Friday, June 8, 2018

INVESTIGATION: Collapse of Public Schools: Inside the first-class schools children of Akwa Ibom elite attend

A black colour SUV with tinted windscreens rolls into the street from a gated house at Ewet Housing Estate, an exclusive residential area for the elite in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital.

A little girl, being chauffeur-driven and protected by armed policemen, is on her way to school.

She has her textbooks and writing materials inside her backpack. She also has bottled water, juice, biscuits, and a lunch box filled with cooked noodles to be eaten at school during break hour.

She is the daughter of a top politician in the oil-rich state.

Her school, located few kilometres away at Shelter Afrique Estate, another residential estate for the rich, is a Montessori-type institution, equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, including a music laboratory, sickbay, swimming pool, and cable television for pupils to watch Disney cartoons.

It is stocked with the best of local and foreign textbooks, exotic learning materials and playthings, and manned by a number of highly qualified and motivated administrators and teachers.

Such scenario, common among the children of government officials, wealthy businessmen and elites profiting from the billions of oil revenue accruing to Akwa Ibom, highlights the class distinction characterising this Nigerian state.

It is a sharp contrast with the life lived by the children of the majority who are poor.

Saint John Paul II School, at Shelter Afrique Estate, Uyo, is a clear example of how Nigerian public officials and the elite insulate themselves, and of course their children too, from the consequences of their ineptitude, mismanagement and theft of public funds as well as neglect or destruction of public schools and other institutions.

The school is owned by a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio who, during his eight-year tenure, presided over the incredible and shameful collapse of classrooms in several public schools and the fallen standard of education in the state, despite the boom in oil revenue.

Akwa Ibom is home to multinational oil companies like Mobil, an affiliate of the American oil giant, ExxonMobil. And because of its contributions to Nigeria’s oil earnings, Akwa Ibom receives more money from the Federation Account every month than each of the other 35 states and the Federal Capital Territory.

This is beside the revenue the state generates internally.

In five years alone, between 2013 and 2017, the state received N1.029 trillion (about $2.8 billion) from the country’s Federation Account.

And yet several public schools in the state, as shown in other reports published under this series, have broken down, forcing pupils and students, in some cases, to sit on bare floor in roofless classrooms to learn.

Open defecation is a common practice in most public schools in the state because of lack of toilets.

The schools also lack potable water.

t is a common sight in Uyo, the state capital, to see poor, malnourished kids walk barefooted on the streets during school hours, wearing torn and dirty school uniforms – a fallout of a broken system and impoverishing of the populace.

In some poor coastal communities in the state, schools were few and far between and kids have to cross rivers daily, using canoes, to attend schools in some other communities.

The nationwide school feeding programme of the federal government, meant to encourage enrolment and class attendance in public schools, has run into a hitch in Akwa Ibom. The programme has been suspended for about two months now because of numerous petitions from vendors, Ita Okon, the programme’s focal person in the state, told PREMIUM TIMES.

The Akpabios, when they were still the first family in the state, because of safety concern for their only son, converted one of their homes in Ikoyi, Lagos, to a Montessori nursery school for the little boy and persuaded other wealthy parents to enroll their children in the school, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.

That was how the idea to establish Saint John Paul II School, Uyo, began, a close associate of the former governor said. The school now has a branch in Lagos, he said.

Today, Saint John Paul II School, with a N175, 000 tuition fee, is one of the most expensive and preferred private schools in the state.

The Speaker, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Onofiok Luke, and several state lawmakers like Aniekan Uko (representing Ibesikpo Asutan State Constituency), Monday Eyo (Uyo State Constituency), and Mark Esset (Nsit Atai State Constituency) have their children in the school.

A former commissioner, ministry of Housing and Urban Renewal, and Chairman, Uyo Capital City Development Authority, Enobong Uwah, also has his daughter as pupil in the school.

Apart from Saint John Paul II School, other top-rated private nursery schools in the state patronised by government officials are Rayfield International School, owned by a former Nigerian diplomat from the state (tuition fees is N75,000), Dove International Schools, Monef Schools (N60, 000), Sanvee International Nursery and Primary School (about N80,000 for new pupil, and N60, 000 for old pupil), all in Uyo, and Topfaith Montessori Nursery and Primary School, Essien Udim (N44,000).

