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Who the cap fits as Nigeria’s best education minister in 20 years


[FILE PHOTO] Dr Oby Ezekwesili

On May 29, the country celebrated 20 years of uninterrupted democracy. The journey has been bumpy, and many used the last celebration for stocktaking. UJUNWA ATUEYI sought the views of stakeholders on the individual that could fit the bill as the country’s best education minister beginning from 1999.

The progress of the nation’s educational sector cannot be measured without a look at the contributions of individuals that played major roles in its development. Since 1999, Nigeria has had over 20 ministers and ministers of states in the education ministry.

These ministers, differently, brought reforms, whether perfunctory or drastic, at the ministry, which is noted for ineptitude, corruption and inefficiency. However, negative politics seems to have prevented some of these reforms from yielding the desired results.

Some of these ministers bequeathed memorable legacies, while others were merely tools in the hands of those who appointed them. They were ‘political jobbers’, whose appointments were aided by considerations such as ethnicity, religion and political balancing rather than competence and credibility.


Many Nigerians are disappointed that the sector is still struggling despite several years of democratic practice. Appointment of those in the leadership of the ministry has been based on political patronage and affiliations.

A struggling sector
Hitherto, the country’s educational sector has been plagued by policy flip-flops, under-funding, poor infrastructure, kidnappings and abductions, untrained personnel, mass failure, examination malpractices, unqualified teachers, lack of modern equipment, inconsistency in academic calendar, industrial disputes, loss of values, fraudulent conducts across all strata and disharmony among workers up to the governing council level.

The problems also include a lack of clear-cut policies, political will, corruption, nepotism, and absence of continuity of programmes and initiatives by successors.It was alleged that some of the ministers who were supposed to introduce initiatives that would advance the sector, were members of the kitchen cabinet of the then president and were on a mission to pull down policies and initiatives of their predecessors.

But stakeholders were quick to affirm that the likes of Oby Ezekwesili, Tunde Adeniran, Babalola Borishade, Chinwe Obaji, Ruqqayat Rufai’ and Adamu Adamu put up a good show in an attempt to tackle the hydra-headed problems at the ministry, while a few others were inexperienced.

The Guardian’s investigation, however, revealed that Prof. Tunde Adeniran, the first civilian minister of education, stands out for his active role in the execution of Universal Basic Education (UBE) scheme and the establishment of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN); while Prof. Babalola Borishade was famous for the ban on satellite campuses and promotion of the core values of NOUN.

Mrs. Chinwe Obaji was notable for authorising the Post Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) and Dr. Oby Ezekwesili demonstrated good political will in changing the modus operandi of the ministry. Mr. Abba Ruma and Igwe Nwachukwu were equally famous for dismantling the structures of their predecessor, Ezekwesili.

While Dr Sam Egwu was remarkable for the famous education roadmap; Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau was described as an “injury time” minister owing to the circumstances surrounding his appointment and the short time he spent in office, before the emergence of Mallam Adamu Adamu.

Stakeholders’ views
On the ministers that made the most impactful impression during their time in the last 20 years, the Emeritus President and Vice Chancellor, Babcock University, Prof. Kayode Makinde, said apart from Prof. Tunde Adeniran, who midwifed private universities and brought in competition into an otherwise low energy and moribund sector, none seemed to have had a clear vision or a set goal and the roadmap before becoming minister.

Judging by their performances, Makinde noted, “I can’t really identify any who shook the system positively and left a reverberating impact. The lackluster performance could also have been due to the unending interruptions in tenure. (I mean 10 ministers in 16 years before Adamu Adamu meant each averaged one year seven months on seat.) Then apart from the doubtful pedigree or competence of the minister, the ineffectiveness of tenures was even more impacted by its brevity and low funding priority in the national political chess games.” 

Notwithstanding, Makinde said the issue still comes down to competence, as none of the ministers ever resigned or publicly complained of budgetary inadequacy. “They all commended Mr. President for his efforts and the privilege to serve.”Meanwhile, Ezekwesili, he observed, “could possibly have impacted more if she had a listening ear to do both positive learning (what and how to do) and negative learning (what and how not to do) from experienced system operators rather than believing she had all the solutions.

“But then, before she could even begin to implement those solutions to demonstrate greater effect than those of practitioners, she was gone.  Lack of continuity in government business is particularly deadly for education. There was also a period of time when a Niger Delta local government chairman became a minister of state and acting minister of education for a period of time. He overshadowed the substantive by spending more time, energy and resources running errands for the first lady, raising a violent army of youths and mapping out strategies for a gubernatorial campaign in his state.  Education paid the bill in kind.”


Speaking on the appointment of education ministers in the country, so far, the professor of political science, administration & religion, said allowing political considerations in the appointments of ministers and other leaders would not bring in quality in the sector.

“Why has a lawyer not been appointed to manage health or an engineer as attorney general to manage justice, or even a doctor to manage defence?” he asked. “Appointing a good journalist to manage education is one of the worst decisions of the administration, when there is even no guarantee that university professors have not done any better.  What you need is a knowledgeable manager of educational human and material resources to get results in these challenging climes.”

