By CHARLES KUMOLU
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Agilent Wireless Limited, Mr. Lawrence Wilbert, who was recently elected President-General of Unity Schools Old Students Association,USOSA, discusses his plans for the body with emphasis that the objectives behind the establishment of the institutions are still germane today. Wilbert, who sits on the board of other companies including GenielNG Communications and Potters and Law also relishes his experience as a student of one of the unity schools in the 1980s.
I’m an engineer and into Telecommunication System Integration. I did further training in Telecommunication and Computer Networking. I attended Federal Government College, Ugwolawo, Kogi State. As a young man of 11 years, I used to embark on a three-hour journey from Benin to the bank of River Niger, in Agenegbode, where I would take a ferry to Idah in Kogi State. The journey to Idah is 45 minutes. From Idah, I would take a car to my school Ugwolawo. That was the first time I saw a bare-chested woman going about her business without inhibitions. That was one of the things that struck me. The bank of the River Niger in Agenegbode was the point of convergence for all of us from different parts of the country. It was remarkable because it was fun taking the ferry to Idah. Interestingly, some of the students didn’t speak English at the point of convergence but when they got to the school, they quickly learned English. We were taught that we’re equal not minding the part of Nigeria we come from. We were taught how to be leaders with character. Above all, we were taught that our word must be our bond.
Promotion of excellence
I will say that the Federal Government is doing fairly well in the funding of Unity Schools. However, the question to ask is: how is the money utilised? We need to address that. We have grand plans and we are looking at how our programmes are funded from different sources. The alumni associations that makeup USOSA have been funding projects worth millions of naira. USOSA consists of 104 federal government colleges, federal government girls colleges, Suleja Academy and a few federal science colleges. The mandate of USOSA as a registered body in the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, is to promote the unity of Nigeria through the promotion of excellence in public education. We are reenergizing the alumni associations nationwide to realise our mandate. USOSA came into being in 2007 as an interventionist body that was opposed to the sale of the unity schools by President Olusegun Obasanjo. The success that was achieved by coming together gave USOSA that push to exist as a body that created visibility for alumni associations of unity schools. My two-year tenure would be used to achieve greater things for USOSA.
Unity Schools are not really what they used to be and most of you who passed through the schools are not happy about it. What are your areas of concern?
The 104 unity schools in the country were set up by the Federal Government to promote the unity of this country and create leaders. The aim was to bring young students from different parts of the country to live together in an institution where they will study. By the time a student must have spent five or six years in the school, the person must have learned much about Nigeria’s diversity having lived with people from the east, north, west, and south. What that meant was that the government invested much in good education that was subsidised for the students. We attended the schools and came out with excellent qualifications. Today, unity schools have become victims of the challenges in Nigeria which include lack of adequate security nationwide and institutionalised corruption. The quality of teachers is not what it used to be. Teachers’ welfare is also a challenge. These are impediments that limit unity schools today.
What motivated you into vying for the position of President-General of Unity Schools Old Students Association, USOSA?
Being a patriotic Nigerian qualified me for the position. I have studied in different parts of the world and there is no better place to be than Nigeria. The quality education I received in a unity school from the federal government, made it mandatory for me to give back to the system. From the age of 11 to our late teenage years, we were groomed to be leaders with the motto Pro Unitate but with the division among the various tribes that make up Nigeria, we feel very disturbed. That made us think about what the future of the country would look like if we don’t tackle the problem. One of the better ways to tackle our problems is quality education, especially the education that children can get in unity schools. That was why I felt that it would be wrong for me to sit back and watch things go wrong. I got involved to see how we can work primarily with the government through the Ministry of Education, our legislators, and fellow old boys to passionately give back to the system. The plan is to restore quality to public education in Nigeria and at the same time, promote the unity of Nigeria.
Unlike in the past, unity schools are no longer fashionable. In fact, statistics indicate that the number of students who enroll has drastically reduced. As the President of USOSA, how do you intend to make the schools appealing again to Nigerians?
