Last October, the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) reported that the population of Nigeria’s out-of-school children has increased from 10.5 million to at 13.2 million.
This means there would be in the next decade or so at least 13 million additional adult Nigerians with neither basic education nor employable skills to a decent life. These adults would marry and give birth to more children most of whom would be illiterate and therefore an additional liability on the society. These would-be parents would divorce wives who are also illiterate and add more burden to the society. This vicious circle would continue on and on and on.
It goes without saying that we are sitting on a time-bomb. If we do nothing about this problem, the current level of insecurity is just the beginning. Boko Haram, banditry, kidnapping and ethno-religious crisis would all become a child’s play. I do not take any pleasure in painting this bleak picture nor to do this to enjoin pessimism. I simply painted the above picture to demonstrate the enormity of the challenge before us.
There have been several efforts to encourage parents to enrol their children in schools. From campaign by traditional rulers to the national orientation agency, from international bodies such as UNICEF to local organisations, from media houses to the entertainment industry, everyone is doing their bit to encourage parents to reduce the number of out -of-school children in northern Nigeria. The ugly truth however is that, from these figures, these campaigns have recorded very little, if any, success. This is not to say we should thus get frustrated, fold our arms and do nothing. On the contrary, I am writing today to highlight an approach that has been largely ignored. I argue that enforcing the provisions of the Universal Basic Education Act (UBEC Act) is the panacea to this challenge.
One approach we all seem to not know, forget or simply ignore is that not sending children to school is a crime in Nigeria and that enforcing that law could be our remedy to this quagmire.
Section 2 (1) of the Universal Basic Education Act, 2004 makes basic education the right of every Nigerian child and mandates governments – federal, state and local –to provide free, compulsory and universal basic education. This means building enough schools and stoking them with teaching and learning facilities, employing enough teachers, providing them with conducive conditions of service, including adequate pay, to do their work and supervising them well to ensure that everyone discharge their responsibilities as they should. Governments can be sued for not discharging responsibility. This statutory provision got a judicial blessing March 2017 when Hon. Justice John Tsoho of the Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja declared that “[B]y the combined effect of section 18(3)(a) of the 1999 Constitution and section 2 (1) of the Compulsory, Free Universal Basic Education Act, 2004, the right to free and compulsory primary education and free junior secondary education for all qualified Nigerian citizens are enforceable rights in Nigeria.” This pronouncement reinforces a 2010 decision of the ECOWAS in a case instituted by SERAP that the right to education is a legally enforceable human right in Nigeria.
Secondly, subsection 2 of the section makes it the legal duty of the parents and other persons that have custody of children to send their wards to school and ensure that they complete at least nine years of education, namely, primary school and junior secondary school. This means parents are not only legally bound to send their children to school but are also mandated to facilitate that by procuring them uniforms and books and by transporting them to and from school. Section 3 of the Act provides “public primary and junior secondary schools shall be free of charge.” Subsection 2 makes it a crime for any person to charge any fees for primary or junior secondary education and provides punishment of a fine not exceeding N10, 000 or imprisonment for a term of 3 months or to both.
Section 2 (4) of the Act makes it a crime for parents not to discharge their responsibilities towards educating their kids. It provides that any parent who refuses to send their child to school commits an offence which is punishable, on first conviction to reprimand, on second conviction to a fine of N2, 000 or a term of 1 month or both and on subsequent conviction to a fine of N5, 000 or imprisonment for a term of 2 months or both. The Act provides that it is the Magistrate Court or any other state court, including Shari’ah and Customary Courts that have jurisdiction in relating to contravention of the Act.
While, as shown above, the first leg of Section 2 mandating governments to provide basic education has been litigated in court, the second leg that makes it an offence for parents not to send their children to school has not been tested. With 13 million children out of school, we know that at least 13 million parents have contravened the UBEC Act and thus committed a crime. We also know as a matter of fact some governments or schools in different states of the country have violated the provision of this law by charging fees in public schools. But the Nigeria Police has never, to my knowledge charged any parents before any court for contravening this Act. They have also never arraigned any government official for charging fees. Instead of doing this, the police are busy wasting time on arresting prostitutes, laying siege to politicians’ residences who are out of favour with the ruling party like Dino Melaye and tear-gassing protesters. Why?
Why has the Nigeria Police Force chosen to ignore this very important law? Why did not the UBEC initiate a mechanism of ensuring these provisions are enforced? Why are civil society organisations, civil society groups, human rights activists and the media not putting pressure on authorities to act?
Even though the punishment provided may appear to lenient, but if a parent is convicted more than once for not sending their kids to school and as a result spend one or two months behind bars, they would not repeat the same mistake. Most importantly a few prosecutions would serve a strong deterrent to other parents. We know that the kinds of parents that do not send their children to school panic and shudder at the mention of the name of their traditional ruler, not to talk of a police station, let alone a court of law.
This law does not create any special person or body to prosecute those who contravene its provisions. Thus, the power, nay duty, to arrest, investigate and prosecute offenders lies on the Nigeria Police Force. Section 4 of the Police Act makes it the duty of the police to prevent and detect crime, apprehend offenders, and duly enforce of ALL laws and regulations. Section 23 of the Police Act empowers police to prosecute offenders subject to the powers of the Attorney General.
Prosecuting parents who refused to send their kids to school could be the best approach to ‘educate’ these adamant parents to know that education is mandatory. Instead of trying to convince parents who have chosen to neglect their responsibility or Mallams who see the Almajirai as their subsistence commodity to change (which difficult if not impossible), why wouldn’t groups come together and exert pressure on authorities to implement this Act which would within no time bring parents back to their senses and compel them to educate their children? In addition to organising events in Abuja and Kaduna, why would traditional and religious leaders channel their time and resources to urging authorities to implement the provisions of this very progressive law?