One great advantage of personification is that it helps reduce an abstract entity to a relatively understandable concept. When we use the word “She” to refer to a country, it is because we can append certain human characteristics in assessing its existential issues. This traps complexities into units that the mere mind can comprehend and so pass due judgments. When we say Nigeria is 50 years old, it could be totally lost on us if we do not appropriately personify the country to understand the troubles it faces as well as the gravity of such. Perhaps if we can imagine for a moment a 50-year-old woman who has been severally raped, duped, blackmailed, and wasted, yet still lumbering on a dark road, then we may understand what the country has been through. How many persons of that age would suffer such dehumanization and yet remain composed and pretend to be fine? That is the best way to capture the past 50 years of Nigeria’s existence, or I should say recent history. And worse still is the fact that the woman is still undergoing an immoral bludgeoning by wayfarers and vile caretakers whose bellies and ambitions are their primary concern. So one wonders then for how long her pretense will last without an implosion.
Today however, an encouraging fact to know is that there is an awakening among Nigeria’s children. Silently, many voices are starting to cry out for change, while steadily there is growth in loyalty, like that of a young husband, within the precincts of her communities. Also there is the rise of an army of technical competence within her young population (disputed by many); an army equipped with the overflows of a globalized world running fast on the cyber lanes. This is one comforting detail I look to when forecasting the trajectory of Nigeria’s growth and development in all sectors.
But I fear. I fear because there lies an apparent disconnect between the visions of these progressive ones and those who hold or seek hold power. A greater fear for me is that more of the “Beautiful Ones” are succumbing to the rot in the system and getting anesthetized by the need to be successful. Those who have stepped out to see the workings and possibilities of other societies have become frustrated and their frustrations are further marinated by the already existing tangible angst on the streets. It sometimes feels like we have lost the present generations to a calamitous decadence, to the point that even the unborn child harbours the seeds of national iniquity. Not only that, but it feels as though we received nothing good from the generation before and then lack the capacity to pass anything good to the generation ahead.
I am greatly troubled by what has become a monumental national disgrace. Our education system has utterly broken down at the foundational level. The only aspect of our society outside of the family entity that births the “Beautiful Ones” is the education system. To compound the woes, it’s so sad that for two years in a row we have received startling and stomach wrenching statistics of mass failure at the secondary school level. How can over 70 percent of students who sit for an exam fail? How do we explain that? Although we have known for a long time that the mechanism of education in Nigeria had crumbled, this fact in terms of raw data outputs has only increased the scariness of this reality and thus now gaining global attention within the last two years. I sat in a meeting at the Gates Foundation head office in Seattle sometime last year, and it became so clear that even the international community had to come to a consensus on the failed standards of Nigerian education and are now scrambling to come to our aid.
In considering the WAEC two-year data, there is something else also going on and I must not fail to point this out. It is either there was a sudden breakdown in the delivery of secondary school education within the last two years making students to fail en masse, or the educational system has become more efficient in the two years that we can now see the true data of what it has always been. Still it could be that the system has become so effective that cheat sheets are no longer available for purchase and students who have for many years depended on these are suddenly thrown in the academic cold to fend for themselves. Whatever the case maybe, it all points to one main concern; how do we hit the reset button on education in Nigeria to secure the workforce which the country will need in launching itself into a nascent century full of intricacies and specialization to the bare minimum.
I remember very well in 1993, when I wrote my West African School Certificate Examination, I studied very hard under difficult conditions. I recall going to a petrol station late one night to study Mathematics under the security lights because there was a blackout for a few days. I had my Math finals the next day and had no power at home to study. WAEC exams weren’t exactly an easy ride. It remains the most terrorizing exams most Nigerian students would ever face in their lifetime. Not that the content was insurmountable (although in a way it was), but it was so overhyped to the point that your future depended on passing it or failing it. But you see at that time, there was present, as compared to now, more good teachers, a willingness and readiness in being taught, and a desire to study; even though we had begun to experience the rampant mass cheating.
