July 5: A Free Education Flashback, By Odia Ofeimun
“What was it all about?” And, there were many who still could not believe it when they were told that the procession was a celebration of the free primary education scheme for which the Action Group government had been campaigning, for over three years, and for which children all over the Western Region were to start registration on that very day.
On July 5, 1954, a procession of about three thousand people, led by regional ministers of state and attended by four orchestras – I. K. Dairo’s Orchestra, Ibadan String Circle Orchestra, Central Temple’s Orchestra and Ayandola Tijani Apola Band, was on the march from the British Council area of Dugbe in Ibadan towards Mapo Radio Square at the other end of the city.
To the earth-thumbing rhythm of the spicily variegated music, tumultuous cheering greeted the throng from Lebanon Street, Amunigun, and all the way. Twenty vans of the Regional Information Service slowly careered in a pre-planned formation, ahead of, betwixt, and behind the procession. This added an official stamp to the folk-drama on the streets, apart from the presence of the ministers who, in any case, were indistinguishable from the other colourfully dressed people in the procession. Work-a-day crowds were halted in their strides.
The narrow streets of the city, ritually cluttered with traders’ stalls and market-ware, the pride of the then recent cocoa boom, responded fulsomely, grinding traffic to a halt. Not unused to such celebrations, the masses of the people were pleasantly carried away by the serenading and the gusto of the special procession. Instinctively, many danced. And, intermittently, lusty shouts of “Awo” competed with the music for attention, adding a definitive political colour to what was apparently a frolicking communal self-affirmation. Anyhow, for a great many people, as Nigerian Tribune’s John West intimated on the following day, it was a matter for wonder.
“What was it all about?” And, there were many who still could not believe it when they were told that the procession was a celebration of the free primary education scheme for which the Action Group government had been campaigning, for over three years, and for which children all over the Western Region were to start registration on that very day. “They could not believe their ears”, because the idea that education of whatever kind could be made free outside a few scholarships was not a factor in their folk-lore of modern life. It seemed absurd to some that street dancing and such vengefully festive get-ups, as were taking place at Ibadan and in all the towns and villages of the Western Region on that day, could be for a scheme from which the influential opposition, led by the respected Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, had told the people to expect only deceit and over-taxation for the sacrifices made. It could not go down well with some people that a government which demanded taxes from poor citizens, in spite of its boundless power to mint coins and print paper money, was harping so much on making education free. Nor was it easy to convince many, even on that day of registration, that the taxes and the special levy against which so many had been rioting, had not been spent by the ministers in building palatial mansions and buying sleek American limousines for themselves and their girlfriends, as the opposition claimed.
What’s more, there were elevated arguments against the scheme among intellectuals like Dr. Sanya Onabamiro, who was later to become a minister of Education in the Region and under whom a lot of scurrilous things were to be said against the scheme. This time, on the eve of inauguration, he and his school of thought merely launched jeremaids denigrating the plans being made. He believed, as if China were not existing, that four walls do not make a school; as if you need four walls at all to make a school. He gleefully prophesied that many of the school structures built with mud would soon start to fall, as would the standard of education. He and his ilk succeeded in establishing the fable, even before the free education scheme took off the ground, that children who pass through the scheme would not be able to read or write their names.
Between 1952, when the free education motion was moved in the Western Region House of Assembly, and January 1955, when actual schooling began under the scheme, the number of secondary schools were increased from 46 to 74, the number of modern schools rose from 12 to 267, teacher training colleges increased from 33 to 54, with an additional 10 beginning in 1955.
A World Bank mission also helped to pour cold water on the scheme. In any case, centuries of debilitating ignorance had turned many parents against such dramatic innovations as this blackman’s government was trying to initiate. Many of them who preferred their children to stay on their farms, in market stalls and workshops did not see too much sense in the jubilation of the day. Many sighed rather ruefully; because this Education was not only free, but compulsory. All the same, it was a plus in their eyes for a government to “make a promise and to start fulfilling it. It was to the credit of the government and its unprecedented propaganda machine, skillfully oiled by Anthony Enahoro, the minister for Home Affairs and Information and S. O. Awokoya, the energetic minister for Education, that in spite of the prejudice and misgiving which bedeviled the scheme, parents took their children out to register for the next school year.
Even those who had rioted against the education levy took their children to the registration centres. Civil servants, village dignitaries, school teachers, wives of ministers and all who could be of use were enlisted as registration officers. The registration convinced many people that not all governments are promise-breakers. That was exactly what Mr. Obafemi Awolowo, the minister for Local Government and leader of the Action Group government was waiting to say when the procession met him at the Mapo Radio Square on that day. Dressed in simple brown agbada with his proverbial Awo fez cap, Awolowo acknowledged the ovation of the crowd and appealed to the people to help the government to help them. He insisted that the government would fulfill all its promises. A year later, on January 17, 1955, when the scheme took off in earnest and the 394,000 children who had registered six months before were physically enrolled as pupils, he was able to gloat with satisfaction that “we have today entered a new era of great revolution in the education of our children in Western Region.” Indeed it was a great revolution by Nigerian and African continental standards equaled at the time only by Kwame Nkrumah’s experiment in the Gold Coast (soon to become Ghana).
