BY SIMON EBEGBULEM, BENIN CITY
Members of the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) in Edo state who have been at loggerheads with the state government over the resolve by government to conduct a competency test for the teachers, lost their case at a townhall meeting which held at Imaguero hall Benin City last Tuesday, February 25, 2014.
The Governor Adams Oshiomhole led administration had insisted on the competency test after the verification exercise embarked upon by government disclosed that some of the teachers falsified their ages. Apart from that, some were found incompetent to teach because they came into the system through one official or the other.
It would be recalled that sometime last year when the governor paid an unscheduled visit to some schools, Oshiomhole and journalists were embarrassed when some of the teachers interviewed could not speak English. During the screening exercise for teachers which was conducted last year, one Mrs Augusta Odenwigbe who was asked to read an affidavit she swore to declare her age, to the amusement of all she could not read it. Rather than read “I solemnly”, she said, “one Solomon’ to the bewilderment of the governor and other people who were around. And Mrs Odenwigbe had spent twenty years in that school. As a result, the state government insisted on the test with a view to ascertain the number of qualified teachers.
But the NUT rejected the exercise saying that it was a ploy by the state government to sack teachers. Several meetings were called by the government with a view to convince the teachers on why the test was necessary but that effort was frustrated by the teachers who vowed never to participate in the test.
Consequently, the state government invited members of the civil society in the state and laid the case before them a month ago. While addressing the civil society members, Oshiomhole explained that the proposed competency test for teachers in the state is not meant to witch hunt anybody. He noted that only those incompetent to teach should be afraid of the test and that “any of the problems that have bugged us down, the earlier we identify it and find the courage to fix it, we can still make up for lost time.
“I now find that the key element that would define the outcome is the teacher and the NUT is not willing for us to carry out this competency test.
The teachers still earn what is called the Teachers Special Allowance. A level 12 teacher earns more than a civil servant. This is in recognition of the importance we attach to education. We are not getting what we should get. God will punish me if as Governor of this state, who has been so favoured by every person in terms of the number of votes I got from the local government areas, I knowingly dumped the Edo child on teachers who will not impart knowledge”.
Executive Director, African Network for Economic Justice, the Reverend David Ugolor who summarized the contributions of the Civil Society Organisations said there was a consensus that the issue of competency test for teachers is very important to reposition quality education in Edo State; that there is the need for the Civil Society organizations to meet with the NUT leadership to get their side of the story and that the Civil society will set up an independent contact group to reach out to the NUT with a view to ensuring an agreement between the government and the NUT to move forward. The Civil society groups thanked the Governor for the opportunity to share with them government’s policy on education. Over twenty civil society organisations were in attendance at the meeting.
The civil society groups met with the teachers and they came up with a statement last week Thursday. But reacting however, the state chairman of the NUT, Mr Osagioduwa Uhunmwangho, told Saturday Vanguard that “for now, the teachers are resolute not to write the competency test because it is vindictive. We don’t trust this government. You do test before appointment and not now. As a State Government, it should dawn on them to go on training, retraining and workshop for the teachers to be productive in whatever they do.
If the government wants to look at the issue of certification, the teachers are there to present their certificates while the State Government can go and verify same from the relevant institutions if they are genuine and whether the teachers are qualified for the teaching profession. Sometimes when you people talk about development, you are talking about structures without chairs, no furniture and human capacity building that is not properly taken care off.
Most of the furniture are not there, the teachers do not even have a place to sit. In everything we do in life, in every association and parastatal, not everybody working there is competent. But sometimes, the popular teacher that has become a reference point by the Comrade Governor has had a health challenge which the NUT is aware of.
Those kind of persons should be asked to go on voluntary retirement. We still believe the State government has its obligation to train, organized workshops for teachers. But for now, we are not ready for the competency test until he fulfils his obligations”.
But worried by what he described as an attempt by the teachers to frustrate the efforts being made by the state government to cleanse the educational sector, Oshiomhole held a town hall meeting with stakeholders penultimate Tuesday with a view to lay the matter before them. But few hours before the meeting, the NUT in a communique signed by its chairman, Comrade Mike Uhunmwangho announced that they were boycotting the town hall meeting.
It stated, “in place of town hall meetings, Edo state government is hereby urged to organize Education Summit where professionals and other critical stakeholders can make presentations and a formal blue-print developed to help government take the sector to the expected level. And we want to repeat that teachers in Edo state will not participate in the writing of competency test as proposed by the Edo state government as the motive behind the proposal is mischievous.”
However traditional rulers across the three senatorial districts were all in attendance at the town hall meeting. Some of them include the Iyase of Benin Kingdom, Chief Sam Igbe; Esogban of Benin Kingdom, Chief David Edebiri; Otaru of Auchi, Alhaji Aliru Momoh (Ikelebe 111); Isekhure of Benin Kingdom, Chief Nosakhare Isekhure; Enojie of Opoji, Enojie of Igueben; former Vice Chancellor of the Ambrose Alli University Ekpoma, Prof.Dennis Agbonlahor and host of others. Oshiomhole in is opening speech, narrated his ordeal in the hands of the teachers and informed the participants to look into the issue, adding that he will not hesitate to drop the issue of competency test if the crowd kick against it.
He narrated: “In the course of our recent verification exercise, we found that of about 1,300 primary school teachers either got affidavit reducing their age, and because they reduced their age so much, it appeared that they had their primary school leaving certificate before they were born.
