[lg policy] Those things FG holds tightly in dainty hands

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Feb 16 11:16:12 EST 2018

 Those things FG holds tightly in dainty hands
Published February 16, 2018
’Tunji Ajibade

Tunji Ajibade

The wheel of governance moves slowly in every clime. Changing a status quo
suffers the same fate; both happen at a pace associated only with a
coal-powered train. In Nigeria, we beat all records. But as the reader
knows, it’s not always for altruistic reasons.  Running of the so-called
Unity schools by the Federal Government falls under this category.
Purchase of textbooks for primary schools as handled by officials in Abuja
is even more absurd. It’s not for the first time that I call attention to
these. Although in the past, even a serving Minister of Education had
strongly expressed reservations regarding these misnomers, nothing has

The other day, when officials of the Federal Ministry of Education defended
their 2018 budget at the National Assembly, they, as usual, announced the
amount they had set aside to buy textbooks for primary schools. Once again,
the question crossed my mind, as it had done for years, “Which primary
school does the FG own?” This question shouldn’t be for the Federal
Government officials alone? It should be asked of the lawmakers who approve
these funds year after year. These are the same lawmakers who know that at
the primary schools they once attended, pupils now sit on bare floor and
under trees to learn. The Federal Government calls what it does in primary
schools “intervention”. How effective is it? How much does it contribute to
the development of education at that level, more so as it’s on record that
most of these primary schools don’t get a copy of the books which officials
claim they procure? In other climes, these are questions that are answered
through authentic research in order for any policy to be pursued,
especially now that every government needs to cut cost.  Here, it’s
business as usual; no one asks questions.  A reason to question how
seriously we consider reform that’s based on current realities.

Still, other items in the proposed 2018 budget from the education ministry
make one ask more questions. According to the breakdown, the ministry has
set aside N5bn for the provision of “security infrastructure” in the
country’s 104 Federal Government Colleges (unity schools). The funds, it is
stated, will be used for the installation of Closed-Circuit Television
cameras and the construction of perimeter fencing around the schools. Other
items to be procured with the funds are solar-powered street lights and
solar-powered motorised boreholes. Does it cross the reader’s mind that
these must be some exotic schools to deserve such high-tech gadgets and
huge expenses, this in a situation where pupils in most other public
secondary schools across the country lack chairs and desks? Note that we
refer to 104 unity schools that don’t admit up to 10 per cent of Nigerian
secondary school students. Nevertheless, the Federal Government also
planned to spend N19m on the establishment of language clinics in these
schools, which it said would be a part of the National Language Policy.
Other expenses include capacity building for librarians in the schools,
which will gulp N6,652,000, as well as the physical assessment of their
libraries, which will cost the ministry N6m.

It doesn’t stop there. The ministry will also expend N10m on the deployment
of counsellors to tackle anti-social behaviour in schools it doesn’t own in
the six geopolitical zones in 2018. Other projects in the line-up include
the compilation and dissemination of skilled-based pupils textbooks for
Classes 1 to 6, Junior Senior Secondary 1 to 3 and teachers’ manuals on
nutrition education for schools which would cost over N10m.

Controversy has forever trailed the business of pre-tertiary institutions
that the government in Abuja chooses to involve itself in. Arguments by
Nigerians who are against it are many. Those in favour have their views
too. Promoting the unity of the country had been an argument in favour of
unity schools from the outset. No problems with that. The challenge is that
here we don’t move on from whatever we start. We use the same reasons
proffered back in 1960 to counter the realities of 2018. I’m for the unity
of this country. But I don’t think expending so much on just 104 unity
schools is the way to go about it. I think this nation has moved on, and
there are avenues other than some expensive unity schools which burden is
borne by the Federal Government to promote the unity of the country. In any
case, and as I had stated on this page in the past, we expend resources to
promote unity at one junction while we make a mess of the same ideal at
another junction when it suits us. Examples are around for all to see.
That’s one reason I’m not convinced the unity school arrangement still
serves its original purpose.

Equally, we know that our world has moved away from governments that
involve themselves in running certain entities. It’s the position of the
World Trade Organisation and Nigeria has been a member since 1995. In fact,
the WTO’s principles emphatically encourage privatisation and
liberalisation as the way to go. Western nations have been the first to
mostly conduct themselves accordingly. The huge expansion of their
economies, as well as a creative private sector which propels the founding
of internet-powered companies that are some of the wealthiest in the world
is traceable to the decision by governments to leave business for the
private sector to run. Britain, like Nigeria, was once a staunch advocate
of government’s  involvement in what the private sector should handle.
Today, not even a Labour government (ever pro-nationalisation) has the
nerve to make government run some businesses. Certainly, the Central
government in London or in Washington DC will not want to run primary and
secondary schools as we insist on doing in Abuja. What has been the outcome
in those other climes? Less load for the government at the centre, as well
as schools that are better run; schools to which many of the public
officials in Nigeria who argue in favour of Unity schools send their kids.

But, not everyone involved in our education system has kept silent about
the oddity that the Federal Government has been involved in. Not every
official has chosen to not do anything about Unity schools that gulp a
large chunk of the funds budgeted for education by the Federal Government.
While she was in office, the former Minister of Education, Oby Ezekwesili,
had undertaken measures to ensure that a disproportionate part of our funds
no longer went to these pampered Federal Government’s secondary schools.
When she left office, some got the next government led by President Umaru
Yar’Adua to return to the status-quo. In government circles, where
entrenched interest caused the wheel of governance to reject inconvenient
change, Ezekwesili was almost a lone voice. That hasn’t discouraged her
though; she continues to argue that the current approach to running Unity
schools by the Federal Government isn’t sustainable, and that it’s
counterproductive to the overall health of the nation’s education system.

It’s always been a source of concern the manner we know the way to go but
choose to ignore it. We refuse to jettison what is no longer sustainable
because of some sentimental reasons we come up with. We have a Federal
Government that is bloated. It cannot fund its budget without borrowing. A
Federal Government expends much of what it borrows to fund annual budget on
salary and other overhead costs, more than it does capital projects. Yet,
obvious areas where it can shed loads such as the running of pre-tertiary
education are stubbornly retained. The other day, some lawmakers pointed
out on the floor of the National Assembly that the Federal Government
continued to establish its own universities based on political
considerations, without a thought for the cost implications. They said this
was the same Federal Government that hadn’t effectively funded the existing
schools, complained about dwindling revenue, just as it asserted that
privatisation was the new direction across the globe. No doubt, there’s a
need for a major turnaround regarding what the Federal Government holds
tightly that it shouldn’t. One day, we shall have those who’ll be
courageous enough to put their feet down and effect the turnaround.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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