by Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri
In a cabinet reshuffle that jolted many, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) abruptly relieved nine ministers, including Professor Ruquyatu Rufai, former Minister of Education, of their posts last week. The sudden sack saw the erstwhile minister of education (state) Nyesom Wike appointed as interim education minister. Still agonizingly fresh in mind is the protracted strike of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). With that lingering strike and no projection of its end in sight, whoever occupies the education minister’s office is of great interest to many Nigerians.
Mixed reactions continue to trail the exit of the education minister and the retention of her subordinate, Nyesom Wike. In several quarters, the recent cabinet shakeup is widely perceived as a grossly selective vendetta designed to filter out ministers loyal to some opposition elements.
If that position is true, this has two major implications: The first is that absolute loyalty to President Jonathan’s government has stealthily become a warranty for ministerial job security and a substitute gauge for measuring performance. Secondly, it further implies that those unaffected by the ministerial sacks are only retaining their seats by virtue of their loyalty to President Jonathan‘s government and nothing more. This is certainly not a good sign!
Sparing Nyesom Wike from the latest mass sack seems to lend strong credence to this growing perception. His characteristically prejudiced splurges and never-ending salvos fired at real and imagined opponents of President Jonathan’s administration have earned him the unenviable title of a “die-hard GEJ-loyalist”; an alias he apparently fancies.
Not only that, Wike’s many controversies and political distractions leave stakeholders in great fear about the future of the educational sector under his watch. This fear is well founded: Wike’s name props up whenever the political crisis in Rivers State is mentioned. Secondly, he nurses a political ambition to become the next Rivers governor. Given the complex manoeuvrings, hectic preparations and horse-trading that characterize gubernatorial contests in Nigeria, especially in a strategic state like Rivers State, it is quite clear that his ambitious political pursuits will potentially upset the achievement of any measurable progress in the education sector. In fact, through his brazen execution of a stroppy loyalist agenda at a time students have remained at home for several months, he makes his priorities crystal clear, and improving education isn’t on top of the list!
No doubt, the ministry of education under Ruquyatu Rufai cannot be described as a resounding success. The continuing inability to resolve the ASUU strike alone represents the biggest evidence of under-performance in the education ministry. But how that under-performance attaches only to the substantive education minister and exculpates the deputy defies every logical explanation. Suffice it to say that President Goodluck Jonathan missed a prime opportunity last week, to smoothen his strained relations with striking lecturers, by injecting new hands that will bring fresh ideas and methods to the negotiating table with ASUU. In the minds of many, the reappointment of Nyesom Wike is another harsh reminder of myriad poor policy decisions, from the National Unity Schools cut-off marks saga, to the declining overall student performance in national examinations and the widening lack of access to educational opportunities.
Apart from having a degree in political studies and perhaps, law, there is no available record showing that he has ever practiced in any law firm before. And besides a couple of non-merit-based political offices held in Obio-Akpor Local Government in Rivers State and at the state level, Wike has never been exposed to career or learning opportunities that would endow him with the technocratic rigors, scholastic machinery and administrative astuteness required to head a contemporary national ministry of education. As such, he lacks the professional pedigree that should be a prerequisite for such a position. It is not only Wike’s utter capacity deficit in managerial and technical experience that is raising eyebrows in academic circles, an examination of his role and handling of the recent crisis in his home state, Rivers State is a particularly enlightening predictor of how he will handle the many unresolved disputes involving FG and the many unions and agencies under the education ministry.
How has the ministry of education fared under Nyesom Wike as minister of state in the last two years? According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)’s 2012 Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report, 10.5 million Nigerian children are out of school. Besides having the largest population of out-of-school children and very prohibitive education costs, Nigeria reportedly has some of the worst education indicators globally. This report shows that practical failings in the educational system are getting worse, just as poorer learning infrastructure doesn’t give Nigerian students an advantage in human capital either.
Going by the overall student performance ratings in national examinations, the educational sector has been on a downward spiral in the last two years. For instance, in the 2011 Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) about 2, 892 candidates scored 300 and above in the examination in which a total of 1, 493, 000 candidates participated. Two years after, Nigeria recorded the highest-ever mass failures in the same examination. The 2013 results released by the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) showed an unprecedented decline in the standard of education, with many students scoring below 150 out of the 400 marks based on the four papers each of the candidates sat for. Compared to the 2, 892 that scored above 300 in 2011, only ten candidates scored 300 marks and above in 2013!
The grim statistics above sharply contrasts with Nigeria’s millennium development goals as well as the aspiration to join the top 20 economies of the world. No country with that kind of tall ambition jokes with the education of its citizens. That is why a strategic ministry like that of education should NEVER ever be used for rewarding political loyalists and or settling bigoted hangers-on. How is it that a politician with no strong background exposure and training in educational and curriculum development was allowed to smell the corridors of the education ministry? How much longer will the surging local discontent among parents, students and stakeholders last before serious steps are taken to improve and guarantee access to qualitative education? Assuming the federal character principle insists that an education minister must emerge from Rivers State, is Nyesom Wike the best from the state; a state that is home to notable professors and trained educationists? Its an unconscionable choice, given the solemn fact that the future of Nigerian students now rests in his hands.
Its time to let Nyeson Wike Go! The time is now!!!
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri. Follow this writer on Twitter: @spaces4change