Ondo governor in stormy political waters over free education
Perhaps no issue is as sensitive as public education in the politics of Ondo State not only because of its importance to the socio-economic development of the people but also because of the role that every government is expected to play in its implementation.
In Ondo and by extension, the whole of the six states of the Southwest geo-political zone of Nigeria, the matter of free education or at least, a highly subsidized sector funding, is regarded as a major pillar in electioneering that all aspirants, no matter on which side of political divide they stand, always strive to uphold.
Except for the period of military interregnum, residents of Ondo, where education is said to be the major industry, have enjoyed free education or something akin to it, making it seems as if the issue of government support for education is a settled matter that should not even be a subject of any public debate.
But incumbent governor, Rotimi Akeredolu, who got into office on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), a supposedly progressive platform that claimed relationship with the originators of free education policy in the old region, is on the verge of withdrawing government support for the education of citizens of the state.
Incidentally, Akeredolu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) who is also a beneficiary of the free education policy of the old government, hails from Owo, the hometown of one of his predecessors, Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, where the blueprint of the programme, authored by Ajasin, was put together and presented to the leadership of the defunct Action Group (AG) in 1955, as a major instrument to develop the old Western Region.
Expectedly, the whole state is rising as one in condemnation of the planned move of the APC government to withdraw government support for education in a way that could spell a political doom, not only for the governor but also for his platform.
The cause of the gathering political storm is a communiqué attributed to a stakeholders’ summit on education where it was recommended that government should relieve itself of the burden of education funding.
Of course, the decision, which is suspected to be the brainchild of the governor, is already raising a lot of dusts in the polity and causing misgivings in the political circle about the choice of the APC as the ruling party.
The two-day summit organised by the state government to look for ways of repositioning the public education sector, urged Akeredolu to increase tuition fees and unburden the state of some of its responsibilities in the funding of public schools.
Attended by over 2,000 participants between October 26th and 27th, with the theme: “Repositioning Education for Functionality and Technological Growth,” the summit declared that education funding was too important to be left in the hands of government.
In their submissions, the participants who were drawn from the academia and various unions and organisations, stated, “That government should fund education at the primary school level while parents should be responsible for the education of their children at the secondary and tertiary levels.
“That there should be a review of chargeable fees in state’s tertiary institutions in line with the needs of each school and current economic realities.
“That state government, philanthropists, old students association, Parents Teachers Associations (PTA) and corporate organizations should embark on aggressive renovation/reconstruction of dilapidated school structures to make such schools learners-friendly.
“That mega schools in the state should be put into more functional, optimal and better use by government to address the current state of underutilization of some of them.”
Although tuition from primary to tertiary institutions in the state have not been completely free because pupils are charged PTA and other levies to a subsidized sum of N5, 000, while the mega schools offer admission to new students to the tune of N13, 000, there is heavy government subsidy on the sector.
Strident opposition against the outcome of the summit has continued to bulge beyond alarming proportion as the people described it as a ruse by the state government to impose its will on the people of the state to abolish free education through the backdoor.
A wave of criticism hit the unsigned communiqué that was released by the government, on the social media through the Special Assistant to the Governor on New Media, Allen Sowore.
After several attempts to look for whom to credit the communiqué to, The Guardian gathered that a “constituted authority” in government, instructed that it should be credited to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Steve Awosika.
Accusing fingers were however pointed in the direction of the governor, who while declaring open the summit, gave them a direction to follow by stating expressly that government could no longer bear the burden of education funding.
Akeredolu in his speech had questioned the current practice in the sector that make the citizenry to depend on the government despite the economic misfortune that has befallen the country.
He had asked, “Can the resources of the state sustain the current ostentatious practices such as payment of WAEC fees, free bus shuttle programme, maintenance of over-bloated workforce with no discernible schedules of responsibilities, duplication of disciplines in our tertiary institutions, among others?
