By Agba Jalingo and Jonathan Ugbal
Ahead of the yet-to-be announced resumption date for public primary and secondary schools in Akwa Ibom State, discordant tune trail the more than a decade old free and compulsory education directive of the State announced by the Godswill Akpabio’s administration.
CrossRiverWatch visited the State’s capital city, Uyo and its environs to get the pulse of the people and all may not be well as parents, teachers and experts differ in opinion on what impact the policy has had on the the education sector since it went into force in the 2008/2009 academic sessions.
“Uncommon Transformation” may have been a popular phrase with Mr. Akpabio as Governor, but, the directive of free education is common knowledge.
“I no gree finish school o, na waste of time abeg,” said a tall, dark lanky fellow with brownish teeth and sunken eyes at the Ibom plaza, who wondered whether one of these reporters was a policeman inquiring whether he heard about the free education policy of the State. He was loading mini buses ferrying passengers to Abak road and kept screaming that after Secretariat junction was no longer 50 Naira.
“The people wey dey government, how many of dem go school? No be di one wey dey Abuja dem tok say him no go school,” the fellow said in apparent reference to Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari who is widely perceived in southern Nigeria to not have a certificate despite the Nigerian constitution outlining that the minimum to run for President is a First School Leaving Certificate or “it’s equivalent.”
“Yes, I am aware, and we have not been paying fees,” Itorobong Ibangha, a petty trader opposite the Primary School at Use Offot, along Nwaniba road said.
No Free Lunch – An Intervention, Not Extortion…
Despite teachers and parents acknowledging that education was free, pupils and students still pay sums ranging from NGN500 per term to over NGN6,000, this findings revealed.
These sums were for different reasons ranging from “intervention,” to uniforms and foolscap sheets for examinations among others.
For instance, at the Government Technical School, Ewet in Uyo Local Government Area and the Government Primary School Afaha Ube, Itam in Itu Local Government Area, students and pupils pay NGN500 every term for what parents said was “intervention fee.”
The same was for the Primary School along Oron road, the one at Use Offot and the Government Secondary School at Urruan Local Government Area.
At, Uyo High School, the cost is higher.
“We pay for uniform. They will give you belt, give you socks, and uniform,” Mrs. Akai (surname withheld for editorial reasons) whose grandchildren attend the school said. She spoke in pidgin most of the time and is contemplating the withdrawal of the children to another school due to the costs and issues of gangsterism.
According to her, “We pay NGN6,100 for uniform because it is branded. For the girls, it is NGN6,500. You buy foolscap sheets for examinations and often end up buying locker (desks) for them too and that is about NGN6,000 too. At the end, you still register WAEC (West African Examinations Council) and NECO (National Examinations Council) too.”
Despite all these, she insisted that education was free as they were not paying school fees.
Also, for Ntiense, a store owner, so long as it was not called school fees, it is not school fees.
All respondents say they were not issued any receipts when payments were made with the teachers responsible often writing down names in books to identify who had paid or was yet to – a scenario that could give room for corrupt practices.
Free Tuition, Not Education…
But, not all agree that there is free and compulsory education in the State.
Inibehe Effiong, a legal practitioner who attended public schools in Akwa Ibom State says there is nothing like free and compulsory education in the State.
“The problem I have is that you keep saying free education. There is nothing like free and compulsory education in Akwa Ibom State. My assessment is that the best way to describe the policy is that, it is a free tuition policy,” Effiong said.
He insisted that there was no free and compulsory education and queried why parents and guardians will have to pay anything at all if there.
“As long as the Government does not do the needful, there is nothing like free and compulsory education. Unless, you want to tell me that all there is to education is tuition then if you have free tuition you have free education. But, education is not only about tuition and journalists will have to learn that and say it as it is,” he added.
Tijah Bolton-Akpan, the Executive Director of Policy Alert, a civil society organization agrees with Mr. Effiong.
“At best what we have is a free tuition policy as there is no actual policy document guiding implementation. Yes, the State has a Universal Basic Education Boards which is in line with the Universal Basic Education policy at the national level. But, there was and there has been no document to guide the implementation. The only thing that comes close to that is the Child Rights Law which has provisions prohibiting children being out of school or children of school age being out of school.”
He averred that the State was not sincere in its approach to ensuring public education was really free and efficient as the budget implementation report indicted the State on this.
His position was echoed by the former Chairman of the State’s wing of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, Comrade Etim Ukpong who in December 2019 claimed that the State had not paid the subvention for five terms which meant at least three academic sessions (2017/2018, 2018/2019 and 2019/2020) were affected.
Teachers Keep Mum…
During a recent visit to the schools, teachers kept mum and kept referring questions to the ministry of education.
At some point, one of the reporters visited the Government Technical, Ewet and Uyo High with people posing as admission seekers to get more details.
At Uyo High, a man at the entrance said students were writing examinations and so only external invigilators were allowed in the school as no staff of the school was around despite taking a call and informing the person that the principal “dey for office.”
At Government Technical, the Vice Principal, Emmanuel Akpan, declined an interview and when pressed further for more information, said: “I believe the Principals and head teachers are meeting the Permanent Secretary to know what we are to do as we are opening for a new session.”
But, A Curtailed Outburst…
However, A female Teacher who pleaded anonymity but agreed to be recorded, averred that; “One may not agree that there is free education which I understand because students still buy lockers, they are still made to pay for different things like examination sheets, intervention among others.”
