There has been a hue and cry about the collapse of public institutions and infrastructure in Nigeria, particularly since the visit to the Police College Ikeja (PCI) by President Goodluck Jonathan. Gradually, as it always happens,  the pictures will soon fade from our memories, and we’ll move to other matters. Those who are hoping that things will improve at PCI, or that someone would actually be held responsible, would wait in vain. The most we can expect  is the “retouching” of the college and things will return to the status quo ante.

Of course, nowhere has the vicious attack by Nigeria’s ruling elite against the citizens, and everything we hold sacred, impacted more than in public education. Public education in Nigeria is in free fall. I am talking about a collapse so mind-boggling that it is actually threatening the very foundation of the Nigerian state. It seems our ruling elite understand too well that the moment you deprive the citizens of education, you deprive them of everything, including their dignity, and ability to reason and defend themselves. The outcome is that they are powerless and vulnerable and therefore amenable to control.

Last December, I received a picture via an Internet group. The picture left me despondent and has etched on my mind ever since. It provided the impetus for this piece. It was a picture of a group of secondary school students in a ramshackle classroom with some of the students visible in the picture sitting on disused car tyres while taking lesson. Another row of students behind sat on what looked like a bench with their laps serving as desks. This is not an isolated case. While we have seen many state governors showcase new and modern school buildings (mostly in urban areas), the scenario above paints a vivid picture of the state of most public schools across the country, even in the so-called highbrow public schools in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

A few months ago, the minister of state for education, Nyesom Wike, inspected schools in the FCT. The minister was “shocked” that some of the schools in the FCT, including those that have the incongruous tag “Government Secondary School”, didn’t have chairs and desks. Some schools had converted whole classroom blocks into toilets. So, apart from not getting quality education, the students were also at risk of contracting diseases in the name of going to school. It was a good photo opportunity though for the minister and it provided the necessary sound bites. It would be interesting to go back to those schools and see what, if anything, has changed.

It is in the same FCT where the minister, Bala Mohammed, appropriated N4bn ($26m) in the 2013 budget for the building of the First Ladies Mission office. Before that, Mr. Mohammed had drawn public ire with the approval of an additional N2bn ($13m) for the ongoing construction of the residence of the vice president. Just as the debate on the appropriateness of such mindless spending of public fund was going on, the Sun newspaper carried a story titled, “In Abuja school, pupils attend classes under tree … share ‘classroom’ with welder”.

According to the paper, “Pupils and teachers of Wuye LA Primary School, Abuja, located just two kilometres from Utako District and six kilometres from the administrative block of the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA), have been completely abandoned by the authorities. Since the government demolished the temporary structure put up by the school’s Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), the pupils and their teachers have moved their ‘classroom’ under a dangerous locust beans tree located in the compound of the Federal Government Boys’ College, Wuye”.

“When the Commissioner of the FCT Public Complaints Commission (PCC), Hon. Obunike Ohaegbu, led a team of journalists and staffers of the commission to the sight, what the team met on ground was horrible. Beyond the pathetic situation of receiving classes under a tree, the ‘school’ also shares the little space with a welder. The artisan’s work tools seemed to pose more danger to the pupils and their teachers than the tree itself. Electrical appliances used by the technician were seen scattered around with the sound of the power generator, located in the same place, disrupting the classes.

“Speaking to Daily Sun, the headmaster of the school, Mr. Muhammed Kolo, revealed that education inspectors had visited the school under the tree, lamenting that no one expressed any concern. He added that the teachers had no teaching boards to use. Some teachers, who didn’t want their names mentioned, said no serious academic activity had taken place since they were displaced.”

There you have it, apologies to Prof. Bolaji Aluko, vice chancellor of the president’s hometown university in Otuoke, Bayelsa State. It is a long way from Otuoke to Abuja. It is a journey that will take weeks, if not months, on foot. Not so the journey from the presidential villa -- where we have a president whose resume includes the trauma of walking to school without shoes -- to Wuye LA Primary School.

How did we get here? Many of us went to public schools and they were functional in terms of infrastructure and learning. Most of those parading themselves as governors, ministers, honourable this and that, are products of public schools. I don’t know any of them that would send his or her goat to what passes as public schools these days. What kind of learning do we really expect students to get from schools like Wuye LA Primary School?

How are the students expected to compete globally? How can the future leaders of this country –  as if we really expect leaders to emerge from such schools – get valuable information and knowledge? What we end up doing is grooming delinquent citizens in the name of education rather than producing active and conscious citizens who are not only able to ask questions but are aware of their rights.

In an apparent response to criticism of the Jonathan administration’s handling of the education crisis, Oronto Douglas, the president’s Special Adviser on Research Documentation and Strategy, noted last September, “After Mr. President convened the National Education Summit in December of 2010 and initiated the Bring Back the Book initiative in the same month, he declared that it was his desire to return academic excellence to our citadels of learning. What followed thereafter was that the Education Sector got the highest sectoral allocation in the 2011 Appropriation Bill and the second highest allocation in the 2012 Appropriation Bill. And what has been the result? Today, the National Examination Council (NECO) has released the 2012 June/July Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (SSCE) result with over 50 percent credit and above pass levels in basic subjects as against 22 percent average pass last year”.

This, basically, encapsulates the education policy of the Jonathan administration. Let’s discount the fact that the over 50% percent credit and above pass level may be the effect of the ubiquitous “Miracle centres” and the money-for-marks phenomenon, we have yet to see how the huge sectoral allocation – which is way below the 26 per cent of total expenditure for education specified by UNESCO -- has translated to real changes on the ground for schools across the country. Beyond infrastructure, what is the policy on the quality of teachers, instructional materials and training?

The result of this decay, of course, like everything Nigerian, is the migration to private education with its attendant limitations as the solution. Our young men and women, the greatest resource of the country, are now at the mercy of traders posing as educationists. People who have no business running primary schools much less universities have become those pushing the education agenda of the country.

I have said this before, but it is worth mentioning again. The truth is that public education in Nigeria, just like public health, is in dire straits because those who oversee  it have options.  It is either their sons and daughters are in the best international schools in Nigeria or some elite school outside Nigeria.

Nigeria is courting disaster. While the efforts of old students in addressing the infrastructural decay in public schools  are commendable,  they can’t replace the duty and responsibility of the state to citizens. I hope this neglect doesn’t come back to haunt us. That is if it is not already too late.

This is for you, Olufemi Oyinade Tunde-Oladepo, as you turn 18 tomorrow. You are the best daughter any parents could wish for. As college beckons, may all your dreams come true and may education not just be a meal ticket, but an opportunity to cultivate your intellect and contribute to humanity.

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