ASUU, the vilification of Ngige and Nigeria’s shambolic education system

There was an isolated uproar in Ebonyi State on Tuesday this week. In Abakaliki, the capital, furious parents decided to protest against the decision of the nursery and primary school of the Tricia academy to ban their pupils from taking exams. The reason, according to the school, was non-payment of graduation fees. The question parents ask is why on earth have they been asked to pay a graduation fee when their wards are not graduating?

It might be a small incident in a small town in one corner of the country, but it demonstrates the state of chaos in the education sector in Nigeria. A field where everyone does what they want because, well, we don’t care what education means.

To demonstrate this, last week President Muhammadu Buhari, in what would appear to be sage advice, asserted that he would not bequeath a legacy to his children but rather leave them the legacy of education.

At first glance, the statement seems relevant. But this is problematic on several levels. The first is the fact that as a Muslim, President Buhari has no choice but to leave a legacy for his children. As president, former head of state, general, career soldier, career politician, and recipient of the favors bestowed on him by office, he has acquired wealth that will most likely outlive him. As he has never shown a predisposition to philanthropy, it is difficult to imagine him giving his fortune to charity. So, like it or not, this wealth would go to his heirs. Like it should be. In any case, it is the business of the president and his heirs.

The other aspect that concerns the rest of us is his posture towards the value of education. For a president who oversaw nearly two years of university closures and an increase in the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria from 10 million in 2015 to around 13 million now, under whose watch the previous government’s investment of 15 billion naira in almajiri schools has been allowed to waste, it sends the wrong signals.

Yes, as a father, it is right to prioritize the education of his children. As president, it is unwise to say this when universities have been closed since February and with this administration’s shocking education index.

As the strike dragged on, the president remained nonchalant, relying on body language that proved as effective as a placebo to fix the situation. This week’s revelations showed in particular how this body language directly led to the stalemate we have had over the last six months of the ASUU strike.

In 2016, at a meeting of the Federal Executive Council, Dr Chris Ngige argued, using the provisions of the International Labor Organization (ILO), that it was his sole responsibility, as Minister of Labour, to negotiate with any union on strike, including the ASUU, thus excluding the intervention of the Minister of Education. Adamu Adamu, the Minister of Education, turned to the President for clarification, but the President said nothing. Neither did the other cabinet members. It was assumed that the Minister of Labor had succeeded.

Throughout, ASUU officials lamented Dr Ngige’s appalling handling of the negotiations, which culminated in last year’s strike lasting nine months, and six more and counting this year.

Finally, this week, the President decided to issue a directive removing Mr. Ngige from managing negotiations with the ASUU and giving Mr. Adamu two weeks to step in and report on the crisis.

Yet while Mr. Adamu, who as a columnist had written brilliant articles on ASUU’s strike management and the development of the education sector, is keen to appear as a victim as well, Deviation by Mr. Ngige with the support of some ILO articles and the president’s body language, it must be emphasized that he could have done more. Following Mr. Ngige’s massive failures with ASUU, Adamu could have made an impassioned appeal to the President using logic to manage a crisis that defines his legacy as education minister.

Also, the ministry’s responsibilities go beyond managing the ASUU strikes, which shouldn’t be happening in the first place. Pushing the drive to drastically reduce the number of out-of-school children falls squarely within the remit of his ministry. Just like the standardization of the education sector from top to bottom so that these parents from Abakaliki or others from Kaura Namoda or Sagamu are not exploited by private school owners. While ensuring that the Jonathan Administration’s investment in Almajiri schools is not wasted, moderating the Almajiri system and safeguarding the future of these children is a priority.

However one wants to look at it, Nigeria’s biggest problem is not corruption or nepotism, but education. Our failure to properly decolonize the education system has been the greatest blight on our country and its development. We simply inherited a colonial education system designed to produce low level clerks and officials to run the colonial administration for the benefit of another country. We have retained it as an instrument of subjugation of peoples. While a half-educated population will never reach their full potential as individuals and people, they are infinitely easier to govern and exploit.

A properly educated police officer would know the overall implication of accepting this one hundred naira bribe from the failing taxi driver, who would normally be educated enough to know the implication of his traffic offence. They would at least know that greed should not come before the public good. A properly educated woman would know the right steps to take and the right questions to ask to improve her maternal health and reduce maternal and child mortality. A properly educated population would not be scammed into drinking salt water to prevent a viral infection like Ebola. A properly educated population would know how and would be more interested in creating wealth than beating up an overstretched and largely unproductive public sector.

Rethinking the education system and investing in it for the long term is a prerogative of development that the various governments have not taken seriously.

Nigeria is a country with its own systems, cultures and moral compasses. Whatever education system we implement, it must be one that harmonizes all of these particularities to produce a population that is highly literate, productive and capable of critical thinking. It is the key to the success of highly literate countries like Japan and South Korea, whose education systems bring out the best of their ancient cultures and incorporate modern ideas that have enabled them to be world champions in various fields. This is not achievable by patching up a failing university system so that the next administration inherits the malaise. Nor will it be achieved through a paltry budget allocation.

I recently saw a video of then-aspiring President Muhammadu Buhari speaking in Hausa, lamenting the budget allocation to education. At the time, it would give hope that he would fix this problem.

It is a pity that Ngige, a minister of labor, was allowed for so long to denigrate the education sector and that the president tolerated his handling of the strike anyway for so long. But now that he has been vilified and removed from negotiations, I sincerely hope there will be positive moves that will release impoverished university students from their limbo and put them back on track to complete a largely disappointing education. As for the rest of the sector, we can only hope.