By Johnson Amusan
As long as the world shall last, there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever. – Clarence Darrow
Since the story of the 7-year old Success Adegor broke out through a video ‘skit’, the little girl from Delta State has gained a concerted attention to herself and her family. Many have fallen over their heads to support her. And of course, as it is our nature here, many too have turned her to a Nollywood starlet. Her school has also been a beneficiary as the state governor, out of a pretentious shame, has ordered the renovation of her school. This was presented in another video where the roofs of the buildings in the shantytown called school were being removed. The governor has also made a scapegoat of the headmistress of the school by suspending her.
The wheel that squeaks the loudest, Josh Billings said, is one that gets the grease. This, no doubt, has been depicted in the life of Success who has in fact enjoyed the trophy of speaking out, unconsciously though, against the age-long deprivation that characterises education in this country. Unfortunately however, the effort that has singled out Success for triumph has never addressed (and can never address) the issue of the relegation of education to the background by the political leadership in this country, as it believes it owes people no social or political responsibilities. This is a very strong perception among the members of the ruling elites that government should be less concerned about making provision for the people, let alone educating them. Education, to them, is not everybody’s calling.
I will not want to bore you with the full gist of the Success story any longer as it has been a talk of the town already. However, beyond the razzmatazz that has been enacted in the Success’ episode is one issue that has tugged at my heart – the claim to free education.
While trying to save its face, the government of Delta State said free education policy operates in Delta, so there was no need for chasing Success out of the school for non-payment of examination fee. It has been observed too, that the environment of the Success’ school, Okotie-Eboh Primary School, Sapele, is not habitable for healthy knowledge. The school was no doubt literally forgotten until the Success’ anger aroused the passion of the nation. But as at February alone, Delta State earned 17 Billion Naira from the monthly Federal allocations. Delta State, as at today, is yet to be speared of the ravages of all the indices of a failed state. In any event, it is a den of poverty like any other states in Nigeria. One is therefore tempted to ask: what has Delta government been doing with the huge allocation it receives monthly from the Federal allocations? Your guess could be as good as mine.
There is no doubt that most States’ governments today pay lip service to free education. They don’t believe in it. It is just a convenient campaign item for them during the electioneering period.
As a beneficiary of free education when it was a cardinal policy of the UPN governments of the Western States in the Second republic, I was a witness to what a genuine free education was. And it has played a critical role in my life; the reason I can distinguish it now from a fake one. Without much ado, let me browse, as follows, into what free education was then through a personal experience.
In those days in Ipetumodu (my hometown), in the old Oyo State (now Osun), what pupils of my generation were aware of was that at the resumption of every session, tonnes of new textbooks, exercise books and mathematics sets, and loads of chalks, chairs and desks were brought into our schools. Lest I forget that during a holiday, new buildings would have been built where necessary or renovations carried out on existing dilapidated ones. The books and mathematics set were distributed to us free. Except the inscription or logo or stamp of the state government inscribed on the books, we could really not identify from where the books and other academic materials emerged. Because there was no name or picture of any government functionary displayed on them. We were given this sense of entitlement or right to them. We were rightly made to believe that they were government property, a product of commonwealth, which deserved our collective protection. And that they were just fulfilling their own side of the obligation by making them available to us – no special favour attached. This variety of free education cut across both primary and secondary schools at the same intensity.
My father was happy he would not have to bother himself anymore with buying books and other academic materials except my feeding allowance and school dress. And sometimes, seeing the books around even encouraged one to read them. That Awolowo’s party did it again was not strange to him for he had witnessed it done in the First Republic when all prognostications were against it.
The teachers were proud of and happy doing their job because they were never denied of their entitlements. You would see it in the dignity with which they carried themselves in the society. Their children were attending either the same schools in which they were teaching or another public schools elsewhere. Even the politicians’ children also attended the same public schools. (I remember that time, the children of the main opposition leader in my hometown were attending the same school as I.) The teachers were also insulated from politics. No teacher would come to the class to discuss a politician or a political party or the governor of a state when it had no relevance to the subject he was treating or handling. Despite that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the symbol of the progressive programme that time, no teacher or pupil was compelled to sing- praise Awolowo. And if there was any teacher who was having a romantic idea for any party, he probably was doing so underground.
They really made people have this confidence that what was existing between the people was a social contract, the end of the bargain that they were just fulfilling. Hence, each time that my father was accosted to show evidence of payment of tax, he would joyfully brought it out as a fulfilment of his own end of the bargain too. In essence, my father paid his tax regularly because he was seeing the genuine result of paying it. He needed no prompting or force to know for whom to also cast his allegiance during an election.
Because of the non-tuition, many teenagers and youths were enrolled and engaged en masse at one school or the other, and this reduced crime rates. The enrolment equally discriminated against no tribe. For instance, there were many from the South East who were my classmates that time.
