The recent twist from the Education Minister, which suggests that the Unity Schools will only have a joint management team comprising of private and public representatives and not outright privatisation, is absurd. We must remind the minister that, when the Unity Schools were still working, were they managed by any private individuals? If no, what then went wrong with unity schools?
The position of the minister shows clearly what has gone wrong and that is that education is in shambles as result of gross under funding and not just the problem of management as she has been trying to paint it. According to the minister, “between 2000 and 2004, only seven schools out of the 65 reporting schools recorded 50% and above in the West Africa School Certificate examinations”. She also said that, “about 15% of the Unity Schools students passed up to five credits in the same examinations for the past five years, even in the face of increase in funding to the schools in the same period for the unity schools”. The Minister went ahead to state that, “of the 11000 secondary schools in the country, only 102 are Unity Schools and also a total of 6.4 million Nigerians of secondary schools age are in public and private secondary schools out of a total of 33.9 million Nigerians that are of secondary age, while just 122,000 out of the 6.4 million students in secondary schools are students of Unity Schools”. However, “the ministry spends between 70 and 80% of its total yearly budget on Unity Schools”.
Now with students’ under performance in Unity Schools, the fact that the Federal government can only account for just about 2% of the total students in secondary schools in the country (about 0.4% of total number of students who ought to be in secondary school), the only way forward for the Minister can propose is a “reform” that suggests a public/private partnership for efficient management of the Unity Schools. For the keen followers of the debate it is striking that the Minister of Education, Mrs. Obiageli Ezekwesili, who has been comfortable in revealing the poor performance of students in the Unity Schools, has not for once told the public how much this government invests every year in these 102 Unity Schools and education in general. But one is keen to help her out by stating, without any iota of contradiction, that the failure of this government and all previous ones to fund education properly is the reason for the poor performance of students in the Unity Schools. It is instructive however to state that the abysmal performance of students is not limited to Unity Schools alone but also the case in most private and public schools in the country.
There is no way we can run away from this abysmal failure on the part of the students in a country where government spends more money on frivolities. The Federal government in 2002 spent N90 billion in hosting the All Africa Games and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting while a whooping N90 billion went into the Abuja National Stadium. NNPC through its joint partners awarded a contract that is worth $1 billion to Halliburton for about $3 billion. Just recently the government has proposed to invest $5 billion in a so-called National Science Foundation (NSF). Another white elephant project, if you ask me, though it appears reasonable on the surface. Under the disguise of fighting inflation, the Federal government issues out free money to so-called investors to the tune of N75 billion every six months as interest payments of 17% on its treasury bills and bonds, which it sells to the capital market. Even in the 2007 proposed budget, the Obasanjo led federal government has voted N265 billion to fight inflation when infrastructures are begging for revitalization. At a time Nigeria is making huge amounts from sale of crude oil alone, plus having huge foreign currency reserves, why did government need to borrow at a whooping interest rate of 17% without any tangible gain? So, one can see that this government prefers to waste money on phoney and amorphous projects that will further pauperise the masses with the aim to enrich the small tiny ruling elite through over inflated contracts and a dubious anti-inflationary fight.
When the Minister of Education agues that it is wrong to spend her so-called huge resources on 120,000 in the midst of 6.4 million students, what they are trying to justify is that every body should be subjected to the market policy that is cash and carry inclined. That is, every body should be responsible for educating his or her child in the same way they have been responsible for health, electricity etc. It is interesting to note that those who have been benefiting from this outright irresponsibility on the part of government are the promoters of commercialisation and privatisation. For example, President Obasanjo has a private secondary school; a private University (Bell University) etc.; vice President Atiku Abubarka also has a private University (ABTI). Not a few public officers and their private collaborators have properties ranging from private hospitals, schools, houses etc. So it is most beneficial to them to deliberately make all public institutions unworkable by starving them of funds in order to justify privatisation. The idea is to commercialise or privatise the Unity Schools so as to free up money to embezzle through white elephant projects and also to have more students attend their own private schools since the few middle class elements will have no choice than to pay through their nose to these merchants who will take control of these Unity Schools or to the private schools already in existence.