All of them, except Sanvee, also operate top-rated secondary schools that are also well-patronised by government officials and the elites.

Governor Udom Emmanuel’s children, PREMIUM TIMES learnt, are in some prestigious private schools in Lagos where he lived and worked as executive director in Zenith Bank before leaving to join politics in 2014.

Unyime Etim, Chairman, Ikot Ekpene Local Government Area, has his ward in a private nursery school called Early Days School, located at Shelter Afrique, Uyo. Ditto Otobong Akpan, member representing Ukanafun State Constituency, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly.

Henry Archibong, the member representing Itu/Ibiono Ibom Federal Constituency at the House of Representatives, has his children in another prestigious private secondary school, Tower of Ivory School, in Abak, Akwa Ibom State, while his first son is studying abroad in a university in China.

School fees in Tower of Ivory range from N300, 000 to N370, 000 per term.

Like the Akpabios, Iniobong Essien, the Commissioner for Environment in the state, owns a nursery school, Seasons International School, Uyo, where some of Governor Emmanuel’s aides have their wards.

These top-rated private schools, aside their aesthetic environment, well-equipped laboratories and libraries, and enough qualified instructors, expose their pupils and students to international examinations like Cambridge IGCSE and other programmes to help them develop self-worth and confidence, and be miles apart from their counterparts in public schools.

In Saint John Paul II School, for instance, pupils in Primary 4 are taught how to construct simple electric circuit and how to use power-point for presentation, something that can never be found in public primary schools, including most public secondary schools, in the state.

Saint John Paul II School has a swimming pool. It teaches its pupils how to swim, and also organises swimming tournaments for them.

No other school, including tertiary institutions in the state, has a swimming pool, according to PREMIUM TIMES findings.

Saint John Paul II School also has literary and leadership day for the pupils.

One of the private secondary schools in the state even introduced American football to its students!

Most private schools in the state have buses which ferry their pupils and students to and from schools, and also arrange regular excursions for them.

Some go as far as introducing American or European curriculum for their pupils and students.

“Our mission is to create a safe and caring environment where every child can grow and develop lifelong learning through quality and holistic educational approach,” Saint John Paul II School says on its website.

“Our adopted Montessori method prepares our pupils to be confident, independent and resourceful learners who would be ready to positively impact our communities.”

Mr Akpabio, who is the Senate Minority Leader, declined comment for this report. His media aide, Anietie Ekong, said he was unwilling to grant press interview, each time this reporter tried to contact the senator.

When PREMIUM TIMES met with the Commissioner for Education, Victor Inoka, he declined comment, saying having just been appointed to office, he was still “studying the situation”.

The trend in Akwa Ibom, as it is in other Nigerian states, is for wealthy parents to send their children to the best universities in the U.S, Europe, and Asia when they are done with their studies in private schools in Nigeria.

“Everybody in the state is drifting towards private schools,” says Owo Etokowo, a management expert in Uyo.

“Previously, it was the rich that would try to send their children to private schools. But now even the poor strive because they know that their children cannot become anything should they continue to study in public schools,” Mr Etokowo said, adding that the situation “is a clear indictment of the quality of education at primary and secondary levels in the state.”

Even the teachers in public schools don’t enroll their children in schools where they teach, says the principal of a Catholic secondary school in Uyo, who tried to explain how bad the situation had grown.

There is a surge in the number of private schools in Akwa Ibom because of the high demand for them.

For instance, the number of private secondary schools in the state was 120 in 2007, up by 106.90 per cent from the previous year, according to the World Data Atlas. The number increased to 422 in 2017, says an official of the state ministry of education.

“It is surely higher than that if we include those ones that are operating without license from the government,” the official said, adding that the number of private nursery/primary schools in the state was as high as 699, as at 2017.

Governor Emmanuel in January 2018 awarded scholarship to 11 children, mostly orphans and homeless kids in the state, to study at the Tower of Ivory Secondary School, Abak, therefore underscoring his preference for private schools and disdain for public schools.

