Sakuwa. I wished that Hasan, Usman and Haruna had shared the opportunity of good education and the prospect for a better future together with their mates, there in Sakuwa, not in Azare. I wished all schools were “special,” getting the attention they deserve.
It is not my intention to blame anyone. However, my right to ask questions, as a citizen, must not be denied. How did things deteriorated to so bad a level in Northern Nigeria? Would it have been so, had previous governments paid the necessary attention to the sector? When we say government, whom do we actually mean? It involves, in my opinion, everybody in the sector: the governors and commissioners of education in the various states in the past 16 years; the officials in the Ministries of Education and their Zonal Education offices; the principals and their teachers; before any mention is made of parents and their children.
In fact parents and students are mentioned only as a scapegoat. For example, I have already concluded that the widespread belief that parents in Katagum Zone are not interested in sending their wards to school is a misconception, if not a lie. This lie is tall enough to reach the moon. If it were so, I could not have read the interest and enthusiasm in Usman’s grandfather. I would not have earned his blessings. The bitter fact is that officials there have received little attention. They remain so, given the fact that they live very far away from the centre at Bauchi, which is incapable of supervising them due to logistics and other reasons.
Successive governments in the North have been paying a lip service to education. Officials of such governments have forgotten that it was education that saved them from the harsh conditions of living in rural areas. It urbanized them. But instead of becoming refined, they have turned the sector into a goldmine. They looted its resources. Vouchers for non-existent jobs were paid; books meant for children were sold to booksellers; ghost teachers filled the payroll; and the money meant for direct feeding was shared between officials. Gradually, schools that were envied by other states started to become ghost sites with dwindling enrolment. Sometimes, principals connive to sell out equipment and fittings including doors, windows and even roofs of their schools. At the end they got away with it because we are living in a society where the leadership does not believe in punishment. Those in the sector know what I am talking about. Where is our conscience?
I would not like to generalize. I know there are many education officials constrained in performing their duties by bad governance of their superiors and lack of resources. But we must be bold enough to point out that many have over the years turned into bad eggs. They aided every military administrator since 1985 that came on a looting jamboree. They disregarded rules and procedures meant to ensure standards of schools. Many ministry officials, principals and school staff gave admissions recklessly, and they continue to do so, all year round, until when it became impossible for government to maintain classroom size or feed boarding students adequately. Parents avoided sending their children to boarding schools in distant areas. As a result, there are still day schools with a population of between 4,000 and 7,000. A classroom size of 250 is not uncommon!
The situation requires a revolution. It is dangerous to allow it to continue. Unless we do something urgently, those among us that will live for the next thirty years will be faced with serious social crisis that will be beyond their control. This injustice will not last long. If it does, the end will be disastrous.
The situation is very saddening for the observer, harsh for students and frustrating to parents. To put things back on the right track, governments in the North must be willing to take whatever measures are necessary. They must go the whole hog. The measures will definitely be harsher than the situation itself. They will involve a serious reorientation of education administrators and expending a huge sum on education, again. However, before it does that, if there is anything like a state of educational emergency, it needs to be declared now. The Houses of Assembly are willing to support the executives in each state in passing any bill that will facilitate the revival of education.
So let the government map out strategies that will ensure that the quality control measures earlier practiced, and possibly new ones, if desirable are adhered to. This is not possible until the executive arm empowers the civil servants saddled with the implementation of these policies. I have realized that most time their hands are tied by orders from above. They operate under conditions of fear, so much so that they cannot punish their subordinates. All facilities they need should also be provided.
With this in place, the chance is given for those of them willing to work for the revitalization of the system to do so. Attention will then turn on the few bad eggs that will not be difficult to fish out. Let the punishment for their corruption and negligence of duty be made severe. Let everybody, no matter his grade level, sit up and do what is assigned to him. If he is reluctant, he should be retired immediately and made to give the chance to others. There are many young ones bubbling with the energy required for a change.
Let teachers be given all the encouragement they need to teach our children. With good wages and welfare, most of them will be willing to serve diligently. They need to be supervised and their schools inspected regularly. Already many of them are performing commendably even under the present constraints. Once such measures are met and any of them is found wanting, he should also be made to relinquish his job outrightly. From my brief contact with them, I believe that majority of the teachers like their job.
Let government embark on massive purchase of school materials, improve on feeding and rehabilitate structures at minimum cost. At the end of it, measures must be taken to ensure the safety of the items purchased and of the funds released. Otherwise they will go down the same drain, as did those before them.
Do we have any hope? Aaah, no … and … yes! We are in a political era. Politicians are often associated with complacency and the desire not to hurt anyone. They would rather concentrate on projects that will earn them praise quickly without risking blame from anybody, even for a day. Here, Governor Muazu has pledged to make a difference. As the first half of his first term (we pray for a second one) come to an end, the question is would he be strong enough to risk being a politician with a difference? People in the state are grateful for the special schools gesture. Children admitted in them are happy, very happy in fact. But it should only be the beginning. There are 78 (!) other schools to be attended to. Would His Excellency, for the sake of providence and for the sake of God, extend the opportunity for better education to other children by coming out with a policy that will sanitize the remaining schools? We know, in doing so, his opponents that would like to see the sector, important as it is, remain idle would become frustrated. He will also definitely collide with the beneficiaries of the present state of decay. Would he bulldoze his way on, as is his habit usually, even if the two camps boast of threatening his re-election?
If the answer is in the affirmative, I will look forward to the day I will return to Sakuwa and meet the mates of Hasan, Usman and Haruna busy learning in a decent school environment. Their sisters, together with them, will also be there, eager to acquire the true weapon of liberation.
If the answer is negative, last Wednesday will forever remain as a final divide between the fate of the selected three and that of their mates whom they left behind. The three will mount the ladder of becoming elite, enjoying all the benefits of civilization. The rest will sink in poverty disease, ignorance and disappointment. It is the undesirable divide that can be avoided, right now.