Aregbesola And The Tragi-comedy Of Failed Educational Policies In Osun State
Growing up as a primary school student in Ilesa in the early to mid-60s, one image that stuck in my young mind was the spectacle of a gang of fraudsters who plied their trade inside the Atakamusa Main market of the town. This was a gang of young men who went about in the market with a form of pool betting, where spectators were encouraged to stake some coins to win a handful of coins contained in an improvised package made of old newspapers and packaging materials. The gang was led by one heavily bearded middle-age man, who was clearly of non-Yoruba speaking origin. It took me time to work out the trick deployed by the gang, but I sure did.
The way the group worked was simple but highly effective in duping lots of traders and shoppers who flocked to the market daily. The shows took place largely in the late afternoon. The leader of the gang would hold out a fist full of coins in an improvised paper bag and jingle the bag continuously in a way that the sack of coins made alluring sound. His assistants would be ringing a bell or playing music to attract a crowd. Once the crowd gathered, spectators were encouraged to try their luck by playing the game. Playing with one six-pence coin could fetch the lucky winner a bunch of coins in multiples of what he or she staked on the spot. At the beginning of each game, a couple of players would win the lottery and leave the gathering in pure ecstasy. Their joy and celebration would attract several more spectators and drive up the expectation of the now larger crowd of spectators and players. More people would play the game and lose lots of money. It was a big spectacle to see housewives, who gambled with the money given them by their husbands to buy food and other provisions in the market, weep uncontrollably after suddenly realizing that they had put themselves in big trouble by playing the lottery. When a loser became too hysterical, some bouncers would appear from nowhere to shoo them out of the arena. No one was allowed to create an ugly scene that would spoil business for the gang.
As soon as the gang had spent about one or two hours at a spot, they moved to another area of the large market to repeat the same show. What I found strange was that even though many soon learned of the high risk involved in playing this game, which they hardly understood, they still trooped to the gang to play the game day after day. As a young student, who was given daily pocket money for my school lunch, I had no money to stake. But, I followed the gang around the market long enough to understand their trick. I found that some of the men who form the first set of spectators were members of the gang. Before each show, they would have given some coins to some men and women, who would pose as genuine players. Those ladies, already known by the gang leader, were the ones who first played and won big, spiking the interest and the greed of the other onlookers. It was also from the rank of those ‘sponsored’ players that you would find men who would step forward, play and win big after a long streak of spectacular losses. That game went on for several weeks in different markets in Ilesa before the local authorities finally drove the gang out of town.
Several years after, I have since grown to understand the various ramifications of grand deception and the various tricks in the bags of those who practice them. Also, I have come to realize that there is no limit to the size of a population who could fall victim of tricksters. More worrisome is the realization that even highly educated individuals, if they do not keep their sense of inquiry alive, could and do fall easy victims of trickery and mass deception.
Each time I contemplate the eight years of the regime of Governor Rauf Aregbesola in Osun State, I cannot but remember my experience of the gang of pool players I studied as a young boy in Atakumosa market in Ilesa. Virtually every sphere of public policy that that regime worked on could be analyzed within that framework. In this essay, I have chosen to discuss the raft of ill-digested educational policies introduced by that regime, which virtually set the state back several years. This discussion was prompted by the recent decision of the state Executive Council led by Gov. Oyetola to review (and reverse) some of those policies.
I must confess that i have read some brilliant discussion of this subject in the media lately. Some of those analysts touched on many of the points one would ordinarily make in analyzing those policies. The only point I am yet to see made by other analysts is that what we witnessed in Osun state, during Aregbesola’s tenure, was the worse kind of the tendencies that you find many Nigerian public office holders exhibit. Thus, i would like to argue that Aregbesola was your typical Nigerian politician; ever so callous, unthinking, self-opinionated, garrulous and arrogant. What made Aregbesoloa’s case worse was that admixture of sadism and grand deception.
Those who care would remember that Aregbesola was sold to the Osun electorate as the wonder kid from Lagos who served as Commissioner for Works for eight years under the government of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu. That government recorded several feats, which earned it accolades from home and abroad. It sets new standards of progressive politics in Nigeria. Those who had questions to ask on the politics of that government were willing to drop them in the face of the very visible physical ( and, I dare say, fiscal) achievements of that government. So, when Aregbesola happened to the political landscape of Osun State, the expectation of the average citizen was that he would re-enact the progressive policies of the Asiwaju era in Lagos state. The lie was sold that Aregbesola, being so close to the Master Strategist in Lagos, was in fact behind most of the achievements of that government. What other credence did the poor citizens of Osun need than the public knowledge, at that time, that Aregbesola’s political ambition was being bankrolled by the Master Strategist himself from Lagos?
