Ogun and the pernicious passage
WHAT easily unravels any claims of Nigerian leaders to altruism as mere histrionic avowals is their petulant reaction to the mildest reminder by the citizens of the need for them to do better.
They expect the citizens to be content with the media blitz that proclaims whatever success they claim to have recorded in some areas like the building of bridges and roads.
But they are inexorably outraged at the people’s reminder that there are some areas that need governmental intervention after years of neglect.
In such circumstances, they feel that their performance has been undeservedly questioned, and they would deploy the state powers at their disposal against the citizens with such unbridled courage to teach them how to govern.
Since Nigeria’s independence, this has often been the case. From the federal to the state and council levels, the country has not been fortunate enough to have leaders who are tolerant of criticism and amenable to the fact that they are in government just for the sole reason of improving the lot of the people.
But when the Ogun State government demonstrated this intolerance of criticism recently, it triggered so much alarm if only for the reason that the citizens had thought that they were in an era in which governance was no longer an affair of a tiny class of winners of an election but a joint project of all the stakeholders and all constructive criticisms were welcome.
Smarting from a bruised ego, the Ogun State government ordered the sacking of six officials of the state Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.
Although the government later converted the dismissal of two of the officials to compulsory retirement, neither the affected workers nor the generality of Nigerians have been appeased.
What riled the state government to no end was a comprehension passage in the English Language examination conducted by the ministry for the united examination in public secondary schools for the third term of the 2014/2015 academic session.
The state government felt offended by the summary passage culled from a book that highlights a defect in the educational sector of a government .
The Ogun State government is not mentioned in the passage. But for the Ogun State government claiming that the passage refers to it, it would have passed as a general depiction of the vitiated quality of the nation’s educational system .
Clearly, there is hardly any state of the federation where public primary and secondary schools are not in urgent need of redemptive measures.
In the place of buildings, pupils now hold classes under a shelter provided by trees, teachers are not being paid and in states where they are paid their salaries are paltry.
Since this is the state of education nationwide, it is obviously high-handed on the part of the Ogun State government to assume that the sacked officials deliberately set out to undermine it.
Even if the passage actually mentions the Ogun State government, its dismissal of the officials is a blatant attack on academic freedom and the freedom of expression.
It is an insult to the intelligence of the pupils of Ogun State for the state government to infer that they did not know before they read the passage that the educational system was defective.
Worse still, it is an affront to the parents of the pupils who are aware of developments in the state and who are politically sophisticated enough to make independent decisions on the performance of the state government.
And if the state government had been so concerned about how it is criticised in books, why did it not ban the book from which the passage was taken before now? Again, if really the passage refers to the decay in the educational system in Ogun State, there ought to be a better response than what the state government has offered.
If the Ogun State government were sincere about good governance that would improve the lot of the people, it should have considered the criticism as an opportunity to see what is wrong with its educational system and correct it.
If the state government cannot brook such a little reminder of the need to do more in the educational sector, how then can it defend itself against the charge of being brutal in the suppression of any other opposing view in the state? Instead of sacking the officials, the state government should rather mete out appropriate sanctions to those who advised it to dismiss them.
For it is clear by now to the state government that the advice has really directed Nigerians’ attention to the rot in the state educational system.
The advisers and the state government should have known that any attempt to curb a people’s quest for information is an invitation for them to seek more knowledge.
This is why books that are banned often become bestsellers. From Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, John Milton’s Areopagatica, Voltaire’s Candide, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man , Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary , D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Ninety Eighty-Four and to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the point has always been demonstrated that a ban on a book stokes the interest of readers in it.
If there must be punishment at all, it should not be outright dismissal for officials who might have unwittingly erred while discharging their official responsibilities.
Why must the government dissipate its energy on sacking these officials when there are probably those civil servants who are deliberately undermining it through indolence and financial haemorrhage sired by corruption? It is not enough for the government to explain that it was not responsible for the sacking of the officials and that this was done by the state Civil Service Commission. The government should go further by declaring that it, a higher authority, is overruling the decision of the commission .
But if the state government does not avail itself of this face-saving opportunity and recall the officials, then it is incumbent on the Nigeria Union of Teachers and other relevant labour groups to intervene and stop this impunity. They should not allow the state government to get away with this.
Let them go to court and stop this executive high-handedness. Those who were sacked have the right to end their careers on a better note than an abrupt dismissal.
The same government which would go the whole judicial hog if its tenure is threatened should not be allowed to scuttle the careers of those who braved the sun or rain to vote it into office.
The state government must heed the call of the people who want the sacked officials recalled. And instead of gagging the citizens and intimidating its workers, the government should channel its energy towards rendering nugatory Ogun’s despicable status of a debtor-state. • Dr. Onomuakpokpo is a member of The Guardian Editorial Board