And when I was moved to Lagos, the same programme operated there. Hence, the same benefits were conferred on us. It was easy for the people with whom I was living then to take more people to live with them because they would have no need to pay for their school fees and books except what to eat. The enjoyment continued until 1983 when Major General Muhammadu Buhari took over the government in a violent putsch. Meanwhile, before then, the opposition party, NPN, had rigged itself into the government of Oyo State, cancelled free education and introduced full-blown commercialisation of education. Buhari’s emergence only supplied fuel to the inferno.
In Lagos though, despite the military intervention, school fees were not reintroduced. But we had to be buying books because the free educational materials were no longer coming. The PTA levies started, and at a point, parents were making furniture for their pupils to carry to and fro their schools for lack of security.
However, I was to realise some years after the paralyzing damage of lack of provision for free education when one day I was on holiday to my hometown. Then I was at secondary school. And I met some of my old friends with whom I went to primary school there. They had become bus or lorry conductors. Then I asked them why they could not continue with their education. Their reason was that their parents could not fund it. Perhaps, if that time were, as being prevalent today, a yahoo-yahoo period, they would have become internet fraudsters, money ritualists, kidnappers or armed robbers.
Consequently, when I got to higher institution and had the opportunity, it was one of the motivating factors for me to join a host of other student activists to fight against commercialisation of education. We did not get free education but we prevented to a large extent the arbitrary and astronomical increase in school fees. And it was not an easy experience as we were condemned and called all sorts of names that time but it was a price worth paying.
It is more of a comedy the way free education is carried out now. In fact it is an insult on the collective intelligence of the people. All you see is the distribution of a few exercise books with the names and colourful pictures of the sponsors. No chalk is provided for teachers. Most of them have not even been paid for months. The environment in which they are teaching is not better than a dumpsite. The teachers and the political leaders are not even proud of enrolling their children or wards at the public schools because they know the quality of education they give there. No one should however be deceived by the constructions or renovations of a few school buildings at conspicuous places in the cities or towns. There are many rickety schools in the interiors and other hidden places that are never touched.
The crux of the matter is that across the length and breadth of Nigeria, Nigerian leaders run government of showmanship. Our politicians or political leaders are wont of trumpeting free education during their campaigns and reneging having won thereafter. And when you challenge them, they will muddle up the whole water of affairs with false propaganda by calling you an agent of the opposition.
The reason is still debated whether a government can afford free education in Nigeria or not. The disparagers have always maintained that education can never come free. Their defence is that whatever is free is never appreciated. But how is such a debate won in a society where many have seen it as a profitmaking venture? Where those in control of the machinery of the state are simultaneously private owners of schools? Their prompt for attack will be that you want to withdraw from them their means of livelihood. It is to their advantages that public school system has collapsed. Or where the system is efficient, they do everything to undermine it. But even then, those agitators for commercialisation of education do not ever think air is one of the most valuable elements that are provided and gotten free. No matter how rich you are, just enclose yourself in an airtight arena and see whether you can survive it in hours. Meanwhile, it is what you get free.
Besides, since we have been paying for everything that should naturally be provided by the government of this nation, have we gotten the value for our money? Has the service ever been provided sufficiently? Has our life improved in this nation?
Many nations that have grown and developed are nations that provide free education to their citizens. They are even superpowers now. Guan Zhong, a Chinese philosopher said: “The best return for one year is to grow grains; the best return for ten years is to grow trees; the best return for a lifetime is to educate people.”
A friend who lives in America was very homesick sometimes ago. Then he realised there is no place like home. But he had a restraint. Would he be able to access in Nigeria one opportunity that has kept him in America all this while? Would Nigeria have the capacity to sustain his future?
What was the worry of my friend? To him, his children are his future. And giving good education to them is as good as protecting this future. He is getting this already in America, what is the essence of leaving? Thus my friend told me why he has every reason to remain in America is because his children have access to free and qualitative education. Not only this, his children are taken to and fro school on school buses free of charge. Their school has standard academic environment fitted with befitting sport facilities that can only be available in some universities in Nigeria. Of course, he pays tax regularly but he receives the adequate results of paying it. My friend therefore concludes that no amount of homesickness can provide all this. Hence, America is home.
Nigerian leaders commoditise all provisions that should be available to people to enjoy without whimpering. And in a commodity economy, the only aim is to make profit. And profitmaking can only disempower many people in the process of making more profits.
Education is the totality of the being of a nation. It is the beginning and the end of a nation. A nation that cannot provide free education to its citizens has no future; it is a nation on the precipice. Until every citizen can have access to free and qualitative education in this country, Nigeria will never develop and the tale will remain persistent. This is the reason for the unending story of Success Adegor.
When we fought for free education in this country was during military era. We were then, at least, adults who acted with conscious minds. Who could have thought a tender age girl would do the fight today in a civilian democracy? When Success reacted in protest against the examination levy, she did not know she was resisting commercialisation and degradation of education in her State. This shows the surprise that is awaiting this nation when people are finally pushed to the wall. And perhaps, success is telling us to wake up once again and pick up the gauntlet and challenge those tormentors-in-power who have compromised the future of this nation totally. Freedom is never given free.
Barrister Amusan, an activist and social commentator, writes in from Lagos; firstname.lastname@example.org