Isa has his work cut out

The recent appointment of Lawal Ja’afar Isa as Executive Secretary of the National Commission for Almajiri and Out-of-School Children Education by President Bola Tinubu is ordinarily a welcome development. Isa, a retired Brigadier General and former Military Administrator of Kaduna State is well respected. According to the latest statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Nigeria now has about 20 million out-of-school children. Northern Nigeria, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) data, accounts for 69 per cent of these children aged between six and 11, while solution to this education crisis is increasingly being frustrated by the escalating violence in the region.  

We are delighted that the schoolchildren kidnapped from Kuriga, Chikun Local Government Area, Kaduna State have regained freedom along with 18 others abducted in Sokoto State. But we are concerned about some other school children whose fate remain unknown. Since Boko Haram masterminded the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State in 2014, schools have become theatres of fear and deaths as various non-state actors take advantage of vulnerable security infrastructure to kidnap for ransom or to make demands from the government.

In an April 2022 report by Amnesty International, over 1500 kids were reported kidnapped by armed groups across the country between 2020 and 2021. In Katsina State, for instance, 344 schoolchildren of Government Science Secondary School, Kankara, were abducted in December 2020. Some 317 schoolgirls of Government Girls Secondary School, Jangebe, Zamfara State were abducted after a raid by bandits in February 2021. This climate of fear has not only instigated the shutting down of schools in Yobe, Zamfara, Niger, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa and Sokoto states, but has also underlined the downturns of education policies formulated or implemented by governments of the affected states.

The transition from establishing schools to assuring students that they would return to their parents and guardian alive was one for which many state governments seem ill-prepared, and the consequences are devastating. No parents would want to send their children to school if they are not sure of their return. That is the situation in most of the states in the Northwest and Northeast today. There are other challenges. During the failed 1976 Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme, state governments in the North attempted integration of Islamic and secular curricula to lure school-age children to acquire Western education but the experiment was hindered by inadequacy of funds and supervision by the government. It could neither inspire the proposed mass enrolments in the region nor neutralise the doctrinal aversion to Western education and norms, which has been weaponised by non-state actors like Boko Haram since the early 2000s.

Working with northern state governments, Jaffar Isa and his commission must devise solutions to the peculiar education crisis. While there is a bill in the National Assembly seeking to criminalise parents’ refusal to educate their children, such idea is better implemented in the states. In Kaduna, the state government has serially conducted competency tests to weed out unqualified teachers. In Kano State, 26 per cent of the 2022 budget was earmarked for education. These measures, though inspiring, require actionable and sustainable plans to make a difference and the nation’s policymakers must take up the challenge of bridging the education gap.

Meanwhile, the tradition of lowering cut-off marks for students from Northern states in admission processes into national institutions breeds laxity and hampers competitive spirit in the schools. What requires preferential treatments are the education budgets of respective states and the commitment of stakeholders to ensuring full implementation and sustainability of the programmes. We wish Ja’afar Isa the best in his new assignment.

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