Date Published: 07/14/10
What President Jonathan will not see in Akwa Ibom By Anietie Ekong
President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is billed for a two-day official visit to the Land of Promise, Akwa Ibom state from Thursday July 15. According to the official programme of the visit, while in Akwa ibom State, President Jonathan will commission several people-oriented projects embarked upon by the administration of Chief Godswill Obot Akpabio.
These projects include the ultra-modern and state-of-the-art Governor’s Lodge built in a record 14 months, the first phase of the Ibom International Airport, Banking District road network, fly-overs 11 and 111 located on Atiku Abubakar Avenue, the 21 kilometer Ekid Itam – Idoro – Ekom Iman dual carriage way, phase 1. Other projects billed for commissioning include: the 25 – kilometer Abak – Ikot Ekpene dual carriage way, the 56 – kilometer Afaha Obong – Etim Ekpo – Iwukem road, Etim Ekpo bridge, the 12 – kilometer Top Faith road, the Police Secondary School, the Mobile Police base, the Independent Power Project access road among many others. Indeed for President Jonathan there will be no dull moments while in Akwa Ibom State.
This will not be the first presidential visit to Akwa Ibom State. On August 7, 200 4, the then President Olusegun Obasanjo had embarked on a similar Presidential visit to the same state. During the visit, there was an incident that overshadowed everything else Obasanjo went to do in Akwa Ibom State. According to media reports, Obasanjo’s convoy had pulled up in Ikot Ebekpo to exchange pleasantries with the local people who had gathered to welcome him. He reportedly walked up to a woman with three kids and demanded to know the name of the thirteen year old son of the woman but got no response from the boy.
A stunned Obasanjo then directed the question at the boy’s mother. “What is your son’s name?” “Udoh” the mother answered. “Why is he not going to school?” “There is no money,” the mother told the President. The President deeply felt for the poor parents of Udoh whose son at age 13 had not seen the four walls of a school because his parents were too poor to afford the fees. Visibly touched, Obasanjo had sought the consent of the parents and offered to adopt the boy so that he would offer him free education. Udoh, the illiterate boy from Akwa Ibom state the following day grabbed national headlines as a member of the President household.
Udoh had also become a metaphor for a decrepit and non-functional educational system which even at that state, was unaffordable to thousands of Akwa Ibom children. The people of Udoh’s community would remain eternally grateful to the former President for being a God-sent messenger to deliver the boy from the clutches of illiteracy and ignorance and opening up the doors of opportunities through education to a boy who may have been lost in the parched farmland of his community. But the poor boy epitomized the plight of the Akwa Ibom nay Nigerian children, who in the past had become victims of a society that had cared less about the plight of the less privileged in their midst.
Before now, Akwa Ibom had ranked as one of the biggest exporters of kid domestic workers. Children of school age were found as domestic servants in Lagos, Abuja, Port-Harcourt and other major cities toiling day and night for their employers who work in banks, oil companies, and the civil service or operating their own businesses, doing all sorts of menial and usually unstructured jobs for their employers. In fact the state had become very popular as a recruitment ground for domestic helps, kids who like Udoh, whose parents could not afford to pay their fees in public schools. This is what may have given rise to the archetypal portrayal of the Akwa Ibom child in Nigerian movies. In their reckoning, domestic servants must be Ekaette, Uduak, Okon, Edet, Akpan, etc. But all that has changed.
According to Governor Akpabio free education conquers all things. "We want to change the mentality of our people so that in 10 years, they can be able to take their destiny in their hands. We want to eradicate the Ekaette syndrome from our culture so that our people will begin to be like the Westerners who are at the forefront of the nation’s economy. Through the free education policy, we hope to give new meaning to our people. We want to fight kidnapping, armed robbery and child abandonment with free education," he said then. To complement this policy is the child right act which makes it a punishable offence for parents whose wards roam the streets during school hours.
It is gratifying to know that during the latest Presidential visit to Akwa Ibom State, President Jonathan would not see any Udoh in Akwa Ibom State today to adopt to be given education in Aso Rock courtesy of the free, compulsory and qualitative education policy of the Governor Akpabio administration, a policy he that was not even part of his electioneering promises. According to him, “My vision for education in Akwa Ibom State is that of a State with functional, qualitative education which will serve as the catalyst for development, job creation, poverty alleviation and as a foundation for our envisaged science and technology and industrial revolution.”
In fairness to other state administrations, Akwa Ibom state is not the only state that has declared free education in Nigeria. People of the South-Western part of Nigeria would consider it a taboo to be asked to pay school fees in a public school. Even though it is a novel idea in Akwa Ibom State, this policy of the Akpabio administration is unique in its conceptualization and implementation backed by a strong political will of the Governor. To Akpabio, education is an inalienable right to be provided to the citizen from primary to secondary school with the government bearing all the costs. Drawing from his personal experience of not being able to proceed immediately to secondary school because of the inability of the mother to pay a fee of N10, had vowed that no Akwa Ibom child would suffer such deprivation as long as he remained the Governor of the state.
The free and compulsory education policy of the Akpabio administration is unprecedented and may indeed become a model in Nigeria due to its uniqueness. For instance, apart from providing free medical services to the pupils as well, the government pays N300 per child, per term to Principals of secondary schools and N100 to headmasters and headmistresses of primary schools as subvention, to enable them to procure basic items without transferring such financial burdens on the parents.
The decrepit nature of the infrastructure in public schools which saw pupils and students learning under very unconducive environment, sometimes under trees has been completely eliminated as there has been massive injection of funds into the sector. This has led to the commissioning of over 600 educational projects across the state. The government has also distributed science equipments, chemical and reagents, computers and textbooks for use by pupils and students in public schools. This is in addition to the massive recruitment and training of teachers to cope with the upsurge of pupils and students enrolment which, according to the Commissioner of Information and Social-Reorientation, Mr. Aniekan Umanah had almost doubled by the time the state celebrated the first anniversary of this laudable programme.
Unlike the physical structures that President Jonathan will commission during his visit to the state, the impact of the free and compulsory education policy may appear as intangible. But to most people this will go down as the greatest legacy that Governor Akpabio would leave in the impact, which impact would be felt long after he had quit the stage.
Ekong is a Lagos-based public affairs commentator.