The so-called private/public collaboration is not new in this country. One will wish to recall that most of our public hostels in our universities that have been privatised in a similar way are in a sorry story. For example, the students’ hostels in the University of Lagos that were handed over to private merchants have so far had increments in the accommodation charge from N1200 to N15000, without any concrete upgrading of the facilities. This has prevented those unprivileged ones who ordinarily would have managed to attend school if the hostels were not handed to private shacks. Also the Federal government through the then Nasiru El-Rufai led Bureau for Public enterprises (BPE) in April 2003 contracted a private wheeler-dealer organisation called Pentascope to manage NITEL smoothly pending its privatisation which was initially scheduled to take place in June 2005. When Pentascope took over the management of NITEL in April 2003, there were about 455,000 functional lines in a network costing over N100 billion since it was set up in 1984. A year later, under the management of Pentascope, the network had dwindled to 288,000 lines and equally left a huge debt of N33 billion. Yet the Federal government paid a sum of $9 million (N1.26 billion) to Pentascope for a “job well done”.
It is an indictment on the Federal government, which in actual sense controls over 53% of our total resources, is at the same time has been responsible for providing secondary education for just 120,000 (2%) of students out of 6.4 million students in secondary schools and (0.4%) of 33.9 million who need secondary school education. Today, Nigeria makes a huge sum of $190 million daily from sales of crude oil alone as the seventh largest producer in the world. Yet, its allocation to education is only better than that of Somalia while the average allocation since 1999 is less than one-quarter of UNESCO recommendation, which is 26%. The average pupils/students per classroom/teacher in most primary and secondary in Nigeria are 100, as against 35 recommended by UNESCO. Similarly, there are no functional facilities in our schools- libraries are outdated, laboratories are unequipped, classrooms are overcrowded, education workers are underpaid.
While the overwhelming mass majority is wallowing in poverty, with over 70% of Nigerians living on less than $1 per day, the very few privileged are swimming in filthy wealth. Why should they think of the masses, when they are not affected in any way? And this is because they are privileged to be able to afford sending their children to best schools anywhere in the world. For example, the former Minister for Finance, Okonjo Iweala stated in an interview with Guardian published on July 2, 2006 that she pays N5.6 million ($40,000) annually for each of her three children that are in Universities abroad. That is to say she spends in a year at least N16.8 million alone on university education for her three children. Similar pictures can be painted for most of our government functionaries and their private collaborators who are clamouring for privatisation including the Minister for Education, Oby Ezekwesili.
It is obvious that this policy that is hinged on neo-liberal policy of privatisation will further worsen the current state of education as more and more people will be barred from getting basic education. All we are saying is that government must fund public education properly from primary school to the university level. That is, more schools must have to be built and functional facilities must be put in place. And the only way to achieve this is for the commanding heights of the economy to be nationalized and placed under democratic control and management of the working people such that all resources is geared towards meeting the needs (education, health, housing etc.) of the people. Anything short of this is anarchy that will further guarantee more illiteracy, ignorance and poverty for the working people in the country.
The Education Rights Campaign (ERC) supports the strike action by the Unity School teachers under auspices of the Senior Civil Servants Association of Nigeria (SCSAN). We call on labour (NLC, CFTU, TUC), pro-masses organisations like DSM and UAD, and masses oriented political parties like NCP to give concrete support to the struggle. Besides, the labour and pro-masses organisations must form a common political platform that is opposed to neo-liberal policy such as privatisation, commercialisation etc., with the aim to wrest political power from this self-serving ruling elite. Anything outside this organized strategy will help to guarantee the sustenance of neo-liberal attacks on our collective rights to good education, good health, driveable roads, better condition of service etc. That is to say that, workers in all sectors, youths, students, peasants, artisans etc., must be united in the struggle to rescue this country from the anarchy, misery and poverty we are currently witnessing.