By Sola Ebiseni
IN the past week, it was reported that while Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State was on his way to an official function at 11 am on Thursday, he halted his convoy on sighting two underage girls at Anthony Village on an errand for a bean cake vendor.
A spokesperson of the governor later informed that Amarachi Chinedu, 9, and Suwebat Husseini, 12, were forced to skip school by their parents in order to perform some domestic duties.
“Amarachi’s story made the governor shudder throughout the encounter. Her mother is a teacher, but she was not allowed to go to school because her parents could not afford the current session’s tuition fees. Amarachi would have to miss a school year because of this reason.
“Suwebat’s mother is the akara (bean cake) seller for whom the girls were running an errand. Her parents, who are Jigawa State indigenes, relocated to Lagos months back. Suwebat’s four male siblings were all in school at the time she was stopped on the road by the Governor.
“But her parents preferred she stayed back home to help with some domestic chores. The decisions taken by the girls’ parents, Sanwo-Olu said, could rob the little ones of their innocence, their future and put them at a disadvantage among their peers. The Governor stressed that his encounter with the girls left his heart bleeding.
“Salvaging the situation, Sanwo-Olu, at the scene, told the girls he would personally take up the responsibility for their education and upbringing, promising to enrol them in school to continue with their education. The governor’s decision had been communicated to the girls’ parents,” he said.
If the Governor’s encounter with the girls left his heart bleeding, his reaction was no less disconcerting. Not in any state, part of the old Western Region, should any child of school age, in both primary and secondary schools, be seen on the streets during school hours.
In this part of Nigeria, nay Africa, it is tantamount to letting the labours of our heroes past be in vain for any adult, parents, guardians and government to be complacent about the education of our children.
Writing on “The Development of Free Primary Education in Nigeria”, S.A. Ajayi recalled that the Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group which came to power in the Western Region in 1952, made education its top priority so much that in July of the same year, the Minister of Education for the Region, Chief S. O. Awokoya, presented a comprehensive set of proposals calling for a free, universal and compulsory education otherwise known as the Universal Primary Education, UPE, for the Western Region by January 1955.
“To make such a programme possible without lowering standards drastically, the Minister included in his proposal a massive teacher-training programme, the expansion of teacher training facilities and secondary schools, the introduction of secondary technical education and secondary modern school. This was the prelude to the birth of what Babs Fafunwa(1974:168) described as “the boldest and perhaps the most unprecedented educational scheme in Africa South of the Sahara”. As planned by government, the free education scheme was formally introduced on 17 January, 1955″.
At a recent meeting of the Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo,took members down memory lane on the tortuous debate amongst the top echelon of the party, at the inception, on whether or not the scheme should be made compulsory, violation of which would attract penal sanctions.
The Leader recalled that, during the incubating years of 1951 to 1955, the Opposition Party in the Region had mounted campaigns of calumny that Awolowo was poised to imprison parents for not sending their children to school and so for the sake of the forthcoming election in 1956, there was agitation among some members that the AG be more politically circumspect.
In spite of the military take-over on January 15, 1966, which threw genuine federalism overboard and messed up everything, including our educational system, free education has become an entrenched legacy of Western Nigeria which include present day six South West states and Delta and Edo states. It is taken for granted in our region so much that it is no longer a campaign promise, only a declaration of its reversal will spell doom for a political party and its candidates.
When democracy returned in 1979, after 12 years of military rule, the Awolowo-led Unity Party of Nigeria reaped bountifully from its investment on the people of the old Western region, who in nostalgia of the glorious era, cast their lots with the free education miracle worker. In all the then five LOOBO states (Lagos Ondo, Bendel, Ogun, Oyo) as admitted by Awo himself, the people identified absolutely with UPN, even more than the AG.
From Lateef Jakande (Lagos), Ambrose Alli (Bendel), Adekunle Ajasin (Ondo), Bisi Onabanjo (Ogun) and Bola Ige (Oyo), all went to work and re-enacted the AG success within the four years of 1979-1983. Those of us in or just leaving secondary school then would appreciate the exploits of those governors in education under discourse.
