By Chris Anyokwu
Welcome to September, the month in which school gates all across the world creak open again to usher in school children back to the classroom. In fact, even weeks before reopening, most schools engage in repair work on their school premises, refurbishing facilities, furniture as well as weeding and mowing overgrown lawns, flower-beds, and trees that give the environment that serene and beautiful ambiance conducive to academic activity.
On their part, parents would take their wards to shopping-centres to purchase school items such as books (notebooks and textbooks), lunch-boxes, writing materials, uniforms, shoes, socks, belts, singlets, shorts, panties and school-bags. Pupils and students who have been promoted to the next class usually spend an awful amount of time admiring their newly-bought learning items, oftentimes running their dainty fingers over the glossy and pleasant-smelling school items, enjoying the feel of the books’ texture, feasting their eyes on the pictures and illustrations in the books and equally attempting to puzzle out some of the complex diagrams and equations. Such is the enchanting appeal of the world of knowledge that these kids cannot contain the excitement of the challenge of the seductive unknown.
What’s more, having tried on their new school uniform, shoes, cardigan and all, they can’t wait to put them on, finally, for school where they can flaunt them to universal admiration.
For some, the giddy excitement of reopening derives in the main from the opportunity to make new friends from among their new classmates, friendships that can likely grow into momentous milestones in the future. Career trajectories, marriage, business, club solidarity, and other life-events are determined by these incipient amities.
Given the scenario painted above, we are constrained to ask the question: what really do parents live for? To build or own houses? Grow their personal businesses and careers? To amass wealth and lead ostentatious lifestyles? What exactly? Truth be told, life is essentially about grooming the Next Generation, guaranteeing the life-chances and survival of the family tree and making life better for the children.
Small wonder, immortal songstress, Whitney Houston speaks to the living from the grave, in her undying anthem for parenting entitled “Greatest Love of All”:
I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.
One of the yardsticks for measuring the level of social development is the way and manner a society provides for the future of the children; how it protects and promotes their interests, among others.
And it starts right from the womb, that is, ante-and post-natal care, saving for the child before the age of consent, providing a conducive environment in the homestead; providing custodial care for waifs-and-strays, traumatised children from abusive homes, promulgating pro-child laws and so forth.
We know that in civilised societies loitering and gambolling by school-aged children is forbidden and, as a consequence, any child found in the street during school hours is taken into custody by the authorities. But here in Nigeria, the case is different. UNICEF says 18.5 million Nigerian children are out-of-school; 60% of whom are girls, according to Rahama Farah, the head of the UNICEF office in Kano. In 2021, UNICEF estimated that 10.5 million children were out of school in Africa’s most populous country. The numerous attacks on schools by jihadists, terrorists and bandits in the north have particularly harmed and hampered children’s education. “Those attacks have created a precarious learning environment, discouraged parents and guardians from sending their children to school”, Farah posited. Since the 2014 Boko Haram abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from the north-eastern town of Chibok, dozens of schools have been targeted in similar mass abductions.
Accordingly, in the predominantly Muslim north, Farah added, only one in four girls from “poor and rural families” complete middle school. Insecurity, the UNICEF chief emphasised, exacerbates gender inequalities. In the same connection, Premium Times’ Yusuf Akinpelu (September 8, 2021) furnishes statistics on state-by-state basis of the number of out-of-school children. Kano State in 2021 had the highest number of O-O-S children, an estimated 989,234, followed by Akwa Ibom State with 581,800. Katsina in third position with 536,122; fourth position was Kaduna with 524,670; fifth position went to Taraba State with 499,923; sixth position went to Sokoto State whose O-O-S children stood at 436,570. Yobe State came in seventh with 427,230; Zamfara with 422,214 was eighth on this dismal table and, bringing up the rear in the ninth position was Bauchi with 354,373 out-of-school children.
