I am yet to understand the basis for a new bill on compulsory basic education for Nigerian children when a subsisting Act on the same issue has not been implemented to the letter. The new bill, sponsored by the Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, has reportedly scaled second reading at the plenary session. Mohammed Monguno from Borno State, while moving for the debate of the bill on behalf of the speaker, had said that the bill would ensure that millions of out-of-school children in Nigeria return to the classroom. He also stated that the bill would cure the lack of education drive as well as the insurgency in the north-east. His counterpart, Toby Okechukwu, from Enugu State, equally stated that the bill would make education accessible to all while the Speaker noted that it would ensure that basic education was no longer a privilege but a fundamental human right for Nigerians.
I really don’t know why the lawmakers are so confident that a new law on compulsory basic education would act as a magic wand, automatically increase enrolment in schools and curb insurgency. Gbajabiamila, as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, need not be told that the Universal Basic Education Act 2004 already captures almost everything that the new bill is seeking to address going by the available information in public domain.
Recall that the Nigerian government in 1999 introduced the Universal Basic Education to provide free, universal and compulsory basic education for every Nigerian child of primary and junior secondary school age. The Act states that the Federal Government shall provide assistance to the States and Local Governments in Nigeria for the purposes of uniform and qualitative basic education throughout the country. It also stipulates that every parent and guardian must ensure that their children or wards attend and complete both primary and junior secondary school education. A parent who fails to do this, according to the Act, will on first conviction, be reprimanded; on second conviction, liable to a fine of N 2,000 or imprisonment for a term of one month or to both; and on subsequent conviction, pay a fine of N5,000 or be jailed for a term of two months or to both.
To fund the compulsory education scheme, the Federal Government provides billions of Naira sourced from the Consolidated Revenue Fund to state governments every year. Two percent of the CRF is allocated to the Universal Basic Education Commission for the implementation of UBEC in all the states of the federation. However, to access the UBEC fund, the beneficiary state must provide its own counterpart funding. In addition to this, the state must spend the fund on basic education only. This is where many states have a problem. Most often, they want the money but they don’t want to make available their own counterpart funding. Since the Act forbids this, the money is left with the Federal Government. As of June this year, the N87bn UBEC fund belonging to states was idle at the Central Bank of Nigeria.
Unfortunately, so many public schools are suffering amid plenty as many of them remain in terrible shape. Pupils learn under trees, sit on wet floors, or in classrooms with leaking roofs. Having access to learning materials or books in many of these schools has become something of a taboo these days. A trending picture on Facebook shows one of the governors in the northern part of the country allegedly sleeping on a worn-out mattress supposedly used by pupils in the state-owned boarding school to prove that the mattresses were still good. The logical thing to do would have been for states in such dire need of funds to do everything possible to access the Federal Government’s free fund, unfortunately, that has not been the case. The governors prefer to sponsor mass marriages, holy pilgrimage, or build new prayer houses for their people. They have mastered the act of using religion to manipulate and keep the citizenry in utter darkness to enable them to continue to perform their despicable acts.
Of what use is a new law on compulsory basic education in a situation where state actors are not willing to act responsibly. How many parents has Nigeria prosecuted for failing to enroll their children in school? Does the country need any new law to make that happen? Nigeria’s case brings to mind the story of a dead man that asked God to allow him to come back to the world to convince his family members that there was hell so that they won’t end up there like him. The Biblical accounts note that the man’s request was rejected as he was bluntly told that if his family would not listen to prophets that were with them in the world, they would not listen to anybody even if such a person should rise from the dead. Simply put, the problem of out-of-school children in Nigeria is not going to be solved by any new law. The legislators can make one million laws; the result will be the same as long as there is a lack of political will to implement them.
Before the 2004 UBEC Act, the country had a Universal Primary Education policy. The policy was similar to the UBEC Act. It failed to produce results due to a lack of effective implementation. The same thing is happening now. As long as nothing is done to enforce the implementation of the existing law on compulsory education, the problem of enrolment and retention would remain. This is not rocket science.
A 2015 UNESCO review of the state of education in Nigeria showed that while enrolment at primary and junior secondary levels had greatly increased since 2000, transition and completion rates had remained low. The report also shows that participation in primary education is still low in comparison with the primary school-age population in the country while school curriculum quality is undermined by the low quality of teachers. If there is a law that stipulates compulsory education for Nigerian children, why are these children not in school? Resolving this dilemma should be the preoccupation of the lawmakers. Nigerian leaders can be clever when they choose to. They, for example, know how to count votes before they are cast; they know how to work around different permutations when seeking political offices, they can extend such tenacity and doggedness to solving the myriads of problems facing the country.
What for instance stops outlawing child marriage in states where it is persistent to enable these girls to complete their education. After all, the Child Rights law forbids child marriage. Why should governors that accept to access UBEC funds based on federal law, insist on domesticating the Child Rights Law before it could become operational in their states? Take it or leave it, politicians are the main beneficiaries of illiteracy and ignorance in Nigeria. They know that the more people are enlightened, the more they will ask for their rights, hence the determination to keep them in perpetual darkness. The Speaker and his colleagues should work towards ending this cycle of ignorance by ensuring the implementation of the UBEC Act before attempting to amend the law. This goes beyond being merely politically correct.
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is a member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email firstname.lastname@example.org