I don’t agree that enrollment has reduced but the diversity of students attending the schools has reduced. Unity schools have become localised instead of the national outlook they had in the past. It should not be so, because the situation implies that the reason for the formation of the schools has been defeated. It calls to question what is also going on in the National Youth Service Corps,NYSC, which has the same aims and objectives like the unity schools. What we intend to do is to engage the owner of the school which is the Ministry of Education. We want to work with the ministry in improving the standard of education in the schools, as well as fixing the infrastructure problems across the schools. My colleagues in the association are equal stakeholders just like the Ministry of Education. We invest our personal funds in the rehabilitation of dilapidated infrastructure. We do a lot already but we need to engage properly with the ministry this time. We want to work with them on teachers’welfare,their training and other things that would enhance quality of teachers. The sanitary condition of the schools, especially the girl-child schools would be looked into. The idea is to ensure that students receive quality education. It’s not a short-term approach but a long-term process that would ensure a policy framework that could return the schools to their glorious days.
Your plan of engaging the owner of the school, was a reminder of the plan by ex-Military President, Gen Ibrahim Babangida(retd) to change the ownership system of the schools by giving them to states where they are domiciled. It took efforts by certain people to make him rescind the decision. Babangida felt that ownership contributed to the challenges the institutions were experiencing then. Since those problems are still there, would you suggest a change of ownership to revitalise the schools?
Graduates of many unity schools founded in the 1960s are in their 60s and 50s now. They are grandfathers and grandmothers now. They are leaders trained to make key decisions in the country. Most of them have occupied positions of authority in the country. Some are still in such positions where they make key decisions in the country. However, if the ownership is changed, the aims of establishing unity schools would be defeated. Even if they are handed over to states or any other localised institution to run, the aims would still be defeated. Doing that would imply that we are no longer interested in having patriotic citizens, who would be at home anywhere in the country. The Federal Government should still be the owner of the unity schools with the same aim of promoting the unity of Nigeria. Members of the alumni association are also core stakeholders in the ownership of the schools, who should be carried along in efforts at revitalising the schools. Therefore, I will be engaging the Ministry of Education to ensure that the alumni association is carried along as equal partners in efforts at reviving the schools. In doing that, we will be guided by the spirit of Pro Unitate, which is the motto of the schools.
In the past, mutual trust endeared Nigerians to each other to the extent that someone in Calabar could send his child to Federal Government College, Sokoto, Federal Government Girls Bakori and any other unity school. However, that is no longer obtainable today. Don’t you think the absence of this factor could affect your plans?
I don’t necessarily agree in its entirety that the challenges confronting the schools are about mutual trust. I believe the insecurity in the country is mainly responsible in this context. Recently, I was at an event where a former governor of Kaduna State, Sen Ahmed Makarfi narrated his experience in Federal Government College, Enugu. He said he was a young boy in Kaduna State after the civil war, whose father sent to study in Federal Government College Enugu. He went there to study immediately after the civil war. He could have been massacred because the pains of the war were still fresh but he was treated as a Nigerian, not as a northerner and he grew up with that experience. Today, he narrated the story to support the unity of this country. If there was a time mutual distrust existed in the country, it was that period when Makarfi was sent to study in Enugu not now. The major challenge is security and the Federal Government needs to proritise the security and welfare of Nigerians. The moment the leadership of this country takes the security of this country seriously, every other thing will flow. I just came back from Enugu where we had a three-day reunion. We had people from the west, north, east and every part of the country, who converged on Enugu. There was no issue of mutual distrust. Nobody was scared of traveling to that part of the country. It is the insecurity in the country that impedes many from moving from one part of the country to another.
Regardless of your view about mutual distrust, many believe the country was not even this divided after the civil war. There seems to be a consensus that the country has never been this divided along religious and ethnic lines. What does that make of your argument?
The need to promote the unity of the country is one of the reasons I decided to assume the leadership of the alumni association. Situations like this make us show our mettle as leaders. Unity schools were created for a time like this. They were created to train and educate Nigerians to exhibit those things they learned in the unity schools. There is no better person to rule Nigerian than a product of the unity schools, because, we are well groomed to unite Nigerians. I am using this avenue to call on all old students of unity schools to rise to the challenge of promoting the unity of this country. This the time for us to promote unity among the various nations that make up Nigeria.
Many before you promised similar changes but the challenges are still there, how are you going to achieve different results?
I am offering transformational service. I am passionate about unity schools. There is a lot to give back. The absence of the capacity to impact moral values is quite painful to us. That brings into focus the justice for Ochanya campaign which we are leading now. The 13-year-old girl who was abused by her guardian ended up in a unity school. We are also focusing on the plight of the girl-child in the unity schools. We are coming up with a mentorship scheme, which will be used to address the degradation of morality in the schools. It is important that we address these issues because the same types of problems are found in all the schools. The role of the parents, Parents Teachers Association, PTA, in the management of the schools will also be looked into.