Awo, Afe and the Education Debate – By Kunle Sanyaolu

No Comments » February 8th, 2009 posted by // Categories: Chief Obafemi Awolowo Project



Sunday, February 8, 2009


Awo, Afe and the Education DebateBy Kunle Sanyaolu

THE centennial anniversary of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, SAN was naturally bound to be full of pomp, the occasion having been fully seized by politicians who are eager to score political points. Considering his political stature during his lifetime and after, Awolowo’s post humous birthday was always a grand opportunity for politicians to wag their tails. When the anniversary is 100 as was the case last month, the opportunity is a no-miss one. Most usually, his half-hearted supporters, even those who disliked him outright, would make the loudest noise. The theoretical and practical scenario of Awo’s centenary was therefore capable of creating a distaste among people who, though fully in appreciation of the late sage’s accomplishments, nevertheless wondered what all the noise was about, for a man that died 22 years ago. Be that as it may, Awolowo will forever remain one of the very few credible leaders Nigeria has ever produced. And for that reason, his name, even in death, will always attract attention and reference for the right purposes. According to the Tribune of January 30, 2001 eminent Nigerians drew a verdict that Awo’s policies are still relevant to the current generation of Nigerians. He is worth celebrating therefore, post humously. Even President Umaru Yar’Adua, former Head of State Gen. Yakubu Gowon and others want Awo’s policies to be implemented. The emphasis should be on the fact that this man thought hard and tried hard to make Nigeria a country of note worldwide. He was able to make good impact on the people of Western Nigeria, his immediate constituency. But he never had opportunity to get to the national stage and make similar impact. He died in 1987.

The areas of Awolowo’s influence were too many to list individually. His endowment was crystallised into description of him as a sage, a philosopher, a leader, a moralist, a visionary and a purposeful politician among others. One of the ways Awolowo sought to improve his society was to provide free education for all. He believed that was the surest way to eliminate ignorance as a disease, a serious cankerworm eating into the fabrics of people’s potential for greatness. Awolowo’s free education campaign particularly during the Second Republic was criticised for being too weak to produce anything but half-baked citizens. Critics tended to jettison the fact that many of them benefited from free education in the 1960’s and that they are not half-baked. Those who did not so benefit had rare opportunities of education, either by winning scholarship, or being fortunate to have come from rich comfortable homes. Between 1979 and 1983, Awo’s political adversaries countered that with increasing government’s commitments in other sectors of the country, there could not possibly be enough fund to prosecute free education at all levels. Awo and his lieutenants at the time, including Alhaji Lateef Jakande, then governor of Lagos; and Chief Bisi Onabanjo, then governor of Ogun State strongly posited that with proper planning and correct ordering of priorities, the scheme was more than feasible. To a good extent, Awo’s party at the time, the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) proved the feasibility. Today, many Nigerians that went through the scheme have moved on to greater height in education and the professions.

Since Awolowo’s death, education as an institution has taken a serious beating in the country, particularly at the higher or tertiary level. While gazing into the future of tertiary education in Nigeria, legal and philantrophy icon, Chief Afe Babalola SAN lamented that the standard of education in Nigeria has sunk into the lowest levels especially in the last two and a half decades. In his words: “I think there is no genuine patriot today who is not worried about the state of decline in the standard of education in Nigeria. The quality of teaching and learning has declined; the quality of degrees awarded is compromised. A large number of graduates from our universities are a shame to show-case anywhere. Most of them cannot justify the award of their degrees. The educational reputation of the country is a source of national shame. In the latest rankings of world universities dated July 2008, none of our universities ranks within the first 1000.”

Reasons identified by Babalola for the decline include poor funding, incessant strike actions and demonstrations by both students and university staff, indiscipline, cultism, inefficiency of the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB), scrapping of the Higher School Certificate (HSC), and bad economy and brain drain. He considered poor funding to be the biggest bane of education in this country. Over the years particularly under successive military governments, the authorities starved the educational sector, leading to disastrous consequences ranging from dilapidated infrastructure, poor remuneration of staff, poorly equipped laboratories and Libraries, to epileptic electricity and water supply. Rich Nigerians stay aloof of these problems preferring to send their children to private institutions, or schools abroad, all very expensive.

As far as Babalola is concerned, the time for free education, or sole government funding of education has passed. With the damage done the national economy and the current global economic meltdown, “it will be uncharitable to expect that a government that has to fix the rot in all sectors must expend all our resources on giving qualitative education at all level.” The distinction in this submission, with Awo’s philosophy of privatisation and prevention of wastage or drains in public expenditure, is quite instructive. It may signify a real change in circumstances between then (say 25 years ago) and now. One thing that seems clear however is that the present government, either at the state or the federal level, is not fixing any rot in any sector. Rather, it is creating more rot in more sectors.

Making a note on the success of private universities, Babalola is convinced that ” private organisations and institutions are mostly better run and preferable to those established or owned by government.” This he buttressed with the reality that private universities are largely shielded from the several common ills (strike, cultism, poor infrastructure etc) plaguing public universities. In addition, he said most of the leading universities in the United States of America today are those privately owned and run. They feature prominently among the first 200 universities in the world. Nevertheless, Babalola suggested several measures by government to ensure high standard of private universities. They should not be open to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

The bottomline, according to him is that: “Across the globe, the consensus now is that students or their parents and guardians, and not government, should pay for their education in public institutions. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the future of higher education is bound up in the future of private universities.”

There is little doubt that the trend now is to partly or wholly divest government of its commitment in many vital areas of life. Awolowo (posthumous) and his core supporters will continue to make a case for certain minimum governmental responsibility in key areas. Education will necessary be one of these. A strong case for private educational institutions ought in Nigeria to be supported by a strong case for public officials and agencies to live up to expectation. This is necessary in view, one, of the corrupt tendencies of the average public office holders who would only be too pleased to divert education fund to private pocket. Two, the poverty level is high in Nigeria. A large percentage of money is circulating among few people and in the absence of a public welfare system to support the masses, many would be deprived of chances to give their children meaningful education.

One cannot but agree with Babalola that tertiary education in Nigeria is very sick, needing a surgical operation. This is true whether we apply Awolowo’s panacea of massive government investment in providing education for citizens; or we buy into Babalola’s conviction of the need for private funding.

At a time that the country is reflecting on the life and times of an acknowledged leader as Awolowo, revisiting education as an issue will be most appropriate. Ultimately, education remains a major tool for individual and by extension, national development.


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