You may not believe in miracles but they do happen - and not through the instrumentality of the puff and puffery of the Pentecostal miracle workers in the country who come at 20 for one kobo. I offer you my latest evidence.
A special retreat of the executive council of the federation was held in Aso Rock on November 13. Its main focus was the state of our education. The theme of the retreat was, and you had better believe it, Education in Nigeria: Challenges and Prospects.
President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the retreat with a measure of candour that surprised me. He admitted that the state of education in the country had become worrisome and "calls for serious concern." You may find that tepid as a presidential response to the devastating crisis in education but we need to look beyond the rhetoric and appreciate the fact that after nearly two and half years in office as a reforming president, Buhari spoke for the first on what bothers all of us and over which we have cried ourselves hoarse and given rise to our nightmares. I thought that on his scale of concerns as president, education was right there at the bottom. I take the retreat as evidence that he has bestirred himself. Splendid.
Buhari spoke of the effects of decades of neglect of education in the country and pointed out that as a consequence we are contending with a high rate of illiteracy, perhaps one of the highest in Africa, north and south of the Sahara. We hold the candle to relatively poorer African countries with a high premium on education, qualitative education, to prepare their children for leadership tomorrow. Buhari admitted too that 13.2 million children are out of school in the country. The figure would be much higher if we take into consideration an estimated 10 million almajiri, child beggars on the fringes of human development.
The president then went on to say the right things that are, in the nature of politics, mildly uplifting, not because they are new but because when a president says such things, hopes tend to immediately crowd out hopelessness and despair. He said that "education is our launch-pad to a more successful, more productive and more prosperous future." No one needed telling but coming from him it suggests, without our being too liberal about its interpretation that he is drawing the line in the sand between the current shameful situation in education and its more hopeful tomorrow.
So, read this quote twice. He said: "We must get it right in this country. To get it right means setting our education sector on the right path (because the) security and stability of the country hinges on its ability to provide functional education to its citizens."
In the nature of human development, the neglected past becomes a burden on the present. It hobbles its development. A nation must always pay a stiff price for its failure to do what it should do now to make its tomorrow better. Our educational development suffers from this basic fact of our national history. Despite the more than 100 public and private universities in the country, we are basically an illiterate country; our universities are degree mills because degree certificates are prized possessions in the land.
And so to underline this, I turn to the address by the Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, at the retreat. He took 1999 as the bench-mark when our educational development began a steady decline in quality. He said that "... from 1999 to date the annual budgetary allocation to education has always been between four per cent and ten per cent."
It is rather headachy to imagine how a country that places such a low premium on education would expect to be a big player in the league of poorer African countries that commit at least 20 per cent of their annual budgets to education. Perhaps, this being a country with so many miracle-workers, it would not be wise to dismiss the possibility that we could prove that the less we spend on education, the higher our educational development rises. Pure voodoo.
Our past sins against education stretch way back, making the rot even more comprehensive. UNESCO recommended that developing countries such as Nigeria should allocate at least 26 per cent of their annual budgets to education. This country has never committed even 12 per cent of its annual budget to education. I doubt that we have ever gone anywhere higher than 10 per cent. And so, inevitably, we came to this sorry pass. Adamu said that it would take the Buhari administration N1 trillion annually for the next four years to put things right in education.
I am always worried when we hasten to put a cost to our problems. I thought the first thing is for the ministry to give us detailed analysis of the problems that confront us, its informed response to them and, therefore, a clear road map to take to the desirable end of our educational development. To throw this scary figure at the nation is to suggest that the problem is patently unsolvable. The Buhari administration does not have one trillion Naira to spend annually on education. So, we face the dim prospects of remaining stuck in the mess and blaming the lack of fund for our inability to lift our education out of the mess in which it is stuck.
The newspaper reports on the retreat said nothing of what the experts told the members of the executive council. I am sure each one of them must have offered some weighty opinions on what went wrong, how it went wrong and how we can reclaim our education. In the circumstances, we do not need long-winded treatises but more of what is reasonably practicable within the shortest possible time. It would be tragic for the nation if Buhari passes the problem to his successor at the end of his tenure. If we must remedy the situation, and we must, then let the Buhari administration begin with a small step that points the way. Every human progress begins with a small step towards a define direction. If we do not take the first, it is obvious that we cannot take the second.
Adamu said, quite correctly, that "what is needed is a vastly improved fund accompanied by a strong political will. The strong political will needed to do all this is present in this government. What the government must now do is to make the funds available." So, the ball is in Buhari's court, right? Let the president put our money in the real foundation of our national development. Let us get our education right so we can get our development paradigm right.
I welcome the minister's call for the declaration of a state of emergency in education. This has always been my argument. I consider it the first and the only right step now if we are serious about rescuing our education and placing it on the high pedestal where it belongs in the list of our high national priorities. But even as I say this, I am assailed by doubt; doubt that the retreat might be remembered as a political talk shop and the challenges of getting our education right might still be as tangible as a mirage.
Perish the thought.