The neglect, decay, and rejection of public schools has created room for people to establish substandard private schools all over the state, according to findings by PREMIUM TIMES.

Seven hundred and eighty-two “illegal” private schools, including a polytechnic, was closed down by the state government in 2017.

“If you go to rural areas you have private schools where pupils pay as low as N3, 000 a term. Such is described as budget schools by the World Bank,” says Mr Etokowo.

“In this case, such schools help children of the poor; it is neither as good as the one high up there nor as bad as what you have in public schools. So, the poor now manage to pay N3, 000 or N5, 000 to put their children in such private schools.”

Tijah Bolton-Akpan, the Executive Director of Policy Alert, a non-governmental organization that focuses on fiscal governance in Akwa Ibom and other states in Nigeria, believes the neglect of public education in the state is a ploy by the elites to undermine the future of the children of the poor.

“The public school is where the ordinary people send their children to and that sector has been suffering.

“We are busy feathering the nest and preparing the future for the children of the elite and undermining the future of the children of the poor. And that is generational poverty being recycled,” Mr Bolton-Akpan told PREMIUM TIMES.

READ: PART THREE: INVESTIGATION: Dehumanised and demoralised, unpaid teachers dying in Akwa Ibom

Collins Oscar, author and entrepreneur, says everyone, including the government, teachers, parents, and ordinary citizens, is complicit in the collapse of public education in the state.

What is required to make public schools work in the state, he says, is the same effort everyone has put in to make private schools attractive.

“If the governor of the state finds it very difficult to make at least one public school look as good as a private school, and this same person when he leaves office as a governor, and in less than six months, uses his own money to build a world-class private nursery school, does it mean that he has more money than government?

“This is one reason that makes me believe the state in which we have found our public education today is intentional,” says Mr Oscar, who is the author of a popular book, Idiots With B.Sc.

“The teachers in public schools intentionally offer substandard teaching services to pupils and students. They feel the students there don’t deserve better.

“In our subconscious mind, there’s a way we look at those who attend public schools; we have low expectation of them,” he said.

Poorly funded, ill-equipped, and low-performing teachers in public schools is not peculiar to Akwa Ibom; it is a nationwide malaise.

In Kaduna State, North-west of Nigeria, the Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, is working to persuade senior government officials in the state to enroll their children in government-owned primary and secondary schools, as one of the steps of restoring quality and confidence in public education.

“As we make progress, we will require our senior officials to enroll their children in public schools,” Mr El-Rufai said in a state broadcast in December, 2017. “And I will by personal example ensure that my son that will be six years of age in 2019 is enrolled in a public school in Kaduna State, by God’s grace.”

Akwa Ibom State in particular, and Nigeria, in general, is in for a big trouble that may consume everyone eventually if the broken education system is not fixed now, says UbongAbasi Okon, an Uyo-based web designer.

“Let the rich who send their children to the best schools not even try to think they have escaped the impending doom. After all, we’ve heard that it’s one bad apple that spoils a bunch.

“The truth is that products of broken schools will soon be among those driving the Nigerian system, and you can imagine what kind of disaster await us as a people.

“In fact, we are already living with the effects of this, where you now have many youths assigned the role of vote stealing and hired killings during elections. The truth is that our society designs such ignoble path for youths who don’t have the opportunity to get the best of education, and so they must do the dirty jobs for little a little reward.”

When this reporter contacted the state lawmaker, Mark Esset, to ask about the possibility of enacting a law which could compel public officers to send their children to public schools, he said the choice of school for kids was a personal issue for every parent.

“When it comes to my family, it’s a private thing,” says Mr. Esset while admitting the poor state of infrastructures in public primary and secondary schools in his Nsit Atai Constituency. “I know what I want for my children.

“The children of my constituents, they have parents! All fingers are not equal. What the parents can afford for them is what they do.”

“You can’t say you make a law that if I can afford to eat stockfish, I should not eat it because other people are not eating stockfish.

“Before I became a public office holder, my children were already in private schools; my children are not in private schools because I am a public office holder.”

This is the fifth in a six-part series on how corruption, poor budget planning and implementation, and outright neglect led to the near-collapse of public education in Akwa Ibom, one of Nigeria’s richest states.

This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting




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