Grand Deception and Subterfuge
I suspect that many people would hardly remember that one of the first steps the new governor took, as soon as he settled down, was to organize an education summit. That was a two or three-day affair with fanfare and plenty of television coverage. As anyone familiar with strategy retreats would testify, the value of a retreat does not lie in the presentations at the retreat itself, but in the painstaking research that generates the issues and insights to be analyzed and debated. Equally important would be the structure of the retreat and the extent to which it permits critical debate and deep intellectual introspection. The less the fanfare, the better. What I found remarkable about that summit was the choice of the Chairman. He was no less a personality than the highly revered Nobel laureate,Prof. Wole Soyinka.
When the government began to reel out some of its controversial educational policies, it reminded everyone who raised an eye brow that the policies came from the ‘highly successful’ educational summit it organized! Initially, critics were confused. How could a summit chaired by such a celebrated intellectual birth such ludicrous and harmful policies? I knew, even then, that the summit was another confidence trick of the Aregbesola administration to lure the people to accept its half-baked and illogical educational policies. From the way those policies were rolled out, it should be clear to any watchful analyst that the educational summit was nothing but a smoke screen to push out the ideas of a governor bent on using the instrumentality of his office to experiment with the lives of the children of Osun State ever experienced. Many of the participants in the educational summit became unwilling accomplices in the most egregious educational policies in Osun state, as their names and reputations were used indirectly to push those policies. That, for me is the hallmark of a confidence trikster.
Many commentators have spoken of the policy of one school uniform for all students in the state during Aregbesola’s regime and the way the contract for the sewing of the first set of those uniforms was awarded to a private company based in Lagos. I do not have much to add to that narrative. I would only draw attention to the way that policy on school uniform was introduced. First, the government offered to provide the first set to the students free of charge. Perhaps, that was to sweeten the acceptance of the policy. The following year, however, parents learnt that they had to pay for the uniform at a price many thought was way more expensive than the uniforms were worth. Worst still, only one company was authorized to produce and sell the uniforms throughout the state!
It was in the wake of the introduction of the controversial school uniform that Osun state witnessed another strange development. Out of the blues, some students decided to wear Hijab as part of their school uniform; a move that nearly sparked large-scale religious crisis in the state. To counter the move of those students, some other students wore choir robes and masquerade regalia to school. Parents on the different sides of the divide followed their wards to school to stake their claims as adherents of different religions. Suddenly, schools that served as levelers for students of different faiths and social backgrounds were turned to an arena for religious fanaticism. Many of us who grew up with the high level of tolerance and harmony that existed among adherents of the different faiths for decades in Osun State were left wondering what went wrong. It was not too long before we learnt that the whole crisis stemmed from the policy of the government that merged schools and moved students from one school to another indiscriminately. We also learnt that it came from the body language of the helmsman who wore his religious conviction on his sleeves. It was a case of ‘our man is in power, we can do anything we like and get away with it’. It took the intervention of well meaning elder statesmen to bring the crisis to an end.
Another action of the governor, which showed the use of mass deception as state craft, was the setting up of a Committee, chaired by a celebrated labor leader, to assist the government in the allocation of its financial resources over different heads of expenditure when the state suddenly found that it had spent itself to the brink of bankruptcy. That action heralded the regime of half salaries (popularly nick-named ‘Afusa’) to civil servants and other categories of public servants throughout the state. When the reality of that policy hit the hapless civil servants, it was easy for the governor to raise up his hands and claim that what was paid to different categories of public servants was in accordance with the recommendations of the ‘Modulation’ Committee headed by a former President of the Nigeria Labor Congress, that was advising the government on the best way to allocate its scarce resources in a period of revenue shortfall!