But for not just the issue of age falsification, we also found out that many of our teachers claimed to have finished primary school and sat for Primary School Leaving Certificate Examination fifteen years after they had started teaching. Many of them purportedly obtained this certificate in the very school they have been teaching over the past ten years. The question is, did they actually sit side by side with their pupils to write Primary School Examination?
Why did they have to obtain Primary School certificate after being employed as teachers? We have not dismissed these persons because we want to find out what happened and that requires time. We recalled that in the course of the verification exercise, I had cause to interview a lady who has issues with her affidavit. The original of the affidavit shows she was born in 1957 but the photocopy says she was born 1967, thats a difference of ten years. But in the cause of asking her a simple question, I noticed that she was not able to express herself.
This teacher who receives special teaching allowance does not know the difference between ‘one’ and ‘I’. I asked her to read the affidavit and instead of saying ‘I solemnly’ declare, she said ‘one Solomon’. She did not know the difference between ‘I’ and ‘one’.
“ She described affidavit as Onitsha prophet. And even the word Onitsha was not on the affidavit but I suspect that was where the affidavit was forged. ‘I solemnly’ now turned to ‘one Solomon’. Yet our mothers will take their children to such Onitsha prophets and every day, we say we produce graduates that are not employable. This is the foundation.
Today I am told that primary school pupils, secondary school students are into cultism and it is because of the bad teachers at the grassroot. And we cannot have a future as a state if we decide to turn the other way. And there cannot be upward mobility for the poor if they do not have access to basic education and without education, what happens is a labourer gives birth to another labourer. I have tried to engage the NUT to let them know that we have teachers who cannot read and write and that is the responsibility of government.
“Sometime last year, the teachers agreed at our instance that we should organize a competency test which other governments in some other states have carried out. Their only reservation is that the test should not be used to ridicule teachers and that we should ensure that the test is not covered by the mass media. We agreed because it is not something I want to celebrate. We went on to pick a date but the NUT advised their members not to attend.
We called them for a meeting along with the NLC and the TUC. They said they needed time to sensitize their members. But apparently, the NUT leaders went to mislead their members, whereas they told us they want to time to sensitize their members.
They went to the meeting to tell their members that we have abolished the competency test. And inspite of all these things, we have not sacked any of them. I told the teachers that we can review some of these issues but that we must identify those who cannot teach or those who have exceeded 60 years just to say that the entire exercise was not to sack anybody. If it was to sack anybody, we would sack the 1,300 people. Even those who obtained Primary School Leaving Certificate fifteen years after teaching, we have not sacked. We have carried out the verification exercise across the civil service. This is not limited to teachers.
People have said to me that you know, elections are coming, this is not the time to make teachers unhappy. But for God’s sake, why should we seek power if our purpose is not for the good of the society? Why should I seek for the governor of this state if I know that I will not have the courage to make decisions that I am convinced that if we do not make, that we will mortgage tomorrow? There can be no tomorrow if we do not make the right decisions today. I don’t want to pass this burden to my successor. But I understand that the conventional politician will just turn the other way, let nobody speak ill of me.
But for me, I believe that if I had not enjoyed quality primary education, I would not have been President of the NLC because workers cannot elect you to lead them when you cannot argue their case. So, I do not mind any contradiction in insisting that if there is conflict between the right of our children to quality basic education and retaining an unqualified teacher, I think we will resolve it in favour of our children. When I was sworn in, I did say that for us to make changes in Edo state, we will need not only to step on toes, but that we may have to chop off some toes.
This is not the easiest task about people I know 95 per cent of them voted for me. But again, why did you vote for me? Is it not to provide a credible leadership that will secure the future of this state? There is a saying that a politician with narrow mind thinks of the next election but a statesman thinks of the next generation. I think that it is occasions like this that defines our character, whether we are just mere opportunists in power or we seek office because we believe that we need to do some things for Nigeria to change?”
After his speech, the royal fathers endorsed the competency test and urged him to go along and sack unqualified teachers. Tension further heightened at the hall when one of the market women popular known as Madam Blackky described the action of the teachers as arrogant and wicked, asserting that “we suffer to make money in the market to pay school fees for our children, so they want us to be wasting our money by allowing illiterates teach our children?
That is unacceptable”. Chief Edebiri said: “No competent teacher should be afraid of competency test. After the incident of the teacher who could not read her affidavit, what has the NUT done to weed out incompetent teachers from its midst? Teachers are not the only people who voted for Oshiomhole. We parents of the children they teach also voted for the governor and the future of our children is of great interest to us.
The governor has done nothing wrong so far. The teachers should not abuse their right to strike or demonstrate. They are not the only stakeholders in the educational sector. We are also stakeholders and we say we are in support of the competency test”.
Determined to conduct the competency test,Governor Oshiomhole inaugurated a team of six Professors of Education led by former Vice Chancellor of the Ambrose Alli University Ekpoma,Professor Dennis Agbonlahor to conduct the Teachers’ Assessment test. In his acceptance speech on behalf of other team members, Agbolahor promised that the team will be objective and transparent in the discharge of their assignment.Other members of the team include Profesor Ikponmwonsa Owie, Professor Noah Musa, Professor Augustine Osunde, Professor Omobude Idiado and Professor Mrs. A. O. Imogie. But the teachers last Monday dragged the Edo state government before the Industrial Court in Akure, Ondo state, contesting that the state government was not competent to conduct the test.
They therefore sought for an order restraining the state government from conducting the test. The face-off between the two parties seems unending as government fixed March 22, 2014 as date for the test.