Few days ago, the online media was awash with reports of differential cut-off marks for students from various states seeking admission into federal colleges (or unity schools as they are known) in Nigeria. In this piece, I seek to expand the focus of the debate by drawing attention to certain underlying realities which I consider to be much more worrisome and highly debilitating than our limited focus on the statistics of the cut-off marks.

What was the purpose for setting up unity schools in the first place? The colleges were established by the Yakubu Gowon administration in the 60s to harness the multi-cultural heritage of the country for peaceful coexistence. It was set up as model secondary schools that would admit brilliant children from all states. Thus, it was intended to serve as a means of fostering unity in the post civil war era.

According to figures published by the Federal Ministry of Education for 2013 admission into these federal colleges, states like Abia, Lagos, Enugu, Delta and Imo were placed on cut-off points of 130, 133, 134, 134 and 138 while Kebbi, Sokoto, Zamfara, Taraba and Yobe were given cut-off points of 9, 9, 4, 3 and 2 respectively.

If there is any impression that this figures portrays, it is the fact that they are deeply offensive, painfully indigestible, perplexingly unjust and embarrassingly de-motivating. First, after about four decades of running these unity schools and other contraptions such as NYSC, how have we fared in achieving unity and national integration in the country? The result, I dare say, has been the opposite: the polity remains defiantly incoherent, constituting itself as a gigantic theatre of entrenched commotion and mutual distrust; a mere geographic space whose very existence is constantly imperilled by certain centrifugal forces, including ethnicity and religion.

How could we have achieved national unity when we have enshrined the practice of treating our students unequally by punishing the best and the brightest so as to appease the worst and the unserious. In the guise of promoting federal character, an intelligent and hard-working student from, say, Anambra state who scores 130 in the entrance exam will be advertently denied admission into a federal school just to ensure that his counterpart from Sokoto state who scores 2 is accommodated under a federal arrangement. This is nothing but a template for glorifying mediocrity.

The real challenge before us as a people is not in forging an illegitimate accommodation between the best and the worst; between the intelligent and the certified dullard. Our moral obligation should be to interrogate a system that permits the various leaderships in the northern states of the country to pride themselves as governors, legislators, local government chairmen, traditional rulers and religious leaders, while allowing children of northern extraction to wallow in abject illiteracy, perpetually entrapped in oppressive poverty and beggarly existence.

Who are those managing education and drafting educational policies in the northern states of the country? What structures are being put in place to ensure that the governed reap the full benefits of modern-day education and that the lamentable educational gap between the north and the south is considerably bridged? What exactly constitutes the curriculum content of the education being transmitted to students of northern origin that constrains them to emerge as vessels of irredeemable failures and to play second fiddle to their counterparts from other regions? And what efforts are the leaders of the northern states making to refine certain retrogressive aspects of their cultural and religious values (including the regressive almajiri system) so as to liberate their citizens from the inhibitions imposed by such socio-cultural bondage?

If education is ideally seen as the super-highway to modern civilization, one could rightly state that the managers of the collective affairs of the various northern states have made a huge success in their determination to delink and to detach majority of their citizens (especially, women and children) from contemporary civilization. Every passing month, governors of Yobe, Bornu, Zamfara, Kano, Sokoto etc. receive huge sums of monies as federal allocations accruable to their various states. They collect dizzying sums as perks of office, including huge security votes. Yet, these governors find the moral calmness to remain in office and to preside over states whose performance in regard to human development indices has become a veritable source of national embarrassment. Unable to positively transform the quality of life of their people, it is not surprising that most of these northern states have invariably metamorphosed into breeding grounds for terrorism. A society that wilfully de-educates it citizenry can neither avoid nor escape the violent eruptions of unpolished minds.

It is profoundly saddening that northern elites who habitually arouse fanatic sentiments in seeking political power and more resource allocation at the centre will, paradoxically, maintain a blind eye and a conspiratorial silence when the issue is about the mis-governance and marginalization of ordinary northerners by their own leaders. For these elites, poverty and ignorance are highly functional as a means of preserving their privileged positions of power and authority while guaranteeing that their subjects remain perpetually subservient and highly dependent on their masters' charity.

It is high time we resolved to holistically apply the federal character principle and to allow it to colour every aspect of our national life or, better still, discard it altogether. We cannot use the logic of federal character to arrest the educational advancement of forward-looking and progress-minded students from certain regions just to compensate for the backwardness of students from other regions whose indigenous leadership have deliberately underdeveloped. By the same token, we cannot hide under the guise of federal character to justify the smuggling of unfit characters from certain part of the country into federal establishments, including the military and federal civil service, unmindful of the implications of such practices for systemic efficiency and result-orientedness.

However, if we must justify these practices by resort to the logic of federal character, it becomes highly compelling that we extend such logic to the legitimate agitations of other marginalized regions of the country for a shot at the presidency before it is reclaimed by its natural inheritors. Also, we must urgently redress the lopsidedness inherent in our federal structure that allows the north to corner a disproportionate number of states and local government councils and, by implication, attract greater resources to its region as well as exercise unfettered dominance of the country's electoral fortunes. There must be an equalization of states for the various regions while the creation of more local governments are authorized for those states currently disadvantaged by the prevailing status-quo.

The leadership in the north must urgently brace up to the task of addressing frontally the fundamental problems of mis-governance and the perpetuation of certain retrogressive, self-serving values that have made illiteracy and general human underdevelopment highly attractive and inevitable. In the final analysis, we must define the kind of society we desire to bequeath to future generations. We must make clear choice between a society that is firmly rooted on social justice and fairly rewards hard-work and excellence or a society that penalizes academic excellence and offers incentives to intellectual indolence.

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Articles by Ugochukwu Raymond Ogubuariri