Early in his regime, Governor Aregbesola announced that he would not be drawing salaries as governor. The people hailed him. But, when critic later asked him to publish details of the security vote he received every month and show how those were spent, he did not oblige them. Towards the end of his tenure, the governor was reported to have claimed that he did not own or operate a personal bank account while in office. Rather than hail him for that disclosure, the people were simply amused, as they had gotten used to such publicity seeking antics. People wondered when it became a criminal offence to own and operate a bank account in Nigeria!
Vacuous Intellectual Arrogance
One disease many of our public office holders in Nigeria suffer from is what I call intellectual arrogance. Once someone becomes a governor in Nigeria, he assumes that he knows every subject under the sun. He presents himself as an all-knowing, all wise demagogue. It is only in Nigeria where political office holders appoint experts to assist them on specific matters and yet treat those experts as dispensable tools and sometimes ornamental pieces. There are only few exceptions to this rule. Some of the governors are even known to be openly hostile to the universities and other centers of learning under their care.
Governor Aregbesola suffered from a large dose of this disease while in office. There were stories told by some who worked directly with him of his poor listening skills and his tendency to do all the talking at meetings he chaired. With the way many state government executive committees are structured in Nigeria, it was not surprising that so many illogical and harmful policies were rolled out by the Osun State government under Aregbesola.
There is no better evidence of this fact than the recent turn of events in Osun state. Reading aspects of the recommendations of the Prof. Olu Aina Committee that reviewed Aregbesola’s educational policies, I found that there is no single item in that report that was not brought to the attention of Aregbesola by well-meaning citizens of Osun State when he was in office. Put differently, all the points that the Prof. Olu Aina Committee adduced in its report to canvass a reversal of those obnoxious policies were raised loudly by several commentators in an attempt to dissuade Aregbesola from that path. Once the governor made up his mind, he paid no heed to any other voice, however well-meaning or well-researched. He was the all-knowing and all-wise imperial governor of the state on a messianic voyage to turn Osun state to Lagos state in eight years.
The Bigger, the Fatter
Another disease many of our governors suffer from is the tendency to prefer grandiose projects over more cost-effective ones that were better suited to the circumstances of their states. Many of them define legacy as the number of brick and mortal monumental edifices that carry plaques bearing their names. That is why many of them would rather abandon uncompleted projects of their predecessors to start brand new ones that they themselves were likely to abandon. The current fad is the construction of over-head bridges. Some cynics even claim that the bigger the projects, the larger the fat available to oil other unrelated channels.
Many people have commented on the Mega schools that the Aregbesola government in Osun State built on the premises of some existing schools. Some of those commentators had focused on the destruction of the ecosystem of the older schools and the action of that government in renaming the host schools, thereby attempting to erase their legacies and destroy essential elements of the history of their illustrious alumni.
My focus in analyzing those actions of the government is a little different. First, I must declare that I am an interested party. I attended Ilesa Grammar School for my secondary school education from 1968-1972. I have strong sentimental attachment to that school, like many other alumni. I credit that school with the foundation of values and ethics that has carried me thus far in life. Ilesa Grammar School was an aspirational brand. Parents, from all the neighboring communities, prayed and worked hard to be able to send their children and ward to Ilesa Grammar School. It was a community school built by illustrious indigenes of the town before it was taken over by the government in the military era. Besides, I had been involved, along with some of my old classmates in, at least, three major developmental projects in that school over the years before Aregbesola came on the scene. Thus, I consider myself, as well as several other alumni, as major stakeholders in the school.
The concept of mega schools came from Lagos, particularly during the regime of Asiwaju Bola Tinubu as governor of that state. Everyone knows that land is relatively expensive in Lagos, given its topography and metropolitan status. The price of a piece of land in Lagos would construct a one-story building in Osun state. Thus, it made sense for Lagos state government to build mega school buildings to accommodate the teeming population of students in metropolitan Lagos. The same argument cannot be pushed in Ilesa, Oshogbo, Ile-Ife or Ikirun, all in Osun State. So, the idea of mega schools in Osun was ludicrous. Why build a multi-story prefabricated metal structure in Ilesa when you could upgrade existing schools with a minute fraction of the cost? If you must build mega schools to satisfy your fantasy and meet your other needs, why build them on the sporting grounds of existing schools, thereby destroying the ecosystem of those schools? Why not acquire virgin land that abound aplenty in those towns to locate your mega schools? In the case of Ilesa grammar school, there were the vacant land belonging to the State Ministry of Agriculture directly opposite St. Lawrence Grammar School that could take two or three of Aregbesola’s mega school, without displacing any soul. Why not build your mega school on that piece of land, that is located on the same stretch of road with Ilesa Grammar School?