Heartbreakingly, one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. Even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 18.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school. Daily Post’s Ifeanyi Nwannah reports “Nigeria has [the] highest number of out-of-school children in the world”, citing UNICEF as source of information (August 3, 2022). Many important factors have been cited as responsible for the pattern of educational marginalisation in Nigeria. Some of these factors include gender, geography and poverty. Socio-cultural norms and practices also discourage attendance in formal education, especially for girls. The low level of literacy and numeracy, particularly in Northern Nigeria is fundamentally down to these age-old unexamined norms. Shockingly, government spends only 2.4 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on both health and education. 17 states of the Federation received a total of ₦65,464,269,446.16 as an intervention fund to combat the rising figure of out-of-school children between 2019 and 2021, a document obtained from the Basic Education Commission has revealed. This disbursement is an intervention of the World Bank project known as Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA). The O-O-S scourge is multi-causal, and, thus, requires a raft of interventions to curb it, if not totally eradicate it. “The aim of UNICEF’s education programme is to support the government in achieving SDG4 by 2030 through improved planning and by addressing some of the systemic barriers that hinder the implementation of an effective education strategy.” The UNICEF officer in the country added: “The expected outcome of the programme is that all children access and complete quality education, within a safe learning environment, gaining the skills and knowledge for lifelong learning”
Deuteronomy 15:11 says: “There will always be poor people in the land”. This biblical metaphysic of class, it would seem, undergirds and normalises the iniquitous inequities of dysfunctional society where leadership is permanently AWOL. Nigeria’s rulers cannot afford to see the country continue to wear the egregious toga as the world’s poverty capital; the second (?) most insecure country in the world; one of the most “fantastically corrupt” countries in the world; and, to cap it up, the country with the highest number of out-of-school children! The Buhari administration has made borrowing a major cornerstone of policy but the question is: are our unfortunate out-of-school children (who will, willy-nilly, inherit and defray these staggering debts) in the plans of government? If the federal government claims that it has its plate full already (rising cost of governance, insecurity, corruption, oil theft in the Niger Delta Region, dwindling revenue, et cetera, et cetera), what are the state governments doing to address this anomaly? Has the federal government stopped doling out the so-called security vote to the bowl-in-hand states, periodically? If the money is meant for security, doesn’t getting our kids off the streets part of security? Enemy nationals in the form of bandit-terrorists, the Boko Haram and its splinter groups, insurgents and militias in the South-south, Southeast and Southwest were once children who were deprived of quality education with its empowering benefits. It’s Judgement Day now: Nigeria is probably the most unsafe place on planet Earth.
The Buhari administration has made borrowing a major cornerstone of policy but the question is: are our unfortunate out-of-school children (who will, willy-nilly, inherit and defray these staggering debts) in the plans of government?
There is no telling the number of corpses decaying and decomposing in bush and forests across the nation, all of them victims of kidnappers, bandits, terrorists, and sundry criminals. Others are held in captivity, their lives on tenterhooks as they await payment of ransom to their abductors. Our roads, rails, water-ways and even air are fraught with manifest danger as men of the underworld hold sway, armed to the teeth with high-calibre weapons. In today’s Nigeria, human life is as worthless as a fly on a putrefying cadaver. The rage is real; the anger incandescent. These quislings know your children are in school, some in private schools here and abroad. They also know you don’t care about them except when you need them as cannon-fodder during elections, or in religious riots and crises. They are the sacrificial lambs that are slaughtered to appease elite delusions of grandeur. Now in the face of skyrocketing commodity prices, hunger and starvation and youth unemployment, the ruling elite seem poised through their accustomed unconcern and lofty antipathy to be preparing the nation for what is known as a perfect storm. The stream of O-O-S children has gradually grown into a sea of disenchanted and disaffected youth whose innocence has been stolen by the inhospitable and pitiless street and are, therefore, radicalised into a surly demographic of juvenile fire and fury, just smouldering, gathering momentum.
As schools reopen across the world, urgent steps must be taken to seek out all out-of-school children (O-O-S) in every nook and cranny of every state of the federation and enrol them in decent, well-equipped schools. Let’s conclude with Victor Hugo’s timeless counsel: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos.