In the early parts of the year 2000, governors in many of the states of western Nigeria variously muted the idea of "returning" mission schools to their former proprietors. A few of them wisely dropped the idea when hit by an avalanche of public criticism; but others doggedly pursued the project and successfully handed over the schools to some missions and private individuals. Recent developments in the ancient city of Abeokuta have compelled us to revisit the issue and do an update on the arguments canvassed in the public domain at the time.
If you missed the news, here's a background: the four monarchs whose traditional domains make up what is known as Egba Land have taken the Anglican Mission to Court over the "return" of Abeokuta Grammar School to the mission. According to the Obas, the purported return of the school to the mission is a fraudulent exercise which they, as guardians of the peoples' heritage, felt duty bound to resist.
They further argue that the Anglican Mission is only seeking to reap from where it did not sow; that the school did not belong to the Anglican Mission in the first place, since none can dispute the historical fact that the Egba Community actually built the school and only gave it to the mission to administer.
The Obas also insist that if the government was incapable of performing its self-assumed duty of running the school, the Egba community were up to the task of doing so. And if the school were to be returned, it should go to the owners the Egba Community and not to the managers, who were probably well compensated by the government when the school was taken over in the first place.
Ideally, in situations such as this where there is contention over the ownership of property, the third party in whose possession the property is would simply