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Echoes of K.O. Mbadiwe

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Senate President Ahmad Lawan has raised an issue that appears to have escaped us as we labour to explain to ourselves why our country has sunk to a level of insecurity that begs to be believed in a modern nation. He fingered our poor standard of education, for which read, increasing illiteracy in the African nation with the highest number of universities, as a contributing factor to the worsening insecurity in the land. He told the matriculating students of the National Institute for Legislative Studies, University of Benin, September 6, that “insecurity, rising criminality, anti-social behaviour and a high number of unemployable youths” were some of the consequences of the problems our educational system had been contending with for as long as anyone can remember.

He said: “You are well aware of some of the challenges and deficits in this sector, including limited funding, lack of infrastructure and teaching aids, poorly-trained personnel and low level of commitment among others. These have adversely affected the productivity and output of our schools and centres of learning.” Inbreeding half-educated young people, we breed potential criminals because they are both ready and potential recruits for professional criminals.

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Lawan touched on something which has more than anything else held our national development hostage: our badly broken educational system and its myriads of problems that impose on us the irony of an African nation with the highest number of public and private universities and yet the least educated young people able to bake their own bread. Pretend as we may, none of us can shake off the fact of our collective contributions, actively or otherwise, that systematically turned our educational system into what it is today: a sorry victim of policies that took our country up only to sink it into the murk of outright ambivalence. Professor Charles Soludo, former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, once said that 80 per cent of our graduates were unemployable. I see no evidence that this has changed despite federal and private universities planted in every corner of the country.

Our institutions are not producing educated young people able to put their training to good use. In the circumstances, it can do no more than turning them into dependent young people, forced to pound the streets in search of government jobs frozen in the arctic winter of an economy with narrowed opportunities. We have progressively replaced education with paper qualifications. Our young people know that this is what matters and they do everything, including offering sexual favours to their unscrupulous teachers to obtain paper qualifications that are entirely false to the content of their brains and their acquired knowledge.

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The problem is not that anyone is unaware of the problems of our education. The problem is that no one cares strongly enough to want to fix the system and set it on a clear path as the only agent for social, economic, industrial and political development. At his inauguration as president on May 29, 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said that “for the longer term we have to improve the standards of our education.” Two years later at a retreat organised by the federal ministry of education, he rightly said that “to get it right, we must get our education right.”

His record so far in this sector bears no witness to getting our education right. The president has presented no coherent plan on what should be done to get it right. He has done nothing dramatic to reposition our educational system. The education share in the annual federal budget remains sorrowfully poor. With so little by way of funding, we expect to truck with other African countries in terms of social and economic development. It is a shame that this country lags far behind other African countries in responding to the UNESCO recommendation that they commit 28 per cent of their annual budgets to education.

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Under Buhari’s watch, it is still a paltry four or six per cent of the annual budget. I expected him to dramatically half-empty the streets of the 14 million children out of school. He has not. They are still there on the streets with begging bowls; their numbers are ballooning with the current insecurity in primary and secondary schools in the northwest and the reign of Boko Haram insurgents in the northeast.

The current emphasis on higher education is at the expense of strengthening the foundation of our education. The primary school constitutes that foundation. It has collapsed in many of the states with unpaid and hungry teachers teaching children in the open and under the shades of trees. And this, in Nigeria in the 21st century? Makes you want to weep.

To be fair, what has dramatically changed under Buhari is his questionable wisdom in establishing universities of doubtful socio-economic value and relevance to our national development: army university, air force university and transportation university. This is not an improvement “in our standard of education;” it is the unconscionable burdening of an over-burdened system crumbling under the weight of its neglect by the Nigerian state. I fear that the president would leave the system much worse than he found it. His gleaming new universities would change nothing. Our young people would go in there and return home with untrained minds and brains that do not equip or position them for the rigours of life and leadership in politics, the economy and the professions as the proverbial leaders of tomorrow.

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In our struggle for independence from British colonial rule, the only man who, to my mind, offered an original logical reason why the British must leave, was the inimitable K.O. Mbadiwe. He said that the colonial authorities were no longer welcome in our country because they imposed on us what he called “puny education.” Whatever might have been the fault of the puny education, it still produced great Nigerian scholars courted by higher institutions elsewhere. It attracted great scholars from various parts of the world who came to help build strong and respectable institutions of higher learning in our country.

Well, it has been 61 years since the British respected our wish to be left alone to our devices. Still, we have infused no new creative thoughts into our education to serve our needs as a modern nation; except of course the foolhardiness that we can stand natural law on its head and build an educational edifice on the rickety foundation made of planks that the worms have since eaten.

The fault, obviously, was not in the puny education. It was in puny men, puny thinking and the puny attitude towards making Nigeria great. The system stinks, forcing the important men and women to hold their noises. What you do not smell, does not smell. Simple logic.

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None of us can pretend not to know that our educational system has been put through wrenching difficulties over the years under our khaki-clad politicians who saw the many dedicated university teachers as enemies rather than partners in the tough task of building a new nation we could be proud of. Frequent strikes by university teachers in pursuit of their basic benefits subjected the system to injuries from which it has still not recovered. We are paying a stiff price for what we have done to our education by producing recruits for criminal elements making life hell for the rulers and the ruled alike.

I had hoped that Buhari needed no one to convince him that if he did not clean up the rot in the system, it would be difficult for the country to make the desired leap as a modern nation. I had hoped he would convene a national summit on education at which the sons and the daughters of the soil would proffer informed views on how best to clean up the system, rescue it from its puniness, stop our higher institutions from being certificate mills and re-tailor the system to serve our social and economic developmental needs; make our young people truly worthy of their degree certificates and make the world once more respect our institutions of higher learning as true citadels for the development of the mind, the brains and the body of our young people.

In his memo to Buhari dated September 22, 2016, Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna State wrote: “In the days when we were growing up, public schools were attended by the children both of the high and low. Today, the exact opposite is the situation. The danger of this current state of affairs is that we are inadvertently creating successive generations of poorer, barely educated, unskilled, hopeless and angry children of the poor, side by side with increasingly richer, privately educated, skilled and optimistic children of the privileged. It is a demographic and social time bomb waiting to explode as the poor and hopeless youths are easy recruits of insurgents, violent politicians and criminals. Only you, Mr President will appreciate this danger and do something about it with the urgency it deserves.”
I need say no more.

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