They wrought a revolution in primary education by massive enrolment which would make any parent ashamed not sending his or her child to the schools that were absolutely free, complemented with free books and instructional materials.
We recall that public primary and secondary schools in Lagos were operating two shifts of morning and afternoon with pupils wading through the chaotic traffic to get to schools far-flung from their residential areas. In a revolutionary manner, Jakande, within a year, put an end to the shift system by massive provision of both primary and secondary schools buildings located within a walking distance of every child.
I had a first hand experience of the miracle, living in Lagos, having just then left secondary school in Ibadan. The infrastructures of the schools which were provided by the exigencies of the situation and derided by the opposition as poultry or make-shift, have undergone necessary transformation by subsequent administrations, providing needed academic liberation for millions who would have otherwise perished in ignorance and squalor. The College of Education(now Adeniran Ogunsanya)Ijanikin, Isolo Polytechnic and the Lagos State University, LASU, Ojo provided spaces for their products.
The situation was the same in all the UPN states. In Ondo State, Adekunle Ajasin also saw to it that no child of school age in both primary and secondary schools would need to trek more than a kilometre to school, including our riverine environment.
The old modern schools, where they existed, were upgraded to secondary schools and to absorb their products, the Owo Polytechnic and the Obafemi Awolowo University Ado-Ekiti, now Ekiti State University, were established to absorb their products.
Bola Ige did likewise in Oyo in primary and secondary schools, including building several Polytechnics. He complemented youth education with calisthenics. Though federal institutions, the state had Ibadan and Ife universities. Olabisi Onabanjo had a Midas touch. Unsung villages had schools in addition to the Ogun State University at Ago Iwoye.
My area in Ado Odo, which had only our own Alamuwa Grammar School and the Catholic Saint Stephen’s, had several other secondary schools in the villages. No less was achieved in Bendel State under Professor Ambrose Alli who peaked his educational policy with the State University at Ekpoma.
Thus, the foundation laid by the Great Awo and reinforced by the UPN governors provided the veritable platform on which subsequent administrations in the Western region have continued to build, particularly since the return of civil rule in 1999. It is therefore intolerable that any child of school age at both the primary and secondary levels would be out of school.
It is certainly not because of lack of adequate supporting facilities, not even in Lagos, that children are seen on the streets during school hours. In which school is Mama Amarachi a teacher, and which school did she enrol her daughter that she is unable to pay the current session’s school fees? Pity the governor fell for that thrash.
How much is paid in public primary school in Lagos to make Suwebatua victim of child labour and exposed to danger? The governor was said to have communicated his adoption of the girls to their parents who should have been made to face the wrath of the law in addition.
The role of the governor at Anthony Village on that day was only the epic of a spectacle of permanent drama on the streets, bus-stops, traffic, every open space, where children are daily abused by parents as commercial agents for subsistence living. They are all over the country, even on the high seas of my Niger Delta with ready excuses of environmental degradation as a result of oil production.
At every security check point on highways, they are there in their numbers hawking all manners of goods. It is common to see women push their children forward in traffic to elicit sympathy for alms. Some even allude to religion as justification of destiny which allegedly predetermine the stations of all,willy-nillly.
Sanwo-Olu is free to adopt any child he deems fit, within the maximum eight years of gubernatorial relevance, but it is no way near the solution to this plague of child abuse in the name of orchestrated poverty. No one is in the least impressed. Adopting two out of the thousands of children in such sorry conditions is certainly no way to salvage the situation. It is so cheap and unimaginative. So cheap that the governor thought of making a film of such common occurrence, even within the vicinity of his Alausa office.
The simple solution is for Mr. Governor to have ended his drama, in addition to the emotive adoption, by assuring the people that the public primary and secondary schools in the state had the capacity to absorb all children of school age and that a bill would immediately be sent to the House of Assembly not only to make education up to the end of secondary school free and compulsory but also with penal sanctions for parents whose children are not appropriately in school.
Nigeria, we hail thee.
*Sola Ebiseni is Secretary General, Afenifere.