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COLLAPSE OF EDUCATION IN SOUTH EAST

By NBF News
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The situation of education in the South East of Nigeria is lamentable. It is, indeed, painful that academic activities in the geopolitical zone known for the prodigious appetite of its people to acquire education have been paralysed for over two months now that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been on strike. The situation becomes more nauseating when it is considered that the governments of the five states that comprise the zone have not been able to do anything reasonable to reach an agreement with ASUU on how to resolve the crisis. Even the meeting convened by them last Sunday could not produce any meaningful result. All that the meeting was able to achieve was the exacerbation of the situation.

On several occasions, I had called attention to the deplorable condition of infrastructure in our schools but nobody has paid heed to it. Instead of reacting positively to my outcries, they branded me an alarmist. It is not necessary to state that I am far much better than most of those that criticise me.

Worst hit are the tertiary institutions that can easily pass for glorified secondary schools. Even the quality of graduates produced by the same institutions has been critically demeaned. Often, employers of labour argue that most of them are not employable going by their inability to defend the 'big' certificates they parade at interviews.

What has actually gone wrong? Why have our leaders allowed educational standards to fall to such an abysmal level? The way things are going the system may collapse sooner than envisaged.

The strike by ASUU, though justified to a large extent, is avoidable. That the governments of the five South East states allowed the strike to drag on to this time shows incapability on their part to deliver to their people a very key dividend of democracy. Everybody from the South East geopolitical zone knows the importance the people of the zone attach to education. In fact, education is the biggest industry you can find here. This is why parents (whose own parents could not afford to send them to school) can do whatever is within their ability to send their children to school in their own time.

I am worried that a majority of our able-bodied youths no longer go to school. Rather they have found solace in other ventures, such as trading, music and acting. The Nigerian version of Hollywood - Nollywood - is majorly populated by both the educated and not-too-educated Igbo. Time has passed when every Igbo child of school age was compelled to go to school.

Can anybody believe that state-owned universities in the South East have been under lock and key for over 12 weeks, yet top-ranking politicians come here to campaign without a word about the closed institutions? In August this year, President Goodluck Jonathan, accompanied with the Vice President, Namadi Sambo, the national chairman of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Okwesilieze Nwodo, and his executive members, national and state legislators, state governors, members of the Federal Executive Council and other top government functionaries stormed Abia State recently for a political get-together. They came, partied and left without a thought for thousands of our children roaming the streets as a result of the ASUU strike. Since the visit to Abia State Mr. President has also visited Anambra and Imo states. In all the places he went he said nothing concrete about how to resolve the impasse between the state governments and ASUU. All he could volunteer as intervention was that the Federal Government was looking into the matter. Our people had expected him to address the matter squarely. At least, he should have given the governors of the South East a line or better still asked the Minister of Education to play an intermediary role.

The most frustrating spectacle played out last Monday and Tuesday when the wife of the president visited Abia State. Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with the wife of the president visiting any state in Nigeria. But everything was wrong for the First Lady to visit Abia State when our children were idling away, because of lecturers' strike. I had expected the president and his wife - as advocates of better life for the Nigerian woman and child - to have shown more affectionate interest in the matter. Why should they rather be interested in how to remain in power beyond 2011 at the expense of our collective pride?

Again, I had thought that the president would have done something more practical to resolve the lingering strike when he visited the University of Nigeria, Nsukka two weeks ago, on the occasion of the institution's 50th anniversary. To demonstrate the lack of care and regard for Igbo, the president went to Nsukka, did all he did there, without drawing attention to the strike and empathising with the people.

I find the lukewarm attitude of the President and other important personalities that come to the South East for one form of business or another over the closing of state-owned universities in the zone very disturbing. Why should people always take Igbo for granted? For how long will our people be humiliated and insulted before they learn their lesson?

The entire South East Zone had been at siege from the heinous activities of robbers, kidnappers and other kinds of criminals. But it took the Federal Government the shutting down of businesses and kidnapping of 15 innocent school children in Aba before it could act decisively. We all know that the twin-crime of robbery and kidnapping is beyond the capacity of the state governments to handle. It requires the federal might to restore law and order in the zone.