We later learnt that each one of Aregbesola’s mega schools cost the state about N1.2 billion to construct. That sum would up-grade , at least, twelve secondary schools in each of the towns where those mega schools were located. The work of up-grading existing schools would have engaged indigenous contractors and work men from each locality, thereby boosting the economies of those communities. Constructing one mega school with that sum guarantees that the contract could not be handled by indigenous contractors from the state. Thus, the contract only served to enrich and promote the economies of wherever the major contractor came from. I failed to find the logic in that action by a state government that was seeking to boost the local economy and raise internally generated revenue. But, of course, it would be more cumbersome, if not risky, to coordinate flow-backs from twelve contractors than from one large contractor!
Recently, town-hall meetings were held in Chicago in the neighborhood where the Barack Obama Presidential Library was to be built. The plans and the designs of the library were displayed for all to see and open town hall meetings were held to harvest the comments (and objections) of local residents, who would be the ultimate users and beneficiaries of that historical project. Changes are being made to the concept and the designs to accommodate major concerns raised by ordinary citizens of that state and neighborhood. That is the way things are done in civilized climes. By contrast, in Nigeria, the governors believe they are doing the populace a favor for siting any project in their locality. Views of residents and interested stakeholders are hardly sought. Were anyone to raise any issue on the project, he would promptly be tagged an enemy of the state or an opposition leader.
I recall that in the Ilesa Grammar School saga, scores of alumni and community leaders appealed to Governor Aregbesola to change course to no end. The governor felt no qualms in pulling down a block of classrooms built by an alumni for the school to pave way for the construction of his mega school. It got so bad that the National Association of the alumni took the government of Osun State to court. The case is still in court as we speak.
That mega school was so large that the government had to raid a number of schools in the neighborhood to find enough students to fill it, thereby leaving those other schools half-empty and desolate. Each time I drove past the mega school on Ilesa Grammar School’s premises I shook my head. i asked the question: where the government would find the resources to maintain that building in the next five years. Who would handle the maintenance? If the government could not maintain the basic and functional structures of the likes of Ilesa Grammar School and relied on the assistance of well-meaning alumni to do so, where does it hope to find the resources to maintain those white elephants called mega schools when they start requiring major rehabilitation?
The mega schools and the Opon Imo (Learning tablets for students) projects ran side by side with the payment of half salaries to teachers. The teachers morale was at its lowest ebb. The result was quick in coming. The state placement in WAEC ranking went southward. The state began to rub shoulders with states hither-to described as educationally disadvantaged. To cover that ugly fact, the state government went about acquiring all manners of dubious awards that were loudly celebrated in the media. The machinery of mass deception was fully engaged.
Leadership Recruitment and Succession
Perhaps the only other thing to comment on in this essay is the matter of how we recruit our leaders in Nigeria. It is a question we must all address if we are to witness any major transformation of our politics and governance in Nigeria. Today, the country runs a system where its political recruitment process had been hijacked and mortgaged. The cost of participating in the political process and in election is so prohibitive that only those who have god-fathers and those who had amassed wealth could venture near it. There is also the issue of violence and brigandage that have become Siamese twins in our political contests. The resultant effects is that we find individuals who come into governments without owing any allegiance to the people they were ‘elected’ to govern. Such people are worse than colonial masters as they find it easier to deceive and manipulate the people using base ethnic and religious sentiments.
At a stage in his regime, I kept asking myself how did we end up with someone like Aregbesola as the governor of Osun State. For many of our people from Ilesa, it was sufficient that Aregbesola traced his ancestry from Ilesa. It was a question of ‘it is our turn to produce a governor and we must all rally round the son of the soil who had the largest war chest to help achieve that ambition.’ There were no thorough interrogation of background, character, antecedents and plans. If anyone doubted the verdict of the same people eight years after, all he needed to check was their voting pattern at the last gubernatorial election in the state.
I raise the question of leadership recruitment for one other reason. The same Governor Aregbesola, who initiated all the failed policies that were recently reversed and who almost drove the state to the brink of bankruptcy is the Minister representing Osun State in the Federal cabinet today. Need we say more?
©Dr. Oladimeji Alo.