“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education”
- John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917 – 1963)
(35thUS President, Democrat, politician)
I am a product of the Nigerian public school education system. I started primary school education in September 1974. I didn’t pay any school fees at the time. Beyond non-payment of school fees we were given free textbooks and exercise books. The teachers were dedicated and dutiful. The same conditions: non-payment of school fees, free textbooks and exercise books applied when I entered secondary school in 1980. For my West Africa School Certificate Examination registration in 1985, I paid N60.00 (Sixty naira only). At this time, examination malpractice was not in our lexicon, it was a taboo.
The cost of my education up to the postgraduate level is less than the current annual tuition for one of my children in primary school, after adjusting for inflation. Things were reasonable then for my mother, an itinerant trader, to sponsor my education. Whenever I think of what it would have been if I were to have my formal education in the present day Nigeria, I shudder. One thing is clear; I would, at best, end up a secondary school certificate holder because my mother would have floundered under the burden of raising five children.
Now it costs a fortune to have what anyone will consider quality education. As a nation, are we better off? Recent events point to the contrary. For instance, there has been public vituperation about the poor performance of Nigerian students in WASCE and NECO examinations. I thought to myself, “Why are we surprised?” Can we, as a people, avoid the accumulated effect of our wrong choices? What structures do we have in place to inspire our youth to study? What signals are we sending to our youth to the effect that education is meritorious? Everywhere you turn, you see symptoms of our neglect of quality education. Cases of collapsed buildings; we have had so many that I’ve lost count. You ask: Where are the engineers? Of course the engineers are ubiquitous. But what do you expect from a nation that pays lip service to quality education? Incidents of patients wrongly diagnosed in our hospitals are rife.
The other day I listened to a fellow Nigerian being interviewed on the television. He said we have been misled into believing that our power challenges are mainly with generation, transmission and distribution. According to him, while we have challenges in those areas, “the main challenge,” he said, “is with the human capital in Power Holding Company of Nigeria.” He buttressed his point with the recently introduced pre-paid meters, which ran into hitches because we don’t have competent people to manage the meters when they started giving problems.
The question is: How did we get here? My octogenarian father-in-law believes a productive civil service is the engine of national development (I agree because of the current share of government in economic activities). To this end, he opined that the sacking of top ranking civil service personnel in the 1970’s created uncertainty in the civil service. According to him, with uncertainty, the quest for self-aggrandizement became the order of the day. After all, a Yoruba adage says, “A bird can only fly with the food in its stomach.” Succeeding personnel realizing that job security is an illusion resorted to insuring themselves against job loss through unjust means.
My take is that, as a nation, we got to our current state because we have a warped understanding of what money is. We see money as an end in itself. We have no regard for the process by which money is earned. Most of us find solace in the mendacious statement – “The end justifies the means.” As a result, our disposition to service or quality product offering is, at best, decrepit. The principal actor in Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel, ‘Gone With The Wind,’ said, “You make money when building a nation and when destroying it. But you make more money when destroying it.” It would appear our leaders have chosen to embark on the destruction of the nation.
With those in key leadership positions at the forefront of the nation’s destruction, everyone has now joined in the party. Corporate organizations now peddle their get-rich-quick schemes thereby ensnaring unsuspecting multitude of ‘free-lunchers’. They promise making people instant millionaires. What they don’t tell them is that it a disservice to give million(s) of any currency to anyone who isn’t a millionaire in his or her mind.
If I have my way, I would sue my GSM service provider for mental assault. They keep bombarding me with text messages asking me to participate to win a certain sum of money by simply sending a funny message to a stupid number. This is a scheme an American preacher called “stealing from the poor in the name of a lottery”. The small amount of money they ask for (N100) belies the principle (mathematical expectation) underlying their hoax schemes. More worrisome is that gamblers are being made of participants.
A huge part of our entertainment industry, in my opinion, is an exaltation of profanity and nudity. Gone are the days when you can leave your children to watch our local TV station without ending up with children with depraved minds. Some of the entertainers publicly declare that they dropped out of school. The societal effects of these careless utterances by ‘clownish’ role models are the thousands of ‘street dancers’ who can’t pass WASCE or NECO examinations?
The ever-increasing viewership of foreign football leagues contributes in no small measure to the poor performance of our youth in competitive examinations. Everywhere you turn there is a TV viewing centre where young people gather to watch football, especially on weekends (I wonder when they have time to read). As early as 1.00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, television sets are on and our youth pay to while away precious time. The long-term social cost of these viewing centres requires that their operators should be heavily taxed.
In his book, “From Third World To First”, Lee Kuan Yew, based on his experience when he visited Nigeria (Lagos) in 1965, described Nigeria as a nation under siege. He said Nigeria is a country that plays to a different set of rules (in comparison to forward-looking nations). To imagine that we are still tending toward this ignominious description, 45 years after, is heart rending.
In contrast, India is a country that values quality education. Thomas L. Friedman catalogued major global events that have earned India its enviable position in the world economy in his book, “The World Is Flat”. What comes across in Thomas Friedman’s exposition is the fact that the preparation of India’s vast human capital through well-thought out educational policies allowed the country benefit from emerging global opportunities. With ever increasing global competition and the attendant pressure on profit margins, multinational companies around the world have found allies in Indian companies because of the availability of highly skilled workforce at reduced cost.
I believe all hope is not lost for Nigeria. We can still turn from the path of self-destruction, and build a strong nation. The starting point is to change our reward system from the prevailing federal character to a merit-driven system. This principle should drive everything we do. For instance, it is important for the citizens to know that their votes count. To this end, the electoral process reform is a must. Thereafter, the issues of legal reform, police sector reform, etc, will follow. Once we move in the above direction, education will gradually assume its pride of place and start to contribute to national development.
In conclusion, the story of a young man who sought to know how to become successful from an old sage comes to mind. To show the young man what it takes to succeed, the old sage took him on a stroll into the river where they eventually got submerged under water! At a point the young man started gasping for breath. It was then the sage led him out of the river. When they got to the riverbank, the sage looked at him intently and said, “When we were under water, what was it that you wanted badly?” The stupefied young man replied, “You knew what I wanted. Of course I needed air!” The sage said, “Therein is the key to your success. When you desire success as much as you wanted to breathe when you were under water, you would find a way.”
The moral of the story is that when a critical mass of Nigerians desires a positive change as much as we all need oxygen to breathe, we will find a way. Until then, we would be subject to the sub-optimal maxim: “Every man for himself; God for us all.”