By Olabisi Deji-Folutile
Permit me without further ado to add my voice to that of many other Nigerians that have been urging the Federal Government to rescind its decision on Nigerian students as regards the 2020 West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). You have told us that the Federal Government would not allow Nigerian pupils to join their counterparts in other African countries to take part in this year’s WASSCE. Honourable Minister, you may think that you are doing these children a favour by making them lose a year of their lives by not writing the exam, but I’m afraid, you may be doing them more harm than you can imagine. If feedback from these children is anything to go by, many of them are confused right now and totally drained both psychologically and emotionally.
You will agree with me that even as adults, COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on almost all of us. The deadly virus came with unprecedented challenges across the world. What about the agonising news of deaths, hunger, job losses, social distancing and all the problems associated with it? Certainly, this isn’t the best of time for any child to be preparing for a major external examination. Schools have been shut for months. Many of these children don’t even have a viable alternative to their classrooms. The Nigerian system has failed them. All across the world, academic activities have continued on alternative channels, but not here. The radio and television alternatives are only working for those who have the devices and the electricity to power them. Unfortunately, only a handful of these children are in this category. In a situation like this, the best that Nigeria can do for these children now is to probably negotiate an extra time for them with the West African Examination Council (WAEC) to enable them to catch up in order to be able to do well in the exams. Asking these children to lose one year just like that amounts to being insensitive to their feelings.
Honourable Minister, these children may be young but they are aware of happenings around them. They know that this pandemic is ravaging the whole world and they also know that many countries have managed to move on taking care of their children’s interest in the process. They may never understand why their future should be in jeopardy when government is making frantic efforts to open up the economy in spite of COVID-19 pandemic. For example, they have seen the Federal Government lift inter-state bans, reopen markets, banks, and reopen the country’s airspace, government secretariats, religious centres and many more. And they are wondering why the government cannot apply the same safety measures put in place in these other areas so that they can just sit for this exam that is critical for them to further their education.
Besides, Honourable Minister, these children know that the West African Examination Council operates in five African countries namely Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and Liberia. All their lives, they have been taught that Nigeria is the giant among these countries. How do you expect them to understand a situation where the “giant” is unwilling to do what the so-called “dwarfs” are prepared to handle? They will be confused! How do you explain to them that Nigeria is withdrawing from an examination thatother participating nations have not withdrawn from? Are you going to tell them that the participating countries don’t love their own children?
You have told us that government’s decision was based on its love for these children. The Federal Government does not want them to die or be infected with COVID-19. As stated in your address, you will prefer to see these children alive and lose one year than to lose any of them to coronavirus. It is good to protect our children; they are our future. But do you know that even if we the adults choose to believe you, these children can’t take your point? They have never felt loved by this country. Ask them, they will tell you that their parents love them more than Nigeria does. And you know that their parents through the National Parents Teachers’ Association of Nigeria (NAPTAN); have said that they are committed to protecting them from contracting COVID-19. They have also assured the government that there won’t be any problem once the other parties concerned play their own roles.
How do you want to convince children that have been studying in classrooms with thatched roofs; sometimes beaten by rain right inside their classes, that Nigeria loves them than their parents do? You know many of these children still learn under trees, some sit on the floor because their parents can’t afford to buy these items for them. For many of them, trekking kilometres daily to get to school has become the norm. Defecating in the open space has been accepted as their lot. Many of them are just hoping that one day; things would turn around positively for them- the picture of that bright future is the only thing keeping some of them in line. Honourable Minister, we should not allow these children to lose hope.
Let’s say it as it is, these children have never experienced the love of their fatherland except we don’t want to compare them with their counterparts in other parts of the world. I assume they must have heard about how some countries give their children proper meals in schools, provide free transportation, uniforms, books and everything that could make them comfortable. Have they ever experienced that in Nigeria? How do you now want to convince them that denying them their right to sit for an examination they have burnt the midnight candles for is your way of telling them that you love them? They will never believe you!
I learnt that the 19 commissioners of education in the Northern states have expressed their support for the Federal Government’s decision. They even went as far as issuing a statement, saying with the spike in cases of COVID-19 across the country; schools should be kept shut for the children to remain safe. They have also said that they will only participate in the WASSCE when it is safe to reopen schools. But do you know that nobody believes they are truly concerned about the safety of the children.
You know, these states namely Kaduna, Bauchi, Gombe, Niger, Nasarawa, Adamawa, Taraba, Kogi, Kwara, Katsina, Kano, Borno and Jigawa have some of the worst indices in education in Nigeria. In fact, Jigawa is the nation’s worst-performing state in WASSCE in 2018. Only 10% of the 22,000 students that sat for the examination in the state passed. The 2016-2018 statistics from WAEC shows that students from the north are not performing as well as their counterparts in the south. For instance, out of the 630,971 students that sat the 2018 WASSCE in the North, only 206,183 or 32% had five credits and above in subjects including English and Maths. Whereas in the South, out of 1,006,688 students that sat for the exam, 56% of them got five credits and above in subjects including English and Maths.
If these governors truly love these children, they would have done everything within their power to make them have better outcomes in these exams. Honourable Minister, you are well aware that majority of the over 13million out of school children in Nigeria are domiciled in the north. If these states really love these children, should that be the situation? Would they have condoned their children begging for food in the name of Almajiri? You see, these governors cannot just wake up overnight and profess love for the children that they have always neglected. We know that they are just trying to shy away from their responsibilities. They don’t want to do what it takes to ensure safety in their schools. They are merely looking for excuses to remain indolent. Please, don’t listen to them.
Honourable Minister, rescinding this decision is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it is a sign of strength on the part of the Federal Government. After all, President Donald Trump of the United States also moved against foreign students in the country a few days back. The US said it would no longer issue visa to students whose schools had gone online. But, the US has since reversed the policy because a lot of people opposed it. Nigerians have rejected this policy on WASSCE; parents who I perceive, must love their children more than anyone else have spoken, school owners, teachers and all kinds of stakeholders have spoken against it. Our lawmakers have called on the President to reverse the decision. Please, do what President Trump did and drop this whole idea.
Perhaps I should remind you that these are the same set of students affected by Ebola in their junior classes. They don’t know why they should be in this present dilemma. Some of them are already saying that they are jinxed. We need to think of the mental health of these children. Do you know that some of them could have engaged in child labour to raise money for this exam? Please, don’t let their labour be in vain.
Although I don’t know how far this decision can go in a federal system where education is supposed to be on the concurrent list – states have the liberty to allow their own children to sit the exam, the situation should be well managed because of the children. Please, do all within your power to ensure that the situation does not become messy.
Perhaps, at this junction, I need to remind you of the consequence of allowing about 1.5million candidates not to sit for this exam. What would these children be doing for the whole year? Are they going to remain in school or at home? What happens to those qualifying for the exam next year? It will also affect admission process to higher institutions this year. The situation calls for caution and effective planning and I am very confident that you will reason with majority of Nigerians on this matter.
Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the Editor-in-Chief, Franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors.