For most of the 30,000 children born in Nigeria today, depending on which part of the country the child is born in, who their parents are, and the religion of the parents, their paths may never cross until perhaps their working lives. And when those paths cross, it may even be at different cadres.
Why? Nigeria’s education system and practice have never been as polarised as it is today. At every level of Nigeria’s education system exists a chasm along income, ethnic, and religious lines. It has its genesis in the 1970s.
Untrammelled over the years, it is now dangerously extreme. Underlined by growing inequality and mutual distrust, it generates inter-community conflicts and impedes national integration. It signals a divided future.
Charles Onwunali, a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos (UNILAG), reflecting on the history of Nigerian universities’ politics of polarisation, regretted that the problem is web-circled into the Nigerian factor.
He cited how Prof. Eni Njoku, the first indigenous vice-chancellor (VC) of the UNILAG was booted out of the office on ethnic grounds.
In 1962, Njoku became the first VC of UNILAG. Following a major crisis in 1965 over his re-appointment, he resigned to become a visiting professor at Michigan State University in the United States of America.
The university don stressed that the agitation towards indigenisation in the appointment of key university officeholders is trending because people see it as contracts in the education sector which they believe should be tailored to favour their region.
Moreover, he believes the people have been succeeding in their drive because the political environment in Nigeria gives impetus to that.
“It is about contracts. And the environment gives them what they need,” he said.
The end result of the failures of public education in the country has been a boon in private education, but not often as a viable alternative. As private education grows, it does so, not only along income lines, as expected, but also along ethnic, and religious lines.
Reverse consequences – The cobra effect of state intervention in education
In 1945, Christian missionary bodies owned most primary and secondary schools across the country, and most were in the West. It led to a disparity in literacy between the South and the North.
The disparity followed the creation of three regions (Eastern, Western, and Northern) and the 1952 educational ordinance, which empowered each region to develop its educational policies and systems.
The response was the united national policy on education in 1976. The policy gave the federal government the powers and empowered state governments to take over all schools to ensure the implementation of the unified primary education policy.
The policy had two underlying objectives.
The first was to bridge the literacy gap between the South and the North. Second, perhaps as a vehicle for achieving the first, was for the state to assume enhanced roles in the education of Nigerians.
Essentially, the objective of the law was greater than providing a basis for narrowing the gap between the South and the North, but for the state to assume a greater role, especially following the inflow of crude oil resources.
Critics have often argued that this policy was the bedrock of the failure of Nigeria’s education.
The policy to assume a greater role by the state in education was motivated by increases in the revenues of the state. However, following volatile and dwindling revenues from oil in the 1980s, the government started to encourage contributions from other bodies.
Notwithstanding, the federal government did not abandon the underlying policy, which was the federal character principle, of its Universal Primary Education (UPE). It metamorphosed into the quota system upheld by the Nigerian Constitution in 1999.
What is now very clear is that whatever the underlying and surface objectives of the UPE, the federal character principle and the quota system have not been able to mend the chasms in the country, but rather have rooted the pursuit of ethnic and religious hegemonies.
Ironically, therefore, policies that were put in place to create a level playing field in Nigeria’s education system have only helped to do the contrary. The quota system has substituted merit and encourages tribalism and division.
Forty years on, Nigeria’s education still suffers from the disparities of the 1970s. What has changed is the nature of the disparities. Prior to 1976, it was the level of access to education between the West and other regions in the country; today it is between the rich and the poor.
However, in addition to income inequalities dictating the nature of access to education, it has been compounded by ethnic, sectional, and religious disparities.
The Nigerian state as a bigot and chauvinist
Within a Nigerian educational system largely defined by income is a more dangerous polarisation, ethnic and religious. Increasingly, the country’s educational system and practice are also polarised by religion and ethnicity.
It is obvious in the many thousands of private and public primary and secondary schools across the country; it is so very obvious in the public universities.
Students in these universities, most of them confronted by financial shortcomings, are further confronted by polarisation on the basis of ethnicity and religion.
The appointment of successive VCs from the same region and of the predominant religion is difficult to dismiss as unintentional. It points to a recruitment process in which the considerations are ethnicity and religion, and not merit.
Indeed, there is no greater evidence that the universities, rather than being centres of excellence, tolerance, and diversity, serve to propagate ethnicity, sectionalism, and certainly, religious intolerance.
The same systemic vetting, which denies a qualified person based on ethnicity and religion, flows across to the faculties, departments and to, no surprise, the recruitment of students.
There is enough evidence to support that the quality of education is enhanced through diversity. According to Patricia Gurin, a professor at the University of Michigan, “students who interact with diverse students in classrooms and in the broad campus environment will be more motivated and better able to participate in a heterogeneous and complex society”.
Nigeria’s government has not succeeded in promoting education as a means towards equality in status, to promote common goals, and an avenue for intimacy of interaction.
Read also: The crisis in Nigeria’s educational sector
Contrary to the broad objectives of education as a means for social movement, the equalisation of opportunities, and for the benefit of societal progress, polarised education works against all three.
Read also: The crisis in Nigeria’s educational sector
In the last 30 years, increasing polarised education has meant stagnation of social movement as public schools continue to fail low-income families and deny their children the opportunities required for upward social movement.
The greatest strength of any education lies in its ripple effect. The knowledge, skills, and ideas one person gains can be disseminated to the whole, igniting paradigm shifts, innovation, enterprise, and the potential for wealth, development, and growth.
The population of the world is growing at an alarming pace, especially in regions least able to absorb a rising population. The United Nations estimates that by 2050, the population of Nigeria will rise to about 200 million.
It raises important questions regarding Nigeria’s preparedness; the quality of students the country raises today will doubtless be the quality of teachers that are employed tomorrow.
Ultimately, the country’s polarised educational system is a microcosm of national orientation and why it has not caught up with the rest of the world.
Establishing educational reform as the first frontier will ensure that Nigerians can grapple with the present challenges and chart a future of progress that is both inclusive and intersectional.
Only then will Nigeria’s best chances lie with qualified individuals at the helm of strong institutions which will see the country assume its rightful place in the world and in the discourse around scarce energy resources, growing environmental stresses, a rising global population, legal and illegal mass migration, shifting economic power, and income inequalities.
None of these can be achieved when there is one out of three school-aged children out of school and the other two without the guarantee of a sound education.