Buhari’s missed path to getting our education right (2), by Dan Agbese

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At the special retreat for the executive council of the federation under reference, the minister of education, Mallam Adamu Adamu, made at least three very important points worth noting. He spoke of the poor funding of education exemplified in the low annual federal budgetary allocation to this very important sector, the only mover and shaker of human progress and modern development. He said that “….from 1999 to date the annual budgetary allocation to education has always been between four per cent and ten per cent.”

            Nigeria has never come anywhere close to the UNESCO recommended minimum annual budgetary allocation of 26 per cent to education for developing countries. An investigation by Iyabo Lawal published in The Guardian of October 28, 2021, showed that “…of the N55.3 trillion budgeted by the federal government in the last six years, only N3.5 trillion was allocated to education and this represents less than 10 per cent.”

            It has been an annual tale of woe for education in the country. I rely on Lawal’s finding for the annual federal budgetary allocation to education reproduced here. In 2016, education was allocated a paltry 6.7 per cent of the annual federal budget; it was 7.38 per cent in 2017; in 2018, it was 7.04 per cent; 7.05 per cent in 2019;  6.7 per cent in 2020;  5.6 per cent in 2021. In the current 2022 budget the allocation to education is a generous 7.9 per cent.

            In every instance, the federal government treated our educational development as a political joke. This is made clear by how seriously Ghana takes its educational development. The World Bank noted that in 2015 Ghana allocated 22.09 per cent of its annual budget to education. The following year, 2016, it went up to 20.1 per cent; and came slightly down to 18.6 per cent in 2018. Ghana has not yet met the UNESCO bench mark of 26 per cent but it has come much closer than Nigeria in every instance. Education at all levels enjoys a measure of stability in Ghana. A few years ago, Ghanaian university officials came to Nigeria to offer admission to qualified young Nigerians in their universities. Nigerian children whose parents could afford it, flocked there.

            Inadequate funding has been the bone of contention between ASUU and the federal government since eighties, leading to the near collapse of the system and the first wave of brain drain. Lawal quoted the national president of ASUU, Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, as saying that “all  agreements with the government over the years have always contained clauses that government should progressively increase allocation to the sector so that we can get to the UNESCO’s standard of 26 per cent. Over the years, allocations to the sector keep going down.”

            Putting this montage of dismal pictures of an education system stuck in the morass of inconsistences and cosmetic commitments together, Adamu told the retreat what ought to be clear to the president’s big men and women. He said “..what is needed is a vastly improved funds accompanied by a strong political will. The strong political will needed to do all this is present in this government. What the government must do now is to make the funds available.” The minister said the government would need to spend N1 trillion on education annually for the next four years to put things right in the sector. It did not happen.

            Adamu’s most radical suggestion was that the government should declare a state of emergency in education. This would force the nation to take an inventory of the mess in education, find ways and means of cleaning it up and reposition the sector at the end of the emergency period. I thought this was sensible. The problem confronting education does not require cosmetics; they require radical and even desperate measures to tackle them. 

            But nothing really happened. Buhari ignored his minister’s suggestion to declare a state of emergency in education. The president ignored the informed views of educationists and the World Bank to increase the annual budget to education. Instead of increasing funding to the existing tertiary institutions, all of which are poorly funded, poorly staffed and poorly equipped, Buhari chose to establish new ones. That is no way to fix our troubled educational system. He compounded and worsened the existing problems under which the education sector has laboured for as long as anyone can remember. Still, we blame the university teachers each time they go on strike to make the blind see and the deaf hear, right?

            What is not funny is that Buhari chose this inadvisable path to our educational development in the face of the nation’s crippling economic difficulties. Under his watch, the economy descended into the pit of recession twice. No nation emerges from recession without paying a stiff prize in its economic management. The national debt burden is getting heavier too at N39.9 trillion. We cannot always count on China and other countries with deep pockets and a good heart to sustain the national economy. The implications of these on the future of the new tertiary institutions require no rocket science. When the initial funds run out, their heads will do what the CJN once did, to wit, take to the begging bowl for sustenance. 

            In 1984, as military head of state, Buhari downgraded the few federal universities set up by the Shagari administration to campuses of existing universities in their catchment areas. I suppose part of his reason was that the country could not afford so many tertiary institutions when it was forced to contend with the complicated management of poverty. However badly the civilians managed the economy at the time, it was healthier than it is now and could have sustained the new universities much better than what the new institutions now face. How did the president fail to learn his own lesson?

            I had thought that Buhari would have seriously questioned the concept of a federal university in every state. He did not start it but it was not such a wise thing to do. When former President Goodluck Jonathan wanted to establish nine new federal universities, he was quoted as saying that the states that did not have them were cheated. Now, some states, such as Katsina, have more than one federal university. All to what end?

Duplication of our national efforts also triples our national problems and frustrations. The number of federal universities, polytechnics and colleges of education is clearly beyond the capacity of the federal government. To use these institutions as the next level in the quota system or federal character is to give in to the primitive concept of the equality of states in a federation. Again, the will to draw the line is sorely lacking. Again, the lack of will has driven this administration into taking political decisions that can only hobble our movement in education.

In the normal course of modern development the setting up of new and the expansion of existing institutions are in response to expanded economic activities and market demands for more and better trained manpower. If you recklessly expand educational institutions in a static economy you court disaster. Unemployment becomes a time bomb. That time bomb is already ticking.

At the Global Education Summit in London jointly hosted by Britain and Kenya in July 2021, Buhari  said: “We commit to progressively increase our annual domestic education expenditure by 50 per cent over the next two years and up to 100 by 2025 beyond the 26 per cent global benchmark.”

It was a commitment with a good political sound bite  – and no more. The current budget came after the commitment was made but the education sector was still allocated a handsome 7.9 per cent. 

The British prime minister, Boris Johnson, told the summit that “Education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet to solve a myriad of problems, from gender inequality to climate change, and is one of the surest ways for countries’ economies to rebound.”

He re-echoed the late President Nelson Mandela. Our president does not need to be persuaded that fixing our broken educational system and repositioning it to meet the modern needs of our nation would be the most pronounced legacy he could strive for and leave behind. Good education has never been about the number of under-funded, under staffed and under-equipped tertiary institutions. When this country held the educational torch to the rest of Africa and its universities were the places to be for first class professors from Europe and the United States, it had only five universities – two federal and three regional. They were centres of great learning that produced great Nigerian scholars. The secret of their success was in the open – adequate funding, adequate staffing and adequate equipment in an atmosphere conducive to learning and research. Perhaps, we need to remind the president that he said he came to clean up a country in a mess. He must have missed something about education. (Concluded)

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