by Azuka Onwuka
Last week, the National Teachers’ Institute announced that about 80 per cent of teachers in Northern Nigeria were not qualified to teach. Just before that, the Federal Ministry of Education had announced the cut-off marks for admission into the Federal Government Colleges, known as Unity Schools, with the shocking piece of information that while the cut-off mark was as high as 139 for a Southern state like Anambra, it was as low as two, yes two, (out of a possible 200 marks) for pupils of a Northern state like Yobe.
According to the Federal Character Commission, “In 1954 when Nigeria opted for a federal form of government, the concept of Quota System as a policy was adopted in the recruitment of persons into the officers’ corps of the armed forces and the police as well as in admissions into educational institutions,” to promote a fair representation and close the existing disparities among the parts of the nation. On the surface, it is a good idea, because it ensures that no single area gets into federal establishments to the detriment of other areas.
However, over the decades, it has dealt a heavy blow on the psyche of Northern Nigeria. Man is naturally competitive. Man performs at his peak in times of difficulty: the maxim “necessity is the mother of invention” captures it. The collapse of communism bears testimony to this. Remove competition among people, provide amenities for them equally, reward them equally — no matter their individual contributions — and the will to excel evaporates. Even though the Federal Character policy was established with good intentions, those who created it and those who still support its continuance are indirectly not wishing the North well.
In the 2007 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination, Imo State produced more candidates seeking admission into the universities than all the 19 Northern states put together. That is not just shocking but dangerous. The top five states with the highest number of candidates were Southern states. They are as follows: Imo 93,065; Anambra 64,689; Delta 61,580; Edo 57,754; Akwa Ibom 47,928; while the lowest five states were Northern states as follows: Sokoto 3,925; Taraba 3,832; Zamfara 2,904; Jigawa 2,541; and Yobe 2,516.
The trend remains virtually the same year after year. For example, last year, the top three states were Imo (123,865 candidates); Delta (88,876); and Anambra (71,272); while the last three states were Northern states.
Last month, UNESCO released a report that ranked Nigeria as the country with the most number of children out of school: a whopping 10.5 million – the population of Portugal! No doubt, a larger proportion of these children would be from the North. Some blame the almajiri system for this. It is a system that was created to offer young boys the opportunity of being groomed and tutored by a religious leader, so as to grow into exemplary members of society. But it has gone awry, making these young boys roam the streets begging, with nobody to direct them, and then growing up into angry youths that can be used to cause mayhem at the drop of a hat.
Right from birth, the Northern child is disadvantaged. While his Southern counterpart grows up attending school, the Northern child does not. Through education and entrepreneurship, the Southern youth grows up with more opportunities in life. He knows that he can only succeed in life through excellence. That drive makes a southerner successful and he trains his children in good schools, instilling self-reliance and competitiveness in them, thereby improving the chances of the children even succeeding more than him. The average Yoruba person does not want an Igbo person to beat him in any field of human endeavour and vice versa; that spurs both sides to excellence. The average Urhobo person, Efik person or Bini person does not want an Igbo person, or Yoruba person or Ibibio or Ijaw to beat him. So there is healthy rivalry among them, which leads to excellence and success.
On the contrary, with no education, no artisanal skills and lack of competitive spirit, the Northern child grows up with extremely low chances of success. He cannot secure a decent job; he cannot even offer specialised services of an artisan; he is afraid to start off a small-scale business because he virtually has nobody to understudy. The only available job is the most difficult and yet the least remunerated: the work of a labourer. He supplies water in 25-litre kegs to people who live on the fourth floors with no elevators for N50 per keg. He uses a wheelbarrow or tub to move sand and concrete at construction sites; he stays around markets to help those who have bought heavy items like tubers of yam and bags of rice to move these items from deep inside the market to their vehicles or even home. And for all this hard labour, he gets paid pittance.
As he renders this poorly paid service to people, does anybody expect him to be happy with the successful people around him? It is impossible.
The Northerner is not less intelligent than his Southern counterpart, neither is he weaker or less creative. How many people can beat the business acumen and creativity of Alhaji Aliko Dangote, or the automobile design ingenuity of Jelani Aliyu, or the academic intelligence of Nasir el-Rufai, or the resoluteness of Col. Abubakar Umar and Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, or the football skills of Tijani Babangida and Daniel Amokachi, or the musical talent of Innocent Tuface Idibia, or the organisational and leadership abilities of Sir Ahmadu Bello?
Some would claim that Islam is the reason for the North’s poor embrace of education. If that were so, why is a predominantly Christian state like Taraba found among the states with the lowest literacy rate? Saudi Arabia, the headquarters of Islam, is very education-focused with a literacy rate of 85 per cent, ranking 116th of 194 countries. Indonesia, the most populated Muslim country in the world, is education-savvy with 92 per cent literacy rate. The United Arab Emirates has 90 per cent literacy rate. Nigeria has 72 per cent literacy rate, but should actually be in the 90s.
The danger in having the North lag behind is that Nigeria has to always move at the pace of the North or put appropriately, lag behind with it. Nigeria is a unit and cannot move and leave some parts behind. Again, the more the South moves ahead of the North, the more conflicts will arise between the North and the South. While the North will feel that the South is cornering the joint resources of the nation, the South will feel the North is pulling it backwards.
One other factor that has worked against the North is its long years of ruling the country. There is a form of complacency that comes from the feeling of “We are in charge.” At such periods, you let your guards down; you don’t complain so as not to overheat the administration of your “kinsman”. But when your brother is not in charge, you feel left out and thereby complain the loudest of marginalisation. Those in charge bend backwards to satisfy you with different projects. The North should de-emphasise its focus on the presidency. Forty years of Northern presidency – civilian or military – have not offered the North any tangible advantage.
Those who hate the truth would rise in righteous anger, seeing this treatise as the work of an enemy rather than digesting the hard truth and finding solutions to a worsening problem. And those who love ethnic bashing will quickly see it as advantage to start shooting at the North. But the truth is that the progress of the North will serve both the interest of the North and South.
There should be a two-way approach to this problem. The North should set up a 20-year target to catch up with the South in education and entrepreneurship. The Northern states must make it an offence for any parent to deny their child education. The state governors and local government chairmen need to start a programme of sending as many Northern children as possible to Southern states for their secondary and tertiary education. The new Northern youths need to leave their comfort zone: compete with their Southern counterparts, interact with them and imbibe some of the ways of the Southern people.
The second aspect concerns uneducated youths who may no longer want to go to school. Lack of education is no impediment to success. The Northern governors and local council chairmen should start an intensive skills acquisition programme for the youths. A labourer cannot train another, neither can he rise much in life if he continues as an unskilled labourer. But someone who has learnt masonry, tiling, sewing, vehicle repairing, generator repairing, painting, plumbing, etc, can grow to a level where he will have apprentices. Massive construction takes place non-stop across the federation. Nigerians have an unquenchable appetite for cars and fashion. So, they need these services. That way, the number of skilled workers increases; the earning power of the people increases; and such people can afford a better life for their children, gradually changing the face of their community.
Quota system or federal character is derogatory and has worsened things for the North. Every Northerner who loves the North must tell Nigeria to stop insulting the North with this federal character bait. The North must refuse anything offered it on a platter: it is either a Greek gift or a poisoned chalice. The North should save itself by rejecting this insulting Unity Schools’ cut-off marks that cut it off from development and modernity.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Azuka Onwuka