October 16, 2007
The impact of Obafemi Awolowo’s free education in Nigeria
By Professor Bolanle Awe
“The Obafemi Awolowo programme of education was a vast one extending to the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of learning.”
FIRST, let me start by thanking the Faculty of Education and the Organising Committee of the Awolowo Free Education Foundation Lecture Series for inviting me to deliver this lecture and for doing me the honour of being the first lecturer in the series which will be a yearly event.
As I have said elsewhere, I am a product of the Western Regional government’s free education programme, I had the good fortune of the government’s scholarship for my undergraduate and post-graduate studies in the Universities of St. Andrew’s Scotland and Sommerville College, University of Oxford in England.
I am therefore grateful to the Faculty for giving me this opportunity to express my gratitude to that government and in a small way pay my dues by giving this lecture. I congratulate the Faculty for this initiative to keep the memory and achievements of this great man, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, alive and in the process undertake projects and programmes which will sustain the development of education not only in your university but all over Nigeria and beyond. Many tributes have been paid to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his government and his colleagues in the Action Group. The naming of this university which was founded by his government after him is one obvious tribute, but I have no doubt in my mind, one which he would appreciate greatly is a tribute that focuses on education per sei and his contribution to that field.
As he stated when addressing the Nigerian Union of Teachers in 1947, education is “the process of physical and mental culture whereby a man’s personality is developed to the fullest.” In 1993, as if to elucidate further that need for the development of our human resource, the Director-General of UNESCO, Dr. Frederico Major while addressing the International Commission on Education for the 21st Century in 1993, pointed out that “Education is not only instilling knowledge, but awakening the enormous creative potential that lies within each one of us, enabling us to develop to our fullest potential and better contribute to the societies in which we live.” The discourse that these lectures, hopefully, will generate can help to review the situation in the field of education in this country and provoke the kind of discussion and comments that will lead to meaningful policy formulation and successful implementation of programmes for the positive development of this country.
This is not the first attempt at looking at Chief Awolowo’s contribution I am aware of the existence of the Awolowo Foundation, one of whose objectives is to “elucidate and disseminate. . . the teachings and ideals of Obafemi Awolowo.” That Foundation in 1994 had a “Dialogue on Nigeria and Education: The Challenges Ahead.” But our history and present predicament dictates that the issue of education should still be in the front burner of our national concerns and indeed, the present Head of State, President Umar Yar’Adua had made it one of the seven priorities of this government.
It is right that we start from the beginning, that is, from the period when we began to plan our own education for ourselves That period dawned with the Action Group Government under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Western Region of Nigeria. Thus, in considering this programme of education, we must ask ourselves certain questions:
What impact has it had on our educational system and our lives as a people more than 50 years after its birth?
What lessons have we learnt from that programme?
What kind of heritage has it bequeathed to us?
The Obafemi Awolowo programme of education was a vast one extending to the primary, secondary and tertiary levels of learning. To examine all this in a lecture in this occasion will be a tall order and I do not intend to do so. My attention will be focused primarily on primary education. I do appreciate the fact that the other tiers of education are equally important but primary education goes to the root, the foundation on which the other levels of education are built; it affects in many ways the quality of the products of these upper levels; primary education also aims to provide for those who might not have the opportunity of going beyond that stage with the attributes of literacy and numeracy and so make them informed members of the society able to understand and have an impute into the developments around them.
The idea of free education has also stuck most to this level of education.
Though Article 6 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights had stated quite categorically that “Everyone has a right to education. Education shall be free in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory,” and the International Commissions of Jurists declared in Athens in 1995 that the “right to education must be guaranteed without discrimination,” the British Government which had jurisdiction over Nigeria as a colonial power did not extend that right to Nigeria as a matter of policy. The delivery of formal education to Nigerians was haphazard and was left largely in the hands of religious bodies – mainly Islamic in the Northern part of the country and Christian in the South while the traditional mode of education still continued in most parts for the north. Islam was, and still is, a total package including religion as system of laws as well as a system of education. While Christian missions founded schools in the South to facilitate evangelization and to teach the three Rs, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. The colonial government contented itself with giving grants to these schools and monitoring their performance. In effect, a large percentage of the Nigerian population did not have the advantage of formal education.
However, many Nigerians had struggled to acquire education to the highest levels, even before the formal imposition of colonial rules. The first professionals in this country — be it in law, medicine, teaching, nursing, etc.,—had emerged mostly from the South West of Nigeria where Chief Awolowo and his party came to control the government in the 1950s. The introduction of the 1957 MacPherson Constitution which divided Nigeria into three regions, North, West and East as well as well as the provision which placed education on the concurrent list, that is, that the regional governments can also legislate on education particularly at the primary and secondary levels, provided the opportunity for the launching of Western Region’s primary education programme.
(To be continued)
Professor Awe delivered this lecture at the first Obafemi Awolowo free education lecture series organised by the Faculty of Education, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State.