Nigeria: Education Not Silver Bullet, but Surest Way Out of Woods

17 September 2020

Last Thursday, I was on Al Jazeera's The Stream, to discuss education in the context of raging insecurity in North-eastern Nigeria.

In a programme to mark the International Day to Protect Education from Attack, I was invited alongside two great women, Bukky Shonibare, a girls and women rights activist, and Rosie Collyer, a filmmaker and journalist.

Our discussion centred on Rosie's latest documentary, "Ahmad: The Architect".

She follows the life of Ahmad Buba, a UK-trained Nigerian architect, who left his job in the United Kingdom in order to counter Boko Haram in his native Borno State.

While the film focusses on Ahmad, it highlights some of the fundamental issues with public schools in Nigeria.

Upon returning home, Ahmad worked with the Kashim Shettima administration and donor organisations to design and supervise the building of twenty-four boarding schools in Maiduguri and twenty more outside the city.

There couldn't be a better way to fight Boko Haram.

The group thrives on narrow-mindedness, promotes intolerance and presents a black-and-white vision of the world.

On the other hand, schools inculcate open-mindedness, promote peaceful coexistence and present life in all its colours.

Knowing very well that its rudimentary worldview cannot stand debate and scrutiny in the marketplace of ideas, Boko Haram took the approach of eliminating alternatives.

As schools are the factory where alternative worldviews, values and concepts are produced, Boko Haram determined that they must not only be rejected and undermined, but physically destroyed.

It has destroyed at least 1,400 schools, killed and displaced thousands of teachers and slaughtered, abducted or displaced millions of children.

If attacking schools is at the centre of Boko Haram's modus operandi, it naturally follows that protecting education should be at the core of Nigeria's countermeasures.

But most of these schools are yet to be rebuilt, and four years after the Chibok tragedy, the Dapchi abduction reminded us that schools in rural Northeast remain anything but safe.

We can build schools as magnificent as the 18.9 million square foot New Century Global Centre in China, but unless we can protect them, they will remain empty, dry and silent as graveyards.

Governments must employ both hard and soft power to ensure that classrooms are adequately protected.

In addition to stepping up security around schools, negotiations that may lead to their declaration as safe zones should be considered.

But the rot in our education system - if it still qualifies as a system - didn't start with Boko Haram nor will it end with it.

The unease felt by some northerners for western-style schools is well known and more efforts need to be made to get parents enrol their children.

Much less talked about is the lack of educational capacity across much of Nigeria, and especially the north.

If a majority of parents were to decide to send their kids to school, there would not be the space, manpower or equipment to accommodate them.

Even today, we all know villages where children need to walk for upward of five kilometres each way to get to the shade of a big tree that serves as their classroom.

If they are lucky, their only teacher - lacking pay, materials and supervision - will show up. If the weather permits, they'd learn a thing or two.

Even in big towns like Kano, one can find a class of up to 400 pupils on a bare floor, without a roof, and learning from blackboards that have since turned grey.

Even as he helps to build public schools, the star of "Ahmad: The Architect" sends his daughter to a private school.

This contradiction isn't Ahmad's fault, but a demonstration of the complete lack of confidence in the system even of those who build and run it.

Even politicians at the very bottom of the greasy pole do not send their kids to government schools if they can afford not to.

Worst still, even headteachers educate their children privately.

With no skin in the game, politicians and civil servants see funding and supervising public schools as a choice, not a necessity.

Perhaps we should consider a requirement for all those on the public payroll to send their children to public schools.

Ahmad's story reveals another sorry state; many of the schools he built are still empty more than a year after completion, and the unfinished projects have been abandoned.

"I would have loved to see the schools running, but there is nothing I can do", he says in frustration.

That's classic Nigeria for you. Millions of children out of schools, thousands of graduates without jobs, and gigantic structures have become havens for hoodlums and reptiles.

It may be that a political transition in Borno State stalled the project, but it's doubtful that there was ever proper planning on what to do with the buildings once they were built.

"Or maybe there was a plan, but not resource allocation for its delivery. Neither plans nor buildings function on their own; without project managers, teachers, and resources, they will fail.

Quality education is a potent weapon, not only against Boko Haram, but also against other social ills ravaging our country.

Education that imparts knowledge, character and skills is pivotal to eliminating poverty and unemployment, reducing rampant divorce, domestic violence and child abuse, bridging inequality, defeating criminality and dousing ethno-religious violence, and placing us on a path to a strong, united, peaceful and prosperous Nigeria: a Nigeria that works for all its citizens, and is a regional leader and a global player.

But this requires sustained, long-term investment.

On education, as with other areas, our politicians seem to think only in electoral cycles, if they think about it at all.

Perhaps we should establish independent education boards, staffed by expert Nigerians of unquestionable integrity, that will receive education allocations directly from the pool and work with successive governments to implement long-term reforms.

If there is one thing to learn in our education mess since independence, it's that leaving our future in the hands of politicians is, to put it mildly, unwise.

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