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ASUU strike: Before the brain drain again

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[files] ASUU President, Prof Biodun Ogunyemi. Photo: UNAAB

We all just need to freeze our fixation on other subjects of urgent national importance at this time to discuss the plight of teachers, notably university teachers at this time in Nigeria. Talking about the long strike and plight of university teachers may have become a stale subject to discuss at this time that even His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar decried the debilitating effects of unbridled banditry in the North. The Sultan of Sokoto is saying there is a time for everything. The very influential traditional and religious leader in the North disclosed last Thursday that the North has become the worst place to live in. He decried all the political talks that the North has been peaceful and that stuff. Doubtless, no one can ignore the spate of insecurity in the country at the moment. It is no longer a northern Nigeria affair. The bogeyman (insecurity) has a federal character trait at the moment. It is now like a telecom brand with a buzzword: ‘everywhere you go’: You can be abducted and even killed anywhere in Nigeria now. Armed robbers struck in my local government headquarters, Ode Irele, Ondo State last Thursday. They robbed and destroyed the strong rooms of the only bank, Union Bank in Ode Irele a day before Black Friday. That same day, a traditional ruler, Olufon of Ifon, Near Owo Area of Ondo State was killed while returning from a security meeting with the IGP in Akure, capital of Ondo State. #EndSARS protest aftermath is still with us even as the fear of Phase-2 of #EndSARS protest has become the beginning of knowledge for national security agencies. What of the remarkable transition politics in the United States where the power of strong institutions has been dealing a deadly blow to their leader who couldn’t believe that elections have consequences, after all? Even a curious conspiracy theory that CNN has been collaborating with some subversive elements under the aegis of #EndSARS to change the present regime in Nigeria is worth deconstructing this week. What of the passing away of one of the best newspaper columnists Nigeria has ever produced, Pastor Gbolabo Ogunsanwo? Here was a man (when men had chests) whose column alone was a unique selling point for the Sunday Times. He was one of our brightest and the best. These are worthy subjects to discuss this week. 

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But I would like us to spare some time to think about a critical national issue that can destroy Nigeria faster than the bandits, insurgents, and another recession. The issue is the humiliation of our teachers, notably the federal university teachers who have been on strike and have been unpaid for the past eight months. What of the numerous state university teachers who have been enduring the shame of irregular payment for years? In this country, teachers (from primary to tertiary schools) have been generally regarded by state actors as ‘the flotsam and jetsam of the society’ as journalists were once described. But let’s see why I am quite worried, although I was aware at press time that ASUU members were on the verge of calling off their strike. I am worried that state actors who have access to state funds are not concerned about the parlous state of education and the squalid condition of teachers in Nigeria because they can easily send their children abroad- to receive education quality. They are leaving Nigeria in droves again and this brain drain is becoming a brain gain for even African countries. Hold your breath, all of the children of our frugal president and symbol of integrity have enjoyed the best of education in the United Kingdom where he too has preferred to be treated at their best hospitals. Let’s study this classic that most of us have received many times across platforms. It is on ‘why collapse of education is the collapse of a nation’.

The following words posted at the entrance gate of a South African university sums up the problems we are now facing: ‘Destroying any nation does not require the use of atomic bombs or the use of long-range missiles. It only requires lowering the quality of education and allowing cheating in the examinations by the students.’ The result is that: Patients die at the hands of doctors. Buildings collapse at the hands of engineers. Money is lost at the hands of economists and accountants. Humanity dies at the hands of religious scholars. Justice is lost at the hands of judges. Because “The collapse of education is the collapse of the nation.”