Hinting that the system is currently running on bureaucracy, rather than productive creativity and vision, Makinde advised that going forward, competence, character and courage, should be the watchwords in the appointment of ministers. “Candidates for the minister of education position should be selected and interviewed based on their industry vision and track record. You don’t need an army to destroy a nation. Just destroy the education and the future of society and all other sectors are compromised for good.”

Former Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission (NUC), Prof. Peter Okebukola, started by classifying the education sector into four sub-sectors, which are basic, post-basic, higher and adult and non-formal education. Each sub-sector, he noted, has at least seven segments, including policy, access, quality, relevance, funding, efficiency and effectiveness.Putting the above into considerations, he stated that all the ministers stamped impressive imprimatur on one segment or the other of the sector.

“What we found in our in-depth study of the ministers from 1999 to date is that each minister endeavoured to take a bite at the segment that is best aligned with his/her interest, national priority and resources available at the time of service, and personal aspiration for the delivery of education in the country. The implication is that there are many variables in the equation to permit a fair comparison and ranking of the ministers.

“For instance, Tunde Adeniran made impressive outing in basic education with the take-off of the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme, while Babalola Borishade was clearly outstanding in the higher education sub-sector especially in the areas of access and quality in university education. Fabian Osuji was top-class in policy issues and made indelible footprints in higher education.

“Chinwe Obaji will forever be remembered for straddling basic and higher education in her achievements especially the introduction of the school feeding programme at the basic education level and relentless pursuit of quality especially of physical resources and admission of fresh students in the nation’s university system. Oby Ezekwesili brought to bear a new dynamism in basic and higher education delivery, triggering a wave of reforms in both sub-sectors.”

He continued: “Sayadi Abba Ruma is noted for improvements in basic education while Igwe Aja Nwachukwu turned attention to higher education. Sam Egwu is noted for gains in policy formulation and giant strides in basic and higher education. Ruqqayat Rufai was clearly exceptional in her contributions to basic, post-basic and higher education and she is noted for enhanced access to quality university education.

“Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau will be remembered for his giant strides in basic education, adult and non-formal education and welfare of teachers. Adamu Adamu was multi-subsectoral in the gains he led the education sector to make, blazing the trail in basic, post-basic, higher and adult and non-formal education. Sitting atop the pack of his achievements is significant improvement in access and quality of high education, especially university education.”

On who gave the sector a Midas touch, he said: “They all had their Midas touches in the sub-sector or segment they chose to intervene. While it is impossible to predict whether a minister would have done better or worse if given more time on the seat because of vagaries in human nature and since power can corrupt, it is possible to name Borishade, Obaji, Ezekwesili, Rufa’i and Adamu as having springs in their steps that if allowed to stay longer as ministers, they would have gained tremendous momentum to take education to greater heights.”

Acknowledging that Nigeria has been blessed with good ministers of education over the last 20 years, the Distinguished Professor of Science and Computer Education, Lagos State University (LASU), said the brevity of their tenures, the poor financial resourcing of the sector and lack of a systematic approach to addressing the challenges in the sector stunted the progress that would have been recorded.

For the President, Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof. Biodun Ogunyemi, some of the ministers did their best for education within the circumstances of the broader social, economic and political environment in which they operated.
“It was under Prof. Fabian Osuji that the Universal Basic Education (UBEC) law, 2004, came into existence. The law introduced the nine-year free and compulsory primary and junior secondary education in the country. The law says the Federal Government should give two per cent from the federation account while each state government is also to release its matching grant of two per cent in order to access the UBEC fund for financing basic education. That was a landmark development in the education sector,” he said.

He said but for lack of cooperation on the part of the state governors who failed to contribute their counterpart funding as at when due, Nigerian public primary and secondary schools would have been significantly transformed. So, implementation issues he added largely hamstrung the UBE programme.

Ogunyemi explained that Prof. Ruqqayat Rufai equally tried in the area of policy engagements. “She produced the 2013 National Policy on Education (NPE) after the last review in 2004. She also demonstrated a lot of passion in resolving the crisis in the sector. For instance, it was during her time that the Federal Government collaborated with ASUU to undertake the Needs Assessment of Public Universities exercise in 2012.


“The report of the exercise extensively documented the scandalous level of rot in Nigeria’s Federal and State Universities, and what should be done to fix the Nigerian University System (NUS). It was the same report that provided the basis for arriving at the minimum of N1.6 trillion Revitalization Fund for Nigeria’s Public Universities as agreed in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between FGN and ASUU in 2013.”

He continued: “In the MoU, the government agreed to release N1.6 trillion over a period of six years, starting from 2013. By this year (2019), Nigeria’s public universities should have been significantly transformed if government had kept faith with the MoU. But, the same way the state governments defaulted, the Federal Government since 2014, equally disappointed Nigerians in this critical area.”

