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In Education, a Widening Divide by Tolu Ogunlesi

In Education, a Widening Divide by Tolu Ogunlesi

This is a brilliant piece by Tolu Ogunlesi in his column today in Punch Newspaper, lamenting the state of education in Nigeria. As Nigeria’s #1 Education Diary blog, we have to share this with our teeming readers, mostly educators and sympathizers of the National education malady. Please read below:

At the weekend, I watched the United States’ President, Barack Obama, arrive to a rousing welcome in Kenya, his father’s homeland. The images of him and President Uhuru Kenyatta (both men born two-and-half months apart in 1961) smiling and back-slapping took me back in time, to the 1960s, or maybe it was the 1970s, when Barack’s father worked for Uhuru’s father. Uhuru’s father was the President of Kenya, the Biggest of the Big Men in the land, and Barack’s father an employee of the Ministry of Tourism. As the story goes, Barack’s father so often spoke out against the many ills of the country and its government, that the President felt offended, and eventually fired him from the public service. From that moment, according to his son, in the memoir, “Dreams from my Father”, Barack Snr. was “blacklisted” – so that he could no longer find work in government or in the private sector, and his friends deserted him because they did not want to offend the President. Obama traces his father’s drinking – which would eventually consume him – to this experience.

Now, fast-forward 45 years. The sons of the two men – the one who was the Big Man and whose word was law, and the one who was fired by the Big Man – are now themselves both Big Men, Presidents of their respective countries. (One is of course a “Bigger Big Man” than the other, on account of the fact that his country is the greatest on earth; its 2015 defence budget more than 25 times the other country’s entire federal budget).

Were the above true tale to form the script of a Nollywood film, it’d be titled “No One Knows Tomorrow”. (Pete Edochie would be Jomo Kenyatta, while Olu Jacob would be Barack Obama Snr.; Ramsey Nouah would be Obama – I’m not quite sure who’d pull off a Uhuru Kenyatta. Odunlade Adekola perhaps?)

“No One Knows Tomorrow” would be a lesson on life and its unpredictability; on the importance of doing good, and of how fate often has better plans for us than the people around us. In the final scene, just before giving God the Glory, we’d cut to the afterlife, and show Barack Obama Snr. summoning Jomo Kenyatta, and telling him: “Look at my son; whom God has blessed, no man can curse.” And then he’d tell Kenyatta he’d forgiven him for all that happened, they’d embrace each other, to the melody of a fitting song about the impermanence of life’s conditions.

I would go on to find an even bigger lesson in that movie; a lesson not about fate’s unpredictability but about the opportunity that countries owe their young citizens as a matter of predictability. America gave Barack Jnr. a better chance to become President than Kenya would ever have given him. You see, Barack’s father was from the Luo ethnic group, the third-biggest in a country on a continent where there are the ethnic-majority groups, and then the insubstantial rest. In Kenya’s case, that majority privilege belongs to the Kikuyu. Jomo Kenyatta was Kikuyu, Barack Snr. Luo. Had Obama Jnr. been born and raised in Kenya, as a Luo man, his chances of becoming president would have been slimmer than his chances as an African-American gunning for the White House. The late Nigerian activist and academic, Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, (who spent his final years in Nairobi, and died in a car crash there in 2009) once juxtaposed Kenyan excitement about the respective presidential ambitions of Obama and Raila Odinga (2007 Kenyan opposition presidential candidate, also a Luo) and came to this conclusion: “Why are we enthusiastic about a Luo man becoming the president of the USA, but give no chance to a fellow Luo who wants to be President of Kenya?”

I’m interested in the way societies offer and withhold permissions to their people who dare to aspire beyond the boxes life has built for them. One of the most potent manifestations of American exceptionalism is its unassailable belief in the fact that everyone can be anything they want to be, regardless of where they started out from.

Education is of course central to that mobility; it is one of the most effective tools for smashing glass boxes and ceilings, and guaranteeing upward social mobility. A few understand the value of education better than Barack Obama; it is a running theme in “Dreams from my Father”. Of the years he spent as an activist pushing for the reform of Chicago’s broken schools system, he writes: “The more I learned about the system, the more convinced I became that school reform was the only possible solution for the plight of the young men I saw on the street; that without stable families, with no prospects for blue-collar work that could support a family of their own, education was their last best hope.”

Now, let me bring this home to Nigeria, and advance a theory: That there was a time that the children of the poor and of the rich in Nigeria got essentially the same kind (i.e. quality) of education in this country. The rich kids may have had a more varied set of additional experiences – perhaps, the chance to watch television at home, or to travel more and enjoy finer holidays – but at school, virtually everyone got enough high-quality education to lay solid foundations for the life ahead of them, wherever they might find themselves: public service, military, business.

As much as I try very hard to avoid falling for Nigeria’s “Good ol’ days” myth, I have to acknowledge that things were once a lot more egalitarian in this country. If there’s one thing Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan have in common, it’s that they both started out shoeless. When Oluremi, who would go on to become Obasanjo’s first wife, first met him, he, according to her, “wore no shoes, not even the cheap tennis shoes sold for 7 shilling and 6 pence students wore then.” Obasanjo was at this time already in his mid- to late teens; a student of the Baptist Boys High School in Abeokuta, which also produced the late M.K.O. Abiola. Both men were born into poverty, but in a country that back then knew something about the importance of giving a decent education to all who aspired to it, regardless of their financial circumstances. It’s probably why the poor, fatherless Muhammadu Buhari could be classmates with Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, whose father was, at that time, a federal minister.

Now, let’s transpose the young Olusegun Obasanjo of the 1950s to the 21st century. The same Nigeria; only it’s no longer the same. The same Baptist Boys High School, only it’s no longer the same. What sort of education would an Olusegun Obasanjo, born into poverty at the turn of the century, get today? I did a quick Google search for the school. There’s an interesting piece by Folashade Adebayo, published in this paper in October 2014, about the current state of the secondary schools attended by some of our best known politicians. Ms. Adebayo sums up the BBHS library this way: “Books have largely left the shelves of the 31-year-old library while its glass doors and windows, broken in several places, tell a vivid story of a conquered facility.”

Today, far too many young Nigerians are not getting a chance to enjoy the all-important foundation of a good education. It’s bad enough that they’re starting on the wrong side of the tracks; unconscionable that they’re condemned to be stuck there for life. Today, attending a state-run primary or secondary school in Nigeria is like a life sentence into illiteracy and innumeracy. Even poor parents aspire to shun those schools.

We have moved from a time when a Buhari and a Yar’Adua were guaranteed to end up in the same schools, to today’s sad situation, in which the Buharis would be stuck in a run-down Provisional Secondary School, getting a mis-education, while the Yar’Aduas would be in the exclusive AUN Academy in Yola, preparing for university abroad, and a life from which the Buharis would be perpetually blacklisted. The educational divide between Nigeria’s privileged and its unprivileged is fast becoming a chasm; at its current rate of widening it will soon be impossible to build a bridge over it.



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