Nevertheless, the crime situation in the zone is something beyond ordinary criminality. It is the product of imbalance in our social system. Look at the level of infrastructural decrepitude in the zone and you will understand what I am saying. I agree there is no justification for criminality, in whatever guise, but it has also been proved that every crime has its sociological orientation. I believe that the number of young people who engage in crime would have been drastically reduced if there had been enough jobs and opportunities for advancement for the millions of graduates produced yearly by our universities. Are you surprised that the average age of these youths that engage in violent crimes hovers between 16 and 21 years?

Nobody will convince me that a youth would engage in such crimes as kidnapping and armed robbery if he is gainfully employed. It is not possible. Those of them who get involved in misdemeanours are idle minds and the devil's workshop.

I cry daily for parents and guardians of the students of the striking universities in the South East for what they are going through at the moment. I know it costs parents more money to cater to these children who now consume more food and drinks, accumulate huge phone and electricity bills, and get involved in acts that have thoroughly embarrassed them. Do we have to discuss the many already lives lost to the strike? The other day some students of one of the universities in the zone died in an accident while returning from a friend's party. Surely, these things would have been avoided if the universities had been in session. There is no doubt that more casualties will be recorded before the situation normalises.

On the part of the lecturers, they have suffered diverse calamities. Some of them had died while some others have taken ill as a result of the strike. Suffice it to say, that their salaries and allowances have not been paid since the strike began. So, how have they been surviving?

I read about how the lecturers were humiliated in Enugu last Sunday during the meeting of the South East governors and stakeholders with ASUU. By harassing and intimidating the lecturers the governors are worsening an already bad situation. There is no harm if the governors adopt a humane approach in dealing with them. As much as I bear with the governors over the financial burden on them, occasioned by the demand of the lecturers for parity in salaries with those in federal universities, I will not fail to advise them to do whatever they can to ensure that the gates of the universities are opened forthwith. Allowing the matter to go on endlessly will not do them any good.

The lecturers, as far as I am concerned, should be favourably disposed to speedy resolution of the crisis. After all, they are human beings and some of them have their children and wards in these universities too. But the way they are approached might have been responsible for their recalcitrant position on the matter. I think that intimidating and arm-twisting them only makes them more hardened.

To be frank, I sympathise with the lecturers and the students, parents and guardians, and other stakeholders in the educational sector, for the discomforting conditions they have been made to suffer as a result of the strike. It is the price they have to pay for the growth and development of our fatherland.

I had expected the Federal Government to declare an emergency in the educational sector in the zone if it truly believes in justice and equity it daily professes. The way our people are being treated paints a very worrisome picture of the injustices in our social system. All that Igbo are good for is to be used as a pawn in the chessboard. Politicians see the zone as a fertile ground for poaching. They come here at election periods to win supporters and thereafter dump them. What other explanation can anybody offer for the insensitive manner we are treated by politicians from other zones? If those who come here for our votes love us they should have intervened to settle the rift between government and ASUU.

There is no doubt whatsoever that some persons would wish the universities never reopen. They derive joy from the misfortunes that have befallen us. These are the morbid haters of Igbo, who have done everything possible to make us irrelevant in a nation our forbears laid down their lives to found.

Let me say it loud and clear that anybody that trifles with education in Igbo land hates our people. If anybody claims that he loves Igbo such a person should put it into action. It is not enough to come to us when you need us most and discard us after using us.

In fact, the best way to assuage the pitiable condition of education in the South East is for it to declare an emergency in the sector. It behoves the government at all levels to design a special package that will address the multiple problems facing education in the zone. It will not cost the Federal Government too much to save education from collapse.

Let me state it unequivocally that what is happening in the South East is a foretaste of the bleak future that awaits our people. We must take our destiny into our hands and fashion how we can survive in a hostile environment as we have today in Nigeria.

Parents should not fold their hands and wait for the government to do everything for them. They should mount pressure on the government to do something. By keeping quiet parents make government feel complacent about what is happening. It is the right of parents that their children should go to school and learn. And nobody has the power to vitiate that right.

What is happening challenges our people to shine their eyes as 2011 approaches. We should not sit and watch while our collective interest is being fatally mortgaged. It is either we do something now or forever remain silent and lick our wounds with equanimity.

A word is enough for the wise.