Knocks as Ondo Free School Shuttle Service stutters
For over one week after the resumption of public schools for the second term of 2019/2020 academic session, protests rocked Ondo State as there were no free school shuttle buses.
The state government was forced to take some steps, and the free shuttle, which has been one of the core Social Investment Programmes (SIP) of the state government since 2012, emerged from the mechanic workshops and hit the roads after about 12 hours of repair works.
For now, the shuttle service is restricted to Akure Metropolis and Ondo City, two of the 18 councils in the state, a development that still leaves a large number of pupils across the state in the lurch.
Hence, the major routes for the buses across the three senatorial districts of the state are still devoid of the usual traffic snarl that happens when students scamper to bus stops every morning and afternoon to catch the free shuttle.
Expectedly, the non-resumption of the free service on several routes has negatively affected the turnout at public schools, while many parents and guardians are groaning in the face of the harsh realities of paying for the transportation of the children and wards to and from school.
Among other things, the late commencement of service by the shuttle buses fuelled the suspicion of many that the administration may have quietly scrapped the initiative due to lack of funds to sustain it.
The suspicion also led many activists and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to threaten to drag the state government to court over the sudden “suspension” of the transportation system, which they claimed constituted arrant abuse of the Child Rights Act.
They warned that the initiative, which has helped to shore up enrolment in public schools should not be suspended, else there would be an astronomical rise in the number of out-of-school children in the state.
Some students who spoke with The Guardian bemoaned the stress that they’ve had to put up with since the vehicles were off the road.
“My parents cannot afford to pay for my taxi fare or for a commercial motorcycle to take me to my school. So, I have to trek from our house at Sijuwade, to my school, which is located along Ondo Road. It has been so stressful and hard for me and my other colleagues,” said a distressed pupil.
For Roseline Ayenitaju, a secondary school student from the South Senatorial District: “My parents cannot afford my transport fare due to the tough economic situation in the country. Worse of all is that we just moved to our new house, which is very far from my school.
“The free shuttle bus has been a great help to me and many other students around here, but now, many of us whose parents cannot afford transport fares have either stopped going to schools located in far places or trek as long as 20 kilometres to and fro.”
A parent in Akure, Mr. Ajayi Adegbenro, who described the situation as unfortunate, urged Governor Akeredolu not to allow the free shuttle initiative to die an untimely death.
Another parent, Mrs. Mojisola Johnson from Ikare-Akoko, said the suspension of the shuttle service has forced untold hardship on the pupils and a tremendous financial burden for parents.
Before he assumed office, there were speculations that Akeredolu’s administration would terminate the operations of the free school shuttle, but the idea was discarded because of the unpalatable consequences it would cost the new government.
However, reliable government sources informed The Guardian that the operations of the 90 shuttle buses were suspended by the state government owing to lack of funds for maintenance and fuelling.
The sources disclosed that the state Ministry of Transport has failed to settle outstanding debt for fueling of the buses last year, which made the filling station owners halt the supply of fuel to the vehicles.
Significantly, the shuttle service is the only surviving SIP initiative inherited from the immediate past administration of Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, who left office on February 24, 2017. The others are either lying comatose or have gone into extinction.
Like other programmes including the Agbebiye Safe Motherhood, Mother and Child Hospital, Mega Schools, Neighbourhood Markets, etc, the free school shuttle initiative got a lot of recognition from within and outside the country and made the state a reference point among other states of the federation.
Shortly after Governor Akeredolu came into office, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) sponsored 16 states of the federation for a study-tour of the SIP initiatives in the state. That was in June 2017, and it expressed willingness to partner with the state.
A few months after, the immediate past Country Representative of UNICEF, Mr. Mallick Muhammed Fall, marvelled at the state’s Social Protection (SP) policy, described it as the hope of Sub-Saharan Africa to meet up with the Social Development Goal (SDG).
Fall leveraged the prospect of delivering on the goals recorded mainly in the education and health sectors, warning that if Nigeria fails, the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa would fail the SDG 2030 target.
Appraising the economic importance of the scheme, Mimiko enthused that the free school shuttle buses would save parents from spending the sum of N130m monthly, and from other unforeseen dangers.
The immediate past governor, while giving three years assessment/performance of the initiative, on Democracy Day Celebration of June 12, 2015, said the initiative was in line with the welfarist policies of late Chief MKO Abiola.
“Findings showed that before the scheme was introduced three years ago, most of the beneficiaries were spending an average of N100 as transport fare to and from their schools.
“If 53, 000 pupils and students now benefit from the gesture, it means that government is helping the parents with N5.3m daily,” Mimiko had said.
Whereas, there are indications that the total number of beneficiaries had skyrocketed between 2015 and now, the state Ministry of Education disclosed that students’ enrolment increased from 211, 000 to 250, 000 in 2015 alone.
According to reports, the total number of students benefiting from the scheme has since increased to over 100, 000 students daily, while students’ enrolment as of 2019 is estimated to about 500, 000 students.
However, the President of Movement for the Survival of the Underprivileged (MOSUP), Mr. Dappa Maharajah, attributed the interim suspension of the transportation system to the insensitive and poor proactive tendencies of government.
His words: “Amenhotep IV, the Egyptian King, whose reign is indelible in the annals of mankind, said: “The glory of a king is the welfare of his people. This is the thrust of good governance anywhere in the world. It must be the people first.”
Maharajah described the sudden disappearance of the buses without prior notice as Violence Against Children (VAC) and threatened to take legal action against the state government if immediate measures are not taken to redress the situation.
According to him: “Paucity of funds should not be an excuse from the government. If the immediate past government could sustain it and several other people-centred programmes, this government must be held liable for the failure of the scheme.
“By my calculation, over 100, 000 students are benefiting from the scheme daily, and if the government expends N100 per student, that amounts to N10, 000, 000 relief to parents by the government, daily. This is not too much for any caring government to expend on its future.”
He stressed that MOSUP, alongside other NGOs and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in the state, would not hesitate to take legal action against the state government if it proscribes the free school shuttle service.
But the Special Adviser to the Ondo Governor on Transport, Mr. Tobi Ogunleye, refuted insinuations that government had suspended, or cancelled the free shuttle services. He said the non-operation was as a result of ongoing general maintenance of the vehicles.
Ogunleye, who earlier gave an assurance that the shuttle buses would return to roads hopefully in a matter of days, said the ministry had to pull some fast strings to bring the buses back to the road in less than 12 hours on Tuesday.
“I still stand by my initial provision because in some quarters some people said we are increasing the fare; we don’t even take money from anybody not to talk of increasing or decreasing. We are the people in charge of evaluating and certifying that the vehicles are roadworthy.
“If our vehicles are not road worthy and the unexpected happens to the students, what are we going to say. That is why we still have some challenges. And we have apologised to the students, parents, guardians and the teachers.
He appealed to pupils and parents to bear with the state government as it was working tooth and nail to ensure that the vehicles are back on the road, especially in parts of the state where they have not resumed work due to ongoing maintenance.
But Mr. Dele Durojaiye, a parent is unimpressed with the excuse tendered by the governor’s aide, stressing that the government had enough time to service the vehicles when the pupils went on break for about one month, but failed to do that.
Durojaiye, who is the Chairman of Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA), added that it would have been wise to keep quiet instead of giving such lame excuse.
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