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Shettima, sports, and Boko Haram, an unscripted encounter!

By Segun Odegbami
13 May 2023   |   4:06 am
I know Kashim Shettima, the vice president-elect of Nigeria, but not well enough to say much about him beyond my single physical encounter with the man, and a few telephone calls later, in the course of a story that must be told, not for any political reasons, but because it will throw a little light on the persona of the man.

Segun Odegbami

I know Kashim Shettima, the vice president-elect of Nigeria, but not well enough to say much about him beyond my single physical encounter with the man, and a few telephone calls later, in the course of a story that must be told, not for any political reasons, but because it will throw a little light on the persona of the man.

In the year 2004, I attended a United Nations (UN) ‘Millennium Development Goals’ programme that led me into the project of sport as a tool for the eradication of illiteracy in the world. It was an audacious concept lodged in a new special unit in the UN. I do not know if the unit still exists, but I loved it, believed in it, and since made its object a mission in my life.

Obiageli Ezekwesili was the minister of education. She revealed a startling statistic that Nigeria was harbouring the largest concentration of illiterates and out-of-school children in the world. Her conservative figure then was above 20 million children. It could have been a lot more than that.

The regions most affected by the scourge were the North East and North West of Nigeria. In the North East, in particular, the situation was worsened by the activities of a religious extremist group that forbade Western education and enforced its non-practice. The resultant insurgency created a massive exodus of teachers, who mostly came from the southern part of Nigeria, and ‘devil’s work’ for the idling, out-of-school youths in the state. That situation crippled whatever was left of the weak educational apparatus and standards in that part of the country.

Maiduguri became a no-go town in Borno State. Only very few essential visitors dared to go there for any reason. Even those that visited needed a convoy of well-armed security escorts to move around the few parts of the metropolis that were not under the control of the terrorists.

A small national assignment took me to Maiduguri at the invitation of Kashim Shettima, the Governor. I believed in the UN’s programme that sports could drive educational objectives, or, at least, could be tested in the region given the universal truism that sport builds bridges across all social, economic, religious and political divides in the world. I have always been a believer because the evidence is all around for all that have the ‘eyes’ to see beneath the surface of things. So, why not use ‘Sport’ in Borno State as proposed by the United Nations?

That’s how I led a small team to meet with Governor Kashim Shettima in Maiduguri. It was at the height of the Boko Haram insurgency, a very frightening experience, indeed. We had to spend a night in the Government Guest House without any security guards because they were all afraid of confronting insurgents should they pay a nocturnal ‘visit’. I did not sleep through the night.

My proposal was simple. It was an experiment to test the efficacy of the concept of a model sports academy (hiding the title ‘school’ from the jaundiced Boko Haram) where young boys and girls with talent and passion for sport, will pursue their dreams in sport but with a caveat – they will also be put through a simple academic program, running side by side. Sport was the irresistible carrot!

The Governor knew a good proposal when he saw one. He told me so. This was a good one. The only challenge was that it could not happen immediately with the State under the siege of religious terrorists.

There was an option – to take the children to such a special academy outside the State, and to use that as a litmus test for establishing one in the State in the future. Obviously, my sports academy in Wasimi Orile was designed for such a purpose, a sports school that provides ample opportunity for academics-made-simple. He agreed to it immediately.

I do not recall what exactly happened next, but, following a few phone calls between the Commissioner for Education and I, one day, instead of the two ‘guinea pigs’ that were supposed to be sent to Wasimi, specially selected from a pool of very good and eager young talents in sport, boys that have completed their junior secondary school education, the State sent 5 boys!

Now, the wahala.

None of the boys had truly exceptional talent in sport when we tested them. Only one came close in football. When tested for academic standards, in our estimation, they could never have passed through junior secondary school as claimed. Their numeracy and literacy levels were abysmal. Aged between 14 and 15, they travelled outside Maiduguri and came to a new culture and environment for the first time. They flew in a plane for the first time. They saw Lagos, and the experienced the route to Wasimi Orile, ending up in its dense woods, far from any form of civilisation to live with mostly young southern students and their liberalism for good company. It was a monumental challenge, hard for the poor deeply Muslim students. Adaptation was only possible because of the intense sports content of the curriculum that rapidly bridged the cultural, religious and even language differences, and cultivated friendships that have blossomed and sustained till now, 8 years later.

In the school, two critical and tested factors ensure the success of the combination of the sports and academic programmes – the depth of the children’s talent and passion for sports, and the uncommon and simple teaching methodology adopted for use in the school. This should be a subject for deeper research by interested scholars and institutions.

Most of the students that enroll in the school are those ‘dumped’ on the school in frustration, or in search for a solution for children’s insistence on giving up their academics to become professionals in sport, particularly football. There is a whole army of such ‘difficult’ children as well as their frustrated parents. The Wasimi project has been a blessing to most parents with that challenge.

So, Governor Kashim Shettima sent and funded the five students to Wasimi to test the concept of tackling the challenge of illiteracy and low enrolment into schools in Borno State through the power of sports. It was a viable alternative to the idleness of the youths created by the activities of insurgents.

At the academy, the students were first tested for their levels of education in Borno. Their levels of numeracy and literacy were very low; only three could speak passable English; they could not handle literature and mathematics, and had only the faintest of knowledge about science subjects.

The students were, however, enrolled. A special program and classes were set up for them. That even catalysed the start of a junior secondary school arm in the school.

All five of them spent the next three years in senior secondary school classes going through a rigorous ‘rapid-results’ academic program with the support of teachers who were re-trained on how to teach children with learning difficulty. In their third and final year, only three of them surmounted the challenges and sat and passed the WAEC exams. It was a great experience for everyone at the end.

What is their story since then?

The first thing is that Kashim Shettima was no longer governor when they went back to Borno State. He never physically met them, or knew them before funding their experimental education. Since then, he has also not met them or even heard of them.

They actually do not exist in the radar of his current activities. So, they will not be listed amongst his numerous accomplishments as a Governor.

The students have become adults now.

All three are citizens of Borno State.

Abdulfatai Mohammed is now a final year undergraduate student of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maiduguri.

Lawan Bukar is a final year HND 2 student at Borno State (Ramat) Polytechnic, studying Animal Health Production.

Abdullahi Mohammed is a 400-level Computer Science undergraduate at the University of Maiduguri.

They want me to acknowledge Kashim Shettima, publicly.

That’s what I am doing here.

Thank you Sir!

Dr. Olusegun Odegbami, MON, OLY, AFNIIA