My last week’s column highlighted a rarely known law that makes education a fundamental right of every child, criminalises charging fees for basic education and not sending children to school.
I contended that the best way out of the time-bomb we are sitting on is to penalise parents who are recalcitrant about sending their wards to school. That piece, unsurprisingly, elicited a deluge of response from readers. Many did not know it is a criminal offence for parents not send their children to school and supported my call. Some felt I should rather call for the jailing of politicians, not poor parents, while others pointed out that there are just not enough schools to accommodate these children. But I believe it is not a case of “either/or”. We can hold both politicians and reckless parents to account. But if we are unable to hold politicians to account now, that should not stop us from holding parents responsible.
Today, I would to continue with my discussion on the Nigerian child. Serendipitously, the day is the Children’s Day.
Children’s Day has a long history. It first started as a national holiday in 1920 by the Republic of Turkey which set the 23 of April of every year as the day for the children. In 1931, it was thought that an official declaration was needed to clarify and justify the celebration. Since then, Children’s Day has become a national holiday in numerous countries, with each marking in on a different day. In Nigeria, Children’s Day was established as a national holiday 55 years ago – in 1964. But instead of us to use the occasion to celebrate the child, we put him through even more torture.
I vividly remember how Children’s Day was celebrated during our time in public schools. It is still celebrated the same way today. I remember being lined up to march in a parade for a politician – usually the governor, a commissioner or local government – at the Emir’s Palace. We were made to hold little flags, line up on the street and wait for politicians who never show up on time. Competitions were organised, and speeches given. All these were done under the sun – the scorching sun of north-eastern Nigeria. Politicians and traditional rulers sat under canopies with fans while we, the children for whom the day was supposedly to meant for, stood throughout the event or sat in the hot sand wiping sweat. Some of us got dehydrated and cried. A few slumped or even fainted out of exhaustion. We barely heard the speeches made. Instead of having a joyous day, we had a tortuous day.
But torturing the child by exposing him to the sun and making him parade for a politician that does not have him at heart is not the rationale behind Children’s Day. In a decent society, this day should be a day to take tally of the progress or lack of it the child made the previous year. It be should a day to appraise the plight of Nigerian children and the efforts of governments and their partners make to better the life and future of the child.
As I highlighted last week, education is an enforceable right in Nigerian. The right to education was originally codified under Section of the Constitution which gave it with the right hand and took it with the left. The section guaranteed the right to education but made it not justiciable. Government are expected to provide education but cannot be held responsible if they refused to. However, in 2004, the Universal Basic Education Act made the right of a child to basic education a fundamental right. This codification has found judicial blessing in at least two cases including one decided by the ECOWAS Court.
However, just like other laws, this statutory provision exists only on the pages of papers. Governments – from Abuja to local ones – do not attach any premium to education. And they are not ashamed of it. Our schools are dilapidated beyond description. Classes meant for 50 pupils house up to 400 students. The students sit on the floor in most cases. They suffer from the wrath of the sun in classes packed like sardines in the summer because the classes have neither fans nor ceilings – some don’t even have zinc roofings. They shudder from cold during harmattan because their classes have no windows or doors.
Their teachers are the worst treated civil servants on earth. They are one of the lowest paid and cared for. They do not have teaching materials. Some are forced to buy chalk from their small salary which are mostly paid late. They use the stipend they are paid in the name of salary to settle part of their debt. These teachers come to these classes jam-packed with children hot, dry and empty.
Consequently, our standard of education has fallen abysmally. In fact, we do no longer have any standard at all. As demonstrated in Kaduna two years ago, primary six teachers cannot pass Maths or English examinations meant for primary four pupils. Common Entrance examinations are written for students by those who supposed to supervise them. WAEC and NECO have become absolute joke. Giving secondary students answers in their final year examinations have become so entrenched and systematised that schools no longer hide it and nobody is even talking about it or cares anymore. Students know that very well and thus do not study even for a second to write the almighty WAEC that was once as scary as a dragon.
But even the above harsh condition is for the lucky ones – those of us that had the privilege of going to school. Today, there are at least 13 million who do not even enjoy the privilege of sitting in the dilapidated classrooms I described above and be taught by those angry teachers without any teaching aid. These children are called almajirai. They survive by begging for food in neighbourhoods and by engaging in menial jobs such as handicrafts, shoe-shining, nail cutting, washing, and petty trading. They sleep on the dirty street or crowded shelters usually near their Mallam’s house.
In addition, thousands of children are currently being used as child-soldiers by both Boko Haram and the non-state armed group fighting them, CJTF. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed last month that more than 3, 500 children, within the age range of 13 – 17, were recruited to either fight for or against Boko Haram. Earlier this month, World Health Organisation’s assessment indicated that around 2.7 million children and mothers in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states suffer from malnutrition. As at 2017, Boko Haram had destroyed almost 1,400 schools, killed nearly 2, 300 teachers, displaced 19, 000 teachers and led to the closure of more than half of all the schools at the epicentre of its activity, leaving an estimated 3 million in need of emergency educational support according UNICEF.
To add salt to injury, millions of children are forms of domestic and sexual abuse. Physical, sexual and emotional exploitation of children is reported at an increasingly alarming rate. In all this, no one seems to care. In 2019, Abuja and state politicians are more worried about their political parties and their fate in it than the Nigerian child. The only child worth a fraction of their time is their own children whom they educate in the most expensive schools at the expense of the millions of children on the street and the millions more studying run-down building called schools.
Instead of taking this day to subject the child to more torture by exposing them to hot sun for hours in the name of parade marches before politicians who have failed them, we should use this occasion to appraise our progress on the issues that affect them. Our crimes against the Nigerian child are multiple: lack of education, recruitment into armed groups, malnutrition, neglect and violence. Unless and until we tackle these and give the child a chance at a brighter tomorrow, our country would continue to lag and our future would be even bleaker. History is recording our neglect and, most importantly, the Almighty would hold us to account.