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The Taiwan formula

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Minister of Education, Malam Adamu Adamu

In the mid-eighties, I took an avid interest in the so-called North –South dialogue when the world, a little sensible at the time, was pursuing a new international economic order that would be more favourable economically to the poor countries.

The idea of the North- South dialogue was to seek ways for the less developed nations to benefit from the wealth of mother earth. The dialogue was organised by the Willy Brandt Commission set up the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD. The objective was to promote trade between the rich and the poor countries instead of the poor perpetually going to the rich with begging bowls for aids.

I had two takes-away that have remained indelible on my mind. First I saw it as the dialogue of the deaf. The poor were visibly incapacitated, lacking in self- confidence and in the skills for negotiation. Two, I considered the proposed emphasis on trade as a more dignified way out of our begging syndrome but again I saw it as  a trade between two unequal partners. They bought raw materials from the less developed countries at a price they dictated to the seller. In return, they shipped the manufactured products to Africa and sold them to the poor also at their own price.

As I pointed out in one of my columns, Newswatch (May 5, 1986), the term aid had become anathema because it had the tendency to dehumanise and almost permanently pauperise the receiver nations. Instead of the term aid, the developing countries preferred what Willy Brandt called the mutuality of interests. Translated in our local parlance: you rob my back and I rob your back.

All of that scheming was with the fanciful hope –  nay  a forlorn hope from top down  – that the South, the bastion of the poor countries, would  gradually catch up with the rich, or at best narrow the gap. That was the kind of hope given by Tantalus, a will-o-de wisp, which was nothing but a mirage. The reality was that the South was running as fast as it could just to stand in one place. If it must narrow the gap – as for catch-up, perish the thoughts – the south must run much faster, think faster and think more creatively.

The local relevance of the North-South dialogue which has long become defunct is the fanciful attempt or hope that one day soon, the North of Nigeria would catch up with the South of Nigeria in terms of Western education. In pursuit if this illusion, there was even some wild speculation that the egg-heads in the North were working on a formula to slow down the economic and educational advancement of the south. Whoever believed in the dummy was capable of believing anything.

As it happened in North South Dialogue, if the North of Nigeria must narrow the gap – forget about catch up, it must wake up from its slumber and shake off its current lethargy. Once upon a time, it even had the desired competitive spirit. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the visionary premier of Western region established the University of Ife, giving the West an added advantage, with the University College Ibadan having been transformed into an indigenous Nigeria’s premier university, Awo’s equally visionary counterpart in the North, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, premier of Northern Region and Sardauna of Sokoto, established the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in October 1962.

In the 60s Nigeria boasted of five universities and the North was proudly holding its own. Historically, the country has made great advancement in education. The North, it must be said, was at a huge disadvantage initially. At independence in 1960, the North could boast of only 2000 elementary schools with enrolment figure of 200,000 pupils while the South had 9000 elementary schools with an enrolment figure of 1.2 million pupils.

The figure for Western Region spiralled when Awolowo introduced free and compulsory primary education. For sure, North never lacked brilliant pupils and when students from that region made their grand entry into the universities in the south, special the U I, Ibadan, they were not unnoticed academically, though they were few in number. That was when the sing-song on the campus was “the malams have arrived.”

Nigeria has grown beyond its six universities of the 70s when some of us made our first acquaintance with the Ivory Tower. The country can now boast of at least 179 universities and still counting. Official records show that the private universities have reached the record number of 79. But while the South West alone has 36 private universities, the entire North has only 15. This tells very much about the position of the North as far as educational advancement is concerned.

If you add the fact that out of about 10 million out-of-school children in the country, nearly 70 per cent of the number comes from the North, you’d appreciate that these galling statistics are something for our leaders to worry about. Out-of-school children is a world-wide phenomenon.  Mr Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, says education is a human right. And like other human rights, it cannot be taken for granted. He acknowledged recently that, world-wide, there are about 59 million children and 65 adolescents who are out of school. He said 120 million children do not complete primary school.

And for Nigerian children not suffer the fate of those who are denied this right and the opportunities of a fair chance to get decent jobs and a means of livelihood, Malam Adamu Adamu, education minister, has threatened to deal ruthlessly with the situation. He might initiate a law to penalise parents who wilfully deny their children the chance to go to school.

In a knowledge-driven economy, development experts have consistently harped on the link between access to quality education and economic and social development. They are two sides of the same coin. Telling the story of Taiwan, Thomas Friedman, an American political commentator, author and columnist makes it graphically clear that education is a better economic driver than a country’s resources.

Taiwan, which he paints as “ a barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live on – it even had to import sand from China for construction, yet has the fourth largest financial reserves in the world.”

And what that country did was simple. It did not dig the ground to mine anything but it skilfully mined its 23 million people, their talents, energy and intelligence.  No oil, no iron ore, no forest, no diamonds and no gold – lacking all these, Taiwan, according to Friedman, developed “the habit of honing the skills of its people which turns out to be the only renewable resource in the world today.”

At normal times, the North has been quietly struggling to develop at its own pace. But the times are no longer normal. Today the North has become the epicentre of insecurity, social, political and ethnic upheaval. Boko Haram which is ideologically opposed to education has allied its forces with the cultural inhibitions that seem to be native to the region with the result that more children may be forced to stay away from school.

But that should not discourage Minister Adamu Adamu. He should take the bold and revolutionary step to stem the tide that is obviously antithetical to progress and development. We have no choice but to invest in education.


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