By Tabia Princewill
A LOT has been said about the unenviable position of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia or Singapore in the 1960s-1970s, compared to the relative strength and global standing of Nigeria during the same era. Malaysia imported palm kernels from Nigeria and launched a programme which started an agricultural revolution. In today’s world, the Singaporean educational system outperforms the United States, the United Kingdom and other G7 countries.
What happened to Nigeria? There are many ways one could answer that question. A key shift certainly occurred following structural adjustment. We stopped investing in our people at a crucial time in our history. By leaving Nigerians to deal with the vagaries or whims and fancies of the market without any social protection from the state, and by privatising or monetising virtually every mechanism which ought to have given the poorest amongst us a head start in life, we unwittingly unleashed long-term consequences which we are yet to fully unravel.
Singapore decided to invest in people because people, as Lee Kuan Yew, their first Prime minister, said, “were all they had”. With no natural resources to boast of, training their population became a national obsession. There is obviously a very strong link between investments made in people, or people-oriented policies and social stability: so why did Nigeria ignore the obvious for decades?
We lacked the political will to truly reform education; now we’re paying for it. If successive governments in West Africa had invested in professionalising livestock farming and educating herders, for example, on modern business management, vaccinations or even insurance for their herds, their groups would not be so easily infiltrated by nefarious gangs and the impetus for clashes with farming communities (in the wake of the scarce resources available due to climate change) would also have been significantly lessened.
Educating our people is the only way we can build a cohesive society. There can be no nation building without strong policies to strengthen education, making it accessible to all. Nigeria hasn’t developed much of an egalitarian tradition: this has far-reaching consequences and it is time we see fighting poverty and inequality as both a national security imperative and a moral obligation. Oxfam has been calling Nigeria the “powerhouse” of inequality for a number of years.
Yet our society, where citizens have few shared values, or any real understanding of one another beyond ethnic stereotypes paired with resentments relating to huge wealth disparities between regions and social classes, offers hidden opportunities for committed reformers. We cannot move this country forward without bridging inequality gaps, starting with programmes which focus on poor families. The well-to-do in society observe social ills with perplexity, wondering why the poor can’t simply “have less children”, “work harder” or “take charge of their destinies”, ignoring the systemic traps which keep those born into poverty quite literally stuck at the bottom.
There are many reasons to be worried about Nigeria. Yet, the media in our country focuses on ridiculous threats or any fantasy aimed at demonising some people while ignoring the harm done by the powerful. What we should be really worried about is the fact that the global economy is knowledge-based and the average Nigerian is not equipped to compete in such a world.
Nigerian workers will be left behind by the new trends in job creation (most require post-secondary training) unless urgent investment in our educational system brings quality teaching to more people. If our country remains a zero sum game where only those who are already wealthy or well-connected benefit, then we will continue to see kidnappings and other forms of violence become either the only feasible form of income for unskilled youth or a form of reprisal against a system which never cared for them.
Was social mobility ever an ideal our society believed in? It isn’t the founding myth our country was built on. More worryingly, what are the unifying beliefs or objectives keeping this country together? Economic mobility is rarely discussed in concrete terms: we urgently need an innovative, progressive agenda on education to tackle the root causes of societal upheaval.
First things first, what happens to a child from a poor background who isn’t doing well at school? What mechanisms ensure that a majority of Nigerian children attend school and indeed leave with qualifications? We must start off by making sure our society views depriving a child of an education as criminal.
In many countries, parents or adults who are seen with school-age children during term time are asked stringent questions as to why they are not in school and once children do attend, effective tutoring (even virtually) and national service or volunteer programmes make sure no child is left behind.
Some might say that youth corpers are already in schools. While this is true, do we evaluate their impact? Do we send in corpers who are truly interested in child care or is the exercise wasted by bringing in young people who are themselves not necessarily competent or capable of teaching?
Too many people fall through the cracks of the system and are left behind. Our prisons are filled with people of all ages who had no mentors or guidance to shape them. One could go even further and ask what is the content of the curriculum? Is it suited to the 21st century or are our students learning to operate in a world which no longer exists?
These questions should be on everyone’s mind, as well, of course, as teachers’ welfare without which any other investment can’t achieve real results. If we believe we can continue to exist peacefully in our middle class comfort and bubble of false security while the majority have access to nothing, we’re sorely mistaken.
THE Chairman/CEO of the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission said the Federal Government would be seeking compensation from South Africa following the recent attacks on Nigerians. According to her, 127 Nigerians have lost their lives in two years due to xenophobic attacks on Nigerian businesses.
“We want the government of South Africa to prosecute those who have been arrested. It is not a crime for people to move, especially within Africa or any part of the world. We are saying that if there is any Nigerian who commits any crime in any part of the world he or she should be punished.
“Don’t say that the crime of one should be meted out on others, we are always ready to protect our own citizens,” she said, in reference to claims by some South African officials that their citizens were simply angry at “Nigerian criminals” operating in their country.
Could the Nigerian and South African parliament as representatives of their people, speak in one voice to condemn xenophobia? More so, it is time legislation in both countries actively curtails both hate speech and xenophobic practices within their borders and re-emphasizes the safety of all lives and property.
THE International Committee of the Red Cross recently announced a new project which aims to create entrepreneurship schemes targeted at Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, in conflict prone areas such as the North-East of Nigeria.
“With longer, more protracted conflicts, we need to give people income opportunities. Even if they are in refugee camps, even if they are in internally displaced persons camps, they want to do something,” said the President of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer.
While he is right about the human yearning for financial independence, such projects require very strict oversight, given what we know of the abuses in IDP camps where those in charge who are meant to provide comfort and safety are often accused of misallocating resources or even exploiting IDPs for their own benefit.
It is up to the National Assembly and the executive arm of government to effectively monitor such programmes and ensure no Nigerian, no matter their social status is put in a situation whereby their economic vulnerability and desperation can be used against them.
Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.