Taking Children from the Streets to Classrooms

Femi falana

Guest Columnist

“Government shall strive to eradicate illiteracy; and to this end Government shall as and when practicable provide (a) free, compulsory and universal primary education; (b) free secondary education; (c) free university education; and (d) free adult literacy programme.” Section (18 :3) of the 1999 Constitution.”

Aside the fact that the constitutional provision is not enforceable the phrase “as and when practicable” was deliberately inserted in the Constitution to allow the members of the ruling class to determine the time that every Nigerian will access to education. The human rights community resolved to mount pressure on the neo-colonial State to make education available to Nigerian citizens. On the basis of the campaign the Federal Government ratified the United Nations Child’s Rights Convention in 2001 and enacted the Child’s Rights Act in 2003. This was followed by the Compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Act in 2004. In addition, article 17(1)  of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act states that every individual shall have the right to education.

As the 36 state governments were not prepared to enforce both laws we commenced another campaign for the popularisation and adoption of the Child’s Rights Act.  Even though the Child’s Rights Act has been adopted and enacted by the 36 states of the Federation, it is regrettable to note that the laws are observed by all the states governments in breach. In 2022, UNICEF reported that Nigeria had 18.5 million children that were out of school. The number has since increased as millions of children have been compelled to withdraw from public and private schools as a result of incessant abduction in the northern part of the country.

In commemoration of the 2023 International Day of the Girl Child at plenary earlier this month, the members of the House of Representatives unanimously passed an embarrassing resolution which urged the Federal Ministry of Education to drastically reduce the number of out-of-school girls by ensuring compulsory free education for all girls across the country. This was sequel to the adoption of a motion by Rep. Kafilat Ogbara (APC-Lagos). The legislator said that the last survey by UNICEF revealed that 18.5 million children that were out of school in Nigeria, 60 per cent were girls. While insisting that adolescent girls have the right to a safe, educated and healthy life, Hon Ogbara said that investing in girls’ leadership included creating space and platforms for girls to raise their voices at every policy-making level.

At about the same time, the Senate  passed for first reading of  a bill that recommends a fine of N50,000 to parents who default in providing their children with primary and secondary school education. The bill proposed by Senator Orji Kalu seeks to amend section (4) (b) of the Principal Act by deleting N2,000 and inserting N20,000; section (4) (c) of the Principal Act by deleting N5,000 and inserting N50,000 while section 3(2) of the Principal Act is amended by deleting N10,000 and inserting N100,000.”

It is indeed regrettable to note that the members of the House of Representatives are not aware that the Child’s Rights Act, 2003 and the Compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Act 2004  have made education free and compulsory for every Nigerian child from primary to junior secondary school. In Socio Economic Rights and Accountability Project v Federal Republic of Nigeria (2010] ACHPR 109 and Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) GTE and LTD v Federal Ministry of Education (unreported suit No. FHC/ABJ/CS/978/15), the Ecowas Court and the Federal High Court directed the Federal Government to ensure that every Nigerian child is given free and compulsory education.

In a demonstration of executive lawlessness, the judgments of both courts were flagrantly disregarded by the Federal Government.

It is submitted that since each of the 36 States of the Federation has adopted the Child’s Rights Act and enacted a Child’s Right Law, it has become the joint responsibility of the Federal, State and Local Governments to ensure that every Nigerian child is given the opportunity to acquire free and compulsory education. Furthermore, the Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2019, guarantees free education up to senior secondary school level for every person with disability while all public schools, whether primary, secondary or tertiary shall have at least one personnel trained to cater for the educational development of persons with disabilities or special facilities for the effective education of persons with disabilities.

These laws have been observed in their breach because the members of the political class drawn from all registered political parties have not demonstrated any commitment to the education of every child in Nigeria. Hence, the members of the legislative and executive organs of governments have failed to appreciate the danger of having 18.5 million out-of-school children, the highest number in the world. Therefore, amending the Compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Act to make it more stringent for parents will not work in a poverty- stricken environment.

In June last year, the Executive Secretary of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC), Mr. Hamid Bobboyi bemoaned the refusal of state governments to provide counterpart funding and access the annual matching grants given by the commission to develop their basic education system. The commission was particularly concerned that about N110 billion of the intervention funds accessed from UBEC were not utilised by the states in 2021, with the money left in the coffers of State Universal Basic Education Boards (SUBEBs).

Sometime in 2017, we learnt that the federal government had decided to refund state governments all monies so far deducted from their accounts to meet the London Paris Club obligations. We were able to convince the Federal Government to deduct the counterpart fund that the state governments had failed to contribute to the Universal Basic Education Fund. The suggestion was accepted by the Federal Government and that was how the sum of N71.3 billion was deducted from source and remitted to the account of the UBEC. Thereafter, UBEC added  the matching grants of N71.3 billion and the states received a total of N142.6bn for the provision of needed facilities in public primary and junior secondary schools in the country.

What the National Assembly should do is address the refusal of state governments to make  counterpart contribution to the Universal Basic Education Fund pursuant to section 2 of the Compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Act. As a matter of urgency, the National Assembly should ensure the amendment of the Constitution to empower the Accountant-General of the Federation to deduct from source the counterpart fund payable by every state government to the Universal Basic Education Fund.

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