Two days of public holidays ushered in this revolution. It had to be imagined against the fact, as Awolowo told the people of the Western Region in a broadcast on that day, that “In the absence of the scheme only about 96,000 children whose parents could afford the fees charged would have entered school.” Even the government statisticians had estimated that only 160,000 six-year olds would be registering for the scheme. But once the government succeeded in selling the importance of the scheme, even twelve-year olds and younger than six year olds enrolled to benefit from it. The explosion in number therefore meant that there had to be a crash programme to supply teachers, to erect school buildings, and provide teaching aids. This implied a spiraling in the costs that had already been regarded as prohibitive. Somehow, the Action Group Party, from the moment it came to power in 1952, had been planning to meet what its leader called this ‘VENTURE OF HOPE’.
Between 1952, when the free education motion was moved in the Western Region House of Assembly, and January 1955, when actual schooling began under the scheme, the number of secondary schools were increased from 46 to 74, the number of modern schools rose from 12 to 267, teacher training colleges increased from 33 to 54, with an additional 10 beginning in 1955. The government’s plan was to increase the yearly output of trained teachers from 2,000 to 3,200 in order to meet the 77.7 percent increase in primary school population. The Regional government in the previous year had committed £2.5 million to school buildings alone. For 1955, school buildings were estimated to cost £1.5 million. By the time the scheme was carried to its sixth year, it was estimated that it would cost the Region about £9 million in school buildings, while about £8 million would be spent on recurrent expenditure. These figures do not become Impressive until it is considered that the Western Region which had proposed to spend £3,121,000 on education in 1955 actually spent £5,358,720.
The great good is that in 2017, 62 years after the first free education programme and 38 years after it was inserted in the Nigerian Constitution as part of the Fundamental Objectives and Directive principles of State Policy, the Nigerian Judiciary has added quite a feather to its wig with an affirmative, activist, judgment that makes it possible for a child denied education to seek judicial rectification.
The magnitude of these figures begins to make more sense when it is realised that educational expenditure took 38.7 percent of the Regional Accounts in 1955, 37.5 percent in 1956 and 42.6 percent in 1957, while the consolidated Accounts of the Federation showed 18.8 percent, 17.3 percent and 18.7 percent respectively for the same period. No wonder some unimaginative Nigerians who could not divorce their lack of creativity from the need to destroy what they could not understand, started claiming that the scheme was poorly planned. It was certainly over-ambitious by Nigerian standards. Yet none other than Dr. Azikiwe, opposition leader in the West who sidled to the East to become the premier, would admit later that, were he and other critics more temperate in their criticisms, the prejudices which visited the scheme at the stage of implementation would have been less.
Infact those who made the abortive attempt at free primary education in the then Eastern Region would today admit that their criticism of the Western Region programme fore-doomed their own. They certainly did not have Awolowo’s penchant for democratic planning which cornered the proprietors of mission and community schools into ownership of the scheme from the very beginning. Otherwise, what we have to take from the singularity of that past, and the necessary flashback of today, is a slice of history to be specially relished. Because of its resounding success, those who struggled for free education and those who fought against it have, too often, been obliged to celebrate the wisdom and courage of its intrepid minders.
The great good is that in 2017, 62 years after the first free education programme and 38 years after it was inserted in the Nigerian Constitution as part of the Fundamental Objectives and Directive principles of State Policy, the Nigerian Judiciary has added quite a feather to its wig with an affirmative, activist, judgment that makes it possible for a child denied education to seek judicial rectification. Although both Federal and State governments are yet to meet the expected terms of transferring free education from Chapter Two to Four of the Constitution in order to make it roundly justiciable, the added pressure from the Report of the 2014 National Conference, which prescribes it beyond cavil, waylays all comers. Even then we need to go beyond mere constitutional imputations. Since Federal and State governments have been unable to give total coverage to all children of school going age, thus leaving ten million such children roaming freeway from literacy, we simply have no reason to turn our backs on the past that continues to challenge existing governments at all levels, to feel the need to adopt free education as a national imperative. In spite of Boko Haram, which has been on the rampage against western education and has killed or kidnapped many teachers and pupils in recent years, (and because of it), free education, to which the State of Osun has been teaching the rest of the country to add a free-meal component, deserves to be seen as a necessary historical compulsion; not only across all states of the federation but one that deserves to be made a key feature of our continental diplomacy.
As a matter of national honour, we need to see illiteracy as a plague that must be wiped, not only out of Nigeria but out of the African continent. To repeat: this is the time for Nigeria, especially in these days of restructure or die, to resolve to wipe out illiteracy from our shores, as well as lead a Pan African assault on it across the African continent. Quite a missionary disposition is required for Nigeria to spearhead such an African Union initiative to ensure that no African State, and member of the AU, continues to lug an illiterate population along, beyond the next one decade. What this must mean is that only AU members that have met a literacy protocol would be allowed as full members. The definitive presumption is that, not only children up to the age of sixteen, but all adults under 60 who have not had the benefit of formal schooling, will have to be shown the road to school as a matter of a citizen code. It should be possible to do this within half the decade at the end of which our continent will have been primed to properly join in the world’s conversation of developed states. The real purpose should be to transfer the knowledge in other languages into African languages and the knowledge in African languages into other languages; and without apologetics. It was time to build a movement, a new Action Group, to map the future into which we must move.
Odia Ofeimun, a poet, essayist, political and cultural historian, writes from Lagos. He is author of the acclaimed The Poet Lied, several other collections of poetry, dance dramas, and the book of essays Taking Nigeria Seriously, among others.