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This message is not directed at President Buhari and his minister of education alone. It is directed at all the 36 state governors and 774 local government council officials in this convoluted federation. It is not about typing out the quotable quotes or words on marble on education in our various rooms and offices. It is about how our leaders can manage priorities in a way that will empower them to regard education as a weapon of country and global competitiveness. This is not a time of lamentation about the quantum of time the ASUU members have wasted on strike, the only language authorities in Nigeria understand. It is not just a time to remember that ASUU has been the most unappreciated driving force behind improved remuneration package in the public sector. It is just the right time to encourage our leaders at all levels to swallow their pride and vanity and be angry with themselves about the consequences of their violent ‘attack on education’ and indeed on the future of their country. On reflection, they should know that without good teachers, without happy teachers, there won’t be good and employable graduates who can cope with the needs of the nation at this time. Our leaders at all levels who like to decorate their bookshelves with the biography of Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean iconic leader who lifted his country from Third to First World when he led the country for 32 years, should read the book. Our leaders often appreciate orators and public speakers when they regale them with how Lee Kuan Yew turned around one city county to a significant nation. I would like to encourage our leaders to spare a weekend to study the role of quality not just in the education of Yew, but also in the life of Singaporeans. If they study the classics of the iconic Yew, they will see how education quality consciously funded as a fundamental objective of state policy, is the weapon the great leader used in developing his four million people then into global citizens, significant entrepreneurs, and great thinkers. Interpretation: Singapore’s power base is simple: intellectual capital. This can only be obtained through conscious and robust investment in education at all levels, not investment in big and expensive bridges governors struggle to commission. 
 
When Is Buhari’s Emergency On Education?
MEANWHILE, I hope history will be fair to President Muhammadu Buhari who had in 2017 planned to declare an emergency on education with a view to paying attention to the sector meaningfully. Our leader is a great procrastinator! It will be recalled that on November 13, 2017, the Buhari administration organised a remarkable Retreat on education tagged “Federal Executive Council Retreat on Education”, which was widely reported in this column as “Lesson Notes on Buhari’s Retreat on Education” (November 19, 2017). As I had reported then, the well-organised event reinforced faith in the capacity of the administration to get to the roots of lack of progress in all spheres and indeed mediocrity in all our ways.

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In fact, the Education Minister, Malam Adamu Adamu in a well-delivered speech at the Retreat suggested that the president should declare a state of emergency on education at the end of the Retreat attended by the President and the Vice President. But in the end, among other action points, it was hinted that the declaration of emergency would be made in April 2018. Sadly, nothing till the present. I was fortunate to be at the Retreat at the State House Banquet Hall in Abuja when the president’s unwritten concluding remarks, which artfully endorsed Governor Nasir el-Rufai’s noisy policy on mediocre teachers in Kaduna state almost took the steam out of the significance of the one-day Retreat.

It was an unusual event as even the chief host, the Education Minister remained quiet in the presentation processes. The resource persons, notably professors Peter Okebukola, former LASU Vice-Chancellor and former Executive Secretary NUC and Emeritus Professor Michael Omolewa, former Nigeria’s envoy at the UNESCO who are quite significant in education management, were the visible experts throughout the event.

Remarkably, the resilient spirit of “implementation, implementation, and implementation” as Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, later reiterated was the silent bogeyman there. Incidentally, in one of his presentations on the strategic plan, Professor Okebukola called for, “generous political will” to implement the ministerial strategic plan. It hasn’t been implemented since 2017.  

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The president’s keynote was artfully used to kill two birds with a stone: One, he made his point remarkable to the extent that he identified what to do to invest in education. President Buhari hinted at a covenant with the people when he said: “…The significance of this summit is obvious. We cannot progress beyond the level and standard of our education. Today, it is those who acquire the most qualitative education, equipped with requisite skills and training and empowered with practical know-how that is leading the rest. We cannot afford to continue lagging behind. Education is our launch-pad to a more successful, more productive, and more prosperous future. This administration is committed to revitalising our education system and making it more responsive and globally competitive.”

Before it is too late, our leaders at this time should note that a child’s right to education cannot be safeguarded in conflict zones without education itself being protected. Education can be a life-saver. Out-of-school children are easy targets of abuse, exploitation, and recruitment by armed forces and militant groups. Schools should provide a safe space where children can be protected from threats and crises. It is also a critical step to breaking the cycle of crisis and reducing the likelihood of future conflicts. We can’t achieve greatness, therefore, if we continue to treat teachers at all levels as worthless workers who should be the last to be paid and equipped in any pecking order. Therefore, there should be a national dialogue on how to treat teachers beyond extending their service years! We need to borrow a leaf from the Nordic countries in Northern Europe, notably Finland where teaching is the best-paid job – for national development.

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