But what is the state of education in Nigeria today? To put it mildly, Nigeria’s education system is in shambles. In 2015, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) ranked countries on Education for All (EFA) Development Index, taking into account universal primary education, adult literacy, quality of education and gender parity, Nigeria ranked 103 out of 118. Shortly after, a survey conducted by UNICEF and the Nigerian government shows that Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children in the world at 13.2 million. This year – and no thanks to the pandemic and insecurity in most parts of the country, UNESCO announced that Nigeria now has 20 million out-of-school children.
It is not just about access. Quality has taken a huge hit also. Teachers, across all levels are very poorly paid and not motivated to give their best. Universities are closed more than they are open these days due to strike actions.
So what are the track records of the top three presidential aspirants on education? Luckily, two of them were former state governors whose education policies can be tracked and accessed. The only outlier is Atiku Abubakar, who was a two-term vice president and had no policy control over education.
Bola Tinubu – 1999-2007
The presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress (APC) was a two-term governor of Lagos state from 1999 – 2007. He immediately realised the delipidated state of education in the state and, beginning in 2000, started rolling out policies to reverse the trend. In 2000, he made education free in all public primary and secondary schools including the payment for WAEC/NECO examination fees for all students, regardless of state of origin, as well as internal examination fees. He also invested heavily in the building, rehabilitation, and infrastructure of schools and in teacher training in the states. In 2001, he took the momentous decision to return a total number of 48 hitherto seized schools back to their original owners in the hope they would revive the fallen standard of education in the state.
His administration also made heavy investments in the Lagos state university and Lagos state University Teaching Hospital to revive the schools and position them to play a critical role in manpower development and improving the health outcome of residents of the state.
In sum, the former Lagos state governor, must be credited with understanding the key role of education in human capital development and in having the courage to invest huge resources into improving both the quality and access to education in the state even though the investments have not always reflected in the results of students in the state.
Peter Obi 2006-2014
The presidential candidate of the Labour party, who fought a bitter battle to reclaim his mandate and kept fighting to remain governor of Anambra state, had a refreshingly innovative solution to the education crisis in his state when he took over. Under his predecessor, Dr Chimwoke Mbadinuju – if one is to set aside the almost 3 year long administration of Dr Chris Ngige, whom the Court of Appeal eventually removed as Governor – all public schools were shut down in the state for two whole years because teachers were not paid and were on strike. Such was the level of dilapidation in the school system in the state that virtually all the schools were in shocking states of disrepair and “not one single public secondary school in the state had a properly equipped functional science laboratory” or computer laboratory.
On taking over, he quickly arranged to return parochial schools back to their original owners -in this case, missionaries, and churches. 18 such secondary schools and 1,040 primary schools were returned even against the stiff opposition of the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT), who had been used to the laissez-faire regime of the past where they got paid for doing little or no work. To resolve the crisis, Obi agreed that the state government will still be responsible for the payment of teachers’ salaries, but the owners and managers of the school must forward the list of qualified teachers to the state government.
He did not leave the churches with the task of developing the schools. He gave the new owners N6 billion over 15 months not only to renovate but also to maintain the schools and see to improving standards. He also ensured all outstanding teachers’ salaries and pensions were paid, all public schools in the states were rehabilitated, equipped not only with science and computer laboratories but also with buses and borehole water to make for an enjoyable learning environment. He made himself accessible, paying unscheduled visits to the schools and encouraging the students to contact him directly to report any problem or lack of compliance with set standards.
Results didn’t take long in coming: the states’ ranking in national high school examinations, NECO and WAEC moved most discernibly from the 26th position to 3rd and eventually, 1st in both categories by 2013.
Atiku Abubakar 1999-2007
It is extremely difficult to assess the performance of the presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) with regards to education because he was a vice president and neither had ministerial oversight in education both at the national or state level. However, he set up a private University, The American University of Nigeria, in 2004, in Yola, Adamawa state, which has maintained a high standard till date.
But eager to show his concern for education, during a presidential debate in 2019 made the following claim:
“When I was Vice-President, I took a tour to Anambra State, during the administration of Governor Mbadinuju. I found out public schools were closed for two years. I came back and met the President. I said: ‘Mr. President, this Governor will never be allowed to go back’. He said ‘why?’ I said ‘I found out that all the schools in Anambra State have been overtaken by weeds. For two years, they were not open.’
“Believe me, I made sure Mbadinuju never went back. This is how I feel about education. But for that education, I would not be what I am today.”
On a balance, we can feel confident that all the three presidential frontrunners care about education and may, most likely, perform better than the current administration, Peter Obi seems to care enough to ensure his government’s investments – even though significantly lower than Tinubu’s in Lagos, as Anambra is much smaller in population – brings the best returns.