Today, 50 years after independence (whatever the word means), we have a crisis in our hands and still cannot point to any clearly articulated national goal to resolve this predicament. The situation has cut too deep to every vital vein that supplies educational nourishment to the child. From the quality of teachers, the attitudes of parents, policy maker’s passivity, to the nonchalance of private enterprise, nothing points to a calculated and systematic enunciation of a national goal in education. The United States which currently ranks in reading literacy (15th), mathematical literacy (19th), and scientific literacy (14th) is already desperately concerned about revamping a system that still attracts so many of our own students. The US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has presently heightened the debate on how to improve education in the 21st century and making the country more competitive again. So much is going on now and so much talk about reinvestment in the sector that private citizens like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook have made humbling contributions, putting their monies where their mouths are. The Facebook boss only recently invested 100 Million dollars in an education fund for a city smaller than then size of Victoria Island in Lagos. Yet Nigeria, a country further down the global education rankings is bereft of ideas on the course to take.
It may interest you to know that in 1981, Nigeria was in the 40th place in terms of how much we invested in education. We steadily increased our investment from 1.54% in 1970 and peaked at 5.11% of our Gross National Income 1981. By 1991, our investment had so badly declined that between then and 2005, our average investment from GNI was a mere 0.85%. On the contrary, not only has our population increased tremendously including school enrolments, but also our revenue base as a country. At what point did we go to sleep and forgot that we had bills to pay? It was not until university lecturers began to down tools and our youths picked up guns and machetes to play cultic violence that we began to discover that we had lost many years already. Even at that, we still failed to turn things around and blew away every opportunity to make amends before disaster fell. Now we are facing an even graver danger of national lethargy and progressive insomnia, a place where nothing moves us to action because we are too weary with the weight of daily survival. Things are bad when an ordinary primary school graduate is already devising a quick means to escaping poverty.
When we consider the quality of teachers we have in the country, it is nothing short of dreadful. I have been severally taught by teachers who couldn’t construct a correct sentence in English. I do not doubt their competence at their subject of choice, but how on earth can a student be inspired by such teachers who lack basic communication skills. About two years ago in Kwara State, the State’s education commissioner subjected nearly 20,000 of the state’s teachers to take tests in English and Math designed for 9 to 10-year-olds. An example of a question asked: David left his sister’s place at 07:30. It was a 40 minute walk, so what time did he arrive? The result was stunning. Only seven of the teachers could pass to the accepted level. A newspaper commentary called it the Kwara scandal revealing “a symptom of a decadent system, where favouritism, corruption, compromise, incompetence and the like hold sway in every facet of life”.
When the teaching profession has lost its honour and value, any monkey will latch on thereby sacrificing student learning for survival. Why then wont the schools become entrepreneurial centers where handouts, textbooks, and even cheat-sheets are put on sale? As far back as primary school days in the 1980s, I can still remember buying pastries and sweets from teachers in class during break periods. Of course my rascally classmates will quickly affix aptly coined labels on such teachers, names such as Mama Kpo-Kpof (for selling Puff-Puff), Sweet Mama (for selling candies), and Bum-Buns (for having a big bum and selling hot fresh buns). Although this made our socialization process in school more exciting and painted an effusive drama of school life which we live to relish, it ate wastefully away at the value we placed on such teachers, and so their ability to impart value. It is a fact that the less respect a person commands, the less the value of his words to the hearer.
I had the privileged of fulfilling my national obligations as a youth corper in Zamfara state, Northern Nigeria. In the tiny village of Anka where I spent my whole year as a teacher, I was in daily shock of the kind of teachers who were teaching the kids. The story to tell is not a good one and would leave the hearers astonished. It was my experience here that got me really passionate about education and why we need urgent reform through a national discussion. What are we going to do about raising competent teachers at all level of education in Nigeria? Are we going to increase the incentives to attract the best brains into the sector? In Finland, a country which boasts of the best education system and result in the world, the top ranking graduates of higher institutions are usually absorbed as teachers, while in other countries it is the opposite. Most top class students opt for better opportunities in the corporate sector or seek greener pastures elsewhere. This robs the sector of those who are most qualified to deliver based on performance. Although we have also come to know that what makes great teachers is not necessarily having a first class result in school, but it takes a great sense of self-discipline and commitment in being a high-flyer, and these are key qualities for outstanding teachers.