Describing Mallam Adamu Adamu as the only man that demonstrated a lot of passion for the sector, Ogunyemi remarked: “Of all the ministers since the restoration of civilian rule, he appears to ASUU as the most passionate, approachable and committed to the cause of transforming the education sector. He made frantic efforts to improve on the policies and procedures he inherited, but it appears that he met with formidable obstacles. For instance, at an inter-ministerial retreat in November 2017, he openly declared that it was only Nigeria among the D8 countries that was allocating less than 20 per cent of its annual budget to education and therefore called for an immediate remediation.

“He equally followed this up with a stakeholders’ workshop on a sustainable funding of education in Nigeria in November, 2018. Contrary to the canvassed view that tuition fees be introduced in public universities, even by some of his predecessors, Adamu saw reason with ASUU that doing so would take access to university education beyond the reach of the majority of Nigerian children and youths whose parents cannot afford two square meals a day.”

To this end, the ASUU boss concluded: “In ASUU, the most important indicator of performance in office as a minister is how effective your policies and programmes could alleviate the suffering of the mass of the Nigerian people, and not compound it. To all intents and purposes, Adamu largely satisfies this criterion.”

Insisting that Adamu is that one individual that gave the sector a Midas touch, Ogunyemi explained: “For instance, the Federal Government recently deducted the outstanding counterpart funds for UBE from state shares of the Paris Club refunds so that accumulated UBEC allocations to states, running into four to five years for some States, could be released to the respective State Universal Basic Education Boards (SUBEBs). If a policy like this could be sustained, backed with effective monitoring for transparency and accountability at the state level, Nigerian public primary and secondary schools would in no time witness a new lease of life. We wished that Mallam Adamu would stay back to push through some of the policies he recently proposed to Mr. President especially in the area of sustainable funding of education.”

On the appointment of ministers, the ASUU boss said the process should be informed by a clear-cut principle of what additional value an individual could bring into the ministry based on his or her expertise and track record, not political connection.

“Most Nigerians still talk of the likes of Prof. Babs Fafunwa and Olikoye Ransome-Kuti many years after leaving as ministers of education and health respectively. It’s because they left their feet in the sands of time. By contrast, we once had a minister of education in the recent past who was pushing for the sale of Unity Schools or Federal Government Colleges as well as privatisation of public universities.

“We should pray never to have such a personality at the head of the education ministry, because it means that our education sector would be handed over to apologists of World Bank and IMF. These Bretton Woods institutions do not encourage the Nigerian government to invest in life-enhancing sectors like education and health. The imperialist agencies and their local collaborators insist on envelope budgeting which is based on predetermined priority areas as decided by them and not what Nigerians need to improve their quality of life.”

He continued: “The imperialists are more interested in how the Nigerian government would continue to service dubious loans, for which close to a quarter of each year is allocated, and remain in the bottomless pit of the debt trap. This is why any minister of education with an imperialist mindset can never have it easy with Nigerian intellectuals. For us, like Nelson Mandela said, education is the strongest weapon for liberation. It is only when quality education is made affordable to the generality of Nigerians that the country can begin to meaningfully address its multifarious and multidimensional problems of poverty, ignorance, misery, diseases, insurgency and nation building.

“For us, the struggle for the control of education is an ideological one between those who think that more of it for the larger number of Nigerians would threaten their access to power and resources in this country and those of us who believe in the liberating potency of democratised and qualitative education. ASUU, as a union of intellectuals, had it rough with those who tried to surrender Nigerian education to the imperialist agents in the past. Our members will not shy away from returning to the trenches any time we see retrogressive elements rearing their ugly heads in the education sector as ministers, technocrats or bureaucrats.”

Moving forward, Ogunyemi advised government at the federal, state and council levels to rethink Nigerian education as a public good and put a competent driver at the seat in the Federal Ministry of Education. He recalled that section 18, chapter two, of Nigeria’s Constitution (1999, as amended) provides for free education from the primary school level up to the university, adding that the only problem in the provision is the caveat – as and when practicable.

“This has made the citizens’ rights to education, like other rights in that chapter of Constitution, non-justiceable. The question is: Will there ever be a Nigerian government that will, of its own volition, admit that it’s now ‘practicable’ to declare free education at all levels? ASUU believes this caveat is indeed retrogressive and a deliberate attempt by the ruling class to make the realisation of a liberating education impossible in Nigeria.


“Our candid advice for the next minister of education is to progressively work for the legal validation of the right to education. He or she must also honour existing agreements and memoranda government signed with staff unions, particularly ASUU, in order to promote industrial harmony and stability in the education sector.”

A former Vice Chancellor of Bells University of Technology, Ogun State, Prof. Isaac Adeyemi, said though it was difficult to compare and contrast the achievements of the ministers over a period of 20 years without key performance indicators, “one of the ministers that stands out, in my opinion, is Oby Ezekwesili . Although, she spent a couple of months she managed to initiate economic policies that would drive the system.   This could be based on her background and global exposure.”

He also highlighted the need for public officers such as ministers to present formally detailed accounts of their stewardship.Now that President Muhammadu Buhari has begun his second term in office, it is the hope of the stakeholders in the educational sector that their ideas will serve as a guide in the next appointments in his All Progressives Congress (APC)-led government.


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