The teacher questioned what extortion actually meant as the hands of teachers and school administrators were tied.
“What exactly is extortion? So, I ask a child to buy textbook as a literature teacher or pay so we can get from Aba (a commercial city in neighboring Abia State) and that is me extorting the child. Why? Because Government has not provided that. How do I teach physics or mathematics without practice books?
“Every now and then, you will see on AKBC (Akwa Ibom Broadcasting Corporation) that they have donated 100 lockers or books and it is not enough. For instance, in my school, they brought a few dozen desks for a school with a population of about 1,500! What you then get is that there are fewer facilities to handle the students which gives rise to the gangs and trouble you see in schools that is now called cultism,” the teacher said.
In a similar note, Ukpong, in that interview had posited that, “when you go to town blaming teachers for collecting this and that, have you also forgotten that you have not addressed those fundamental areas?”
Bolton-Akpan explained the concept behind the intervention which was supposed to be paid by government but has now been transferred to the pupils.
“During the (Governor) Akpabio’s administration, physical investments was there and there was also subvention which was NGN100 for primary school (pupils) and NGN300 for secondary school (students). This was a budgetary provision to support the free and compulsory education program so that parents will have to pay anymore.
“The money was supposed to be used to cover expenses by the school. But, over the years there has been corruption over how these monies were budgeted and spent,” he explained.
But, the payments, as earlier stated, was stopped and it was agreed that students should pay NGN500 to aid the school’s management.
But, even when these monies were paid consistently, Bolton-Akpan says there was some layers of corruption.
“The first was that despite been budgeted, the State was not releasing these sums with no explanation what it was used for. The second is that the teachers collected these sums and did not apply it the way they should be as the embezzled such and the third layer is that heads of schools inflated enrollment figures in registers to collect more monies from the government,” he said.
When asked if these could be verified, he said that one could easily walk into any school and compare the figures of students in the registers with those that attend
classes as well as write exams.
This could not be achieved and these reporters relied on data available in the public domain.
For example, according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, the number of people who completed secondary school in 2016 in public schools was 46,886. These set were admitted in the 2010/2011 session with data from the State Secondary Education Board showing that 321,123 people were admitted into different classes with 61,880 admitted into JSS1 which means at least 14,994 who were admitted into JSS1 did not sit for the SSCE.
In 2017, the figure of those who finished public secondary schools dropped by over 21,000 to 25,838. Meanwhile, 64,707 were admitted into JSS 1 out of the 341,809 enrolled in the 2012/2013 session. The admission was almost 3,000 more than that of the previous session but the difference in those who sat for SSCE in the 2016/2017 session and those who were admitted rose to almost 39,000.
However, this did not prove entirely, Bolton-Akpan’s claim.
Uncommon Perimeters, Common Inside…
Following concerns raised by an investigative series published by Premium Times, the Akwa Ibom State government organized an education summit in 2019 where the decision to erect perimeter fences for public schools was made among other resolutions.
“There is this inter ministerial direct labour projects that cuts across different ministries of government and part of the resolution was that it should be focused on education and like you said, you have seen the perimeter fencing among other things. So, there has been an improvement from what it was when we published that story,” Cletus Ukpong, the regional editor, South South and South East for Premium Times who undertook the investigation said.
He, however said that while the physical structures like perimeter fences was an improvement given the security situation in the country, one could not state exactly whether the soft infrastructure such as “the libraries, classrooms and laboratories were in order.”
And, Bolton-Akpan, reiterated this. “How much investments has government done? The position of the civil societies and the citizens is that government’s investment should be commensurate to the verbal pronouncement. What we have seen in the past years has been continuous decline in capital investments in the education sector.”
According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics enrollment data for 2017, there are 250 public schools which was a slight improvement from the 241 recorded in 2016. But, there was about 400 percent hike for private schools which moved from 87 in 2016 to 488 in 2017.
And, Mr. Effiong said this was a deliberate attempt by public office holders and their cronies to frustrate the public education system. This, according to him was evident in the fact that many private schools were owned by family members of past and current public office holders.
Also, while the perimeter fences in many schools visited were aesthetic, the structures inside were failing with many schools having fewer facilities than the number of students, real or bloated.
The former NUT Chairman, lend credence to these during his earlier stated interview.
“The free education came in and all the persons who did not have the hope of going to school are now in schools and most of them don’t have direct sponsors, not in terms of school fees anymore. But, who buys uniforms? As basic as that. Who buys the first set of books? Who buys pen or pencil, not even talking about the whole math set for that child going to school and the government doesn’t provide these one,” Ukpong said.
However, the News Agency of Nigerian had earlier in 2021, reported that the education commissioner, Idongesit Etiebet said the State spends NGN1.5 billion annually for external examinations.
The report, however, failed to state where she made this claim and where the monies were applied.
Government Remains Mute…
Several efforts to reach the State’s commissioner for education, Mrs. Idongesit Etiebet failed. At least six calls on three different occasions to her known telephone number were neither picked nor returned.
Two text messages were neither acknowledged nor replied. Messages sent on WhatsApp were read by her and neither acknowledged nor replied.
Two visits for two consecutive days to the Ministry of Education headquarters in Uyo did not yield any result as staff said she could only be seen by appointment.