On the other hand, it will be of great injustice if I fail to mention that it is rather impossible to birth “Beautiful Ones” without the indispensable cooperation of parents. Parents are a key reason for the success of children and we cannot overemphasize this . I have found that the dominant culture in Nigeria is that parents are less involved in the learning process of their kids and rather give more time to provide for them. If ‘charity begins at home’ is an acceptable saying, then it wouldn’t be out-of-place to say education should or must also begin at home. Investing in the learning of a child is like investing in a business. You don’t put in your money and go to bed. Even if you were stock trading through a broker, you still will eagerly gather information that directly impacts the value of stocks. Every unsupervised business crashes, including the business of educating your child. A few kids are naturally self-motivated, but in a heavily distracting world, many more need to be acutely supervised. This must start very early, well before opinions and perspectives are shaped, so they know what is required of them.
I remember the little village in the North of Nigeria where I taught Kindergarten class and primary one. Following the daily frustrations of kids not doing their homework, we resolved to have a meeting with the parents. This was tough, particularly because these parents were scarcely educated and couldn’t even speak the locally adapted Pidgin English. But we found a way of letting them know how central they were to their kid’s performance in school, from encouraging them to check their school work; even to the quality of food they give their wards for lunch break. When a child eats Rice Pudding with soup during lunch break, productivity is drastically cut through battles of slumber with spittle splatter for the rest of the school hours. In major cities where we have increasingly busy parents, we find that very little time is given to oversee the progress of children and set up household standards for school performance. I am a practical example of the negative effects of nonchalance in the home. It took my mother an epiphany before I buckled up midway through my secondary education. Until she woke up, I kept on sleeping.
I will not pretend that I have solutions to offer. My thoughts on how to deal with this mammoth issue is way too complicated and controversial in itself to dare blurt it out. But I know that when a nation strongly determines to change the course of its progress, nothing stops it. Is history not bequeathed with countless examples of this? Beyond the quality of ideas generated by its eggs heads is the strength of sheer will. If a country wills it, you better believe it. So my entire babble in this protracted commentary is to sound clearly that we must billow a national discussion on education. I remember back in the mid-eighties, when General Babangida raised a national discussion on the World Bank induced Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). Everyone became aware and contributed in various ways to which direction the country should go. When the citizens become actively involved in a discourse, they usually take ownership of the process and voice out their concerns. Whatever decisions come out of the national conversation, as long as it is not tangential to the majority of opinions, is more likely to receive public support, thus making implementation easier. I risk sounding naïve but I know I am not far from the truth.
Arne Duncan is an inspiration to me now. A hardworking man appointed as Education Secretary by President Obama. He is tirelessly touring the country and talking about a reform in education. What can our Minister of Education do? I am sitting here watching several interviews and panel discussion on TV, Online TV and YouTube and wondering when we will take this matter dead serious to the point that media houses will bring it to the fore and dedicate a whole month to raising critical questions on the future of education in Nigeria. I am also inspired by the work of Bill Gates and Colin Powell, who as private people have taken the personal responsibility to raise a national awareness through their investment into public education. What can our private well-meaning people and businesses do? Everyone is a stakeholder and must actively play a role in reforming our education.
In fairness, so much is being done by citizens and private organizations. Great ideas are out there on the streets and young men and women are teeming with much energy to serve in any capacity assigned. I know this personally, being involved with a number of education related projects. What we need is to publicly elevate this issue and articulate a clearly defined and time bound national goal on education at all levels. This is the only way we can unite our efforts and direct them towards a common end. Nigeria is peculiar in its own respect and so much of this should be regarded in determining where we want to go and what we want to accomplish. Tomorrows “Beautiful Ones” are dependent on what we build today. The worth of our workforce will be determined by the institutions we shape today. Let’s not fool ourselves into believing that throwing money at the problem will solve anything; that is a condition not far from ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Success in any sphere and at any level is not by happenstance, but by a deliberate and well-coordinated plan that recognizes the critical elements which through a perfect mix will deliver the guaranteed results. How priceless the saying: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” If the “Beautiful Ones” will be born, we must carefully plan their birth.