“Should we continue to pretend that education is free at all levels while sundry fees are charged by operators and nothing enters the coffers of the state for maintenance? Should we maintain our Mega Schools and allow the progressive degeneration of existing structures in our public primary and secondary schools?
“Should the government return schools to faith- based organizations? In what specific ways should interventions come from civil society organizations?”
Though the governor expressed dissatisfaction about the falling standard of education in the country, he warned, “the moment the education system fails, the country has failed.” He assured the stakeholders that his administration would prioritize their submission, pledging, “Whatever you want me to do, I will do.”
The affirmation and agenda-setting speech of the governor made most public analysts to be quick at identifying the “hands of Esau and voice of Jacob” at the communiqué, which was in tandem with the stance of Akeredolu before the summit.
The Catholic Bishop of Ondo Diocese, Jude Arogundade, who was also a participant at the summit, condemned the gathering as a mere jamboree, saying it was politically motivated stressing, “The summary is an obvious thing that people already know, why a summit? But the summit should have done something so drastic but I still believe that some members of the summit are playing politics. As time goes on, we will begin to clarify issues and situations and let people know that the future of our children is what is at stake.”
Similarly, members of the Ondo State House of Assembly debated the outcome of the summit during Tuesday’s plenary where former Majority Leader, Ifedayo Akinsoyinu, argued that abrogation of free education would further impoverish the masses and make education inaccessible to the people.
The lawmaker representing Ondo West Constituency 2, Ade Adeniyi, said if such new policy were implemented, it would totally contravene the Millennium Development Goal (MDG), which advocates unfettered and universal access to education.
However, the Chairman, House Committee on Education, Segun Ajimatokin, said the communiqué was a report of what transpired during the summit and not yet a government policy.
The resolution of the legislature which was read by the Speaker, Bamidele Oleyelogun, directed the Commissioner for Education, Femi Agagu, “to submit 40 copies of the communiqué and position of government to the House immediately” and that government “should not implement any part of the communiqué until it is fully debated by the legislators who are the elected representatives of the people.”
The National leadership of National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) condemned the communiqué and described it as “anti-masses and anti-students policy of the Ondo State Government,” giving Akeredolu “a 14-day ultimatum to reverse this satanic policy or face mass protests.”
The Senate President of the student body, Taiwo Bamigbade, said, “we appreciate the idea of convening Education Summit, but it should not be a stage managed attempt or platform to force this unholy policy down the throat of Ondo masses.
“However, the leadership charged the governor to face the reality of governance and come up with policies that will liberate the masses from the shackles of the present moment. Any attempt by the government to increase tuition fee will be met with grave resistance from the student community.”
On its part, the Yoruba socio-cultural and political organisation, Afenifere, which prides itself as the custodian of the political legacy of the Southwest of which free education is an integral part, appealed to all the governors in the zone not to destroy the foundation of the free education policy laid by late Obafemi Awolowo.
The group’s Publicity Secretary, Yinka Odumakin, after a recent meeting in Akure where the Ondo issue was discussed said, “education should not be in the lines of attacks. None of our government should attack the right of our people to have education, to go to schools.”
Odumakin, who acknowledged the economic recession in the nation, lamented that abolition of free education would “then shift the burden on the parents who are under the yoke of poverty and cannot afford the basic necessities of life. School fees should not be added to their burdens, government should start creating ways to fund education. Let’s not pass unnecessary burdens to our people.”
However, the Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Yemi Olowolabi, in a quick reaction to allay the fears of the citizenry, noted that the communiqué had not been adopted as government policy.
He stated that the State Executive Council (SEC) would thoroughly discuss and debate each of the 19 points raised in the communiqué before the government would take a position.
“Therefore, the criticism and commendations that have greeted the release of the communiqué are hasty and premature. Government wishes to state that it has not abolished free education in Ondo State and asks the people to remain calm until the SEC appraises all the points raised in the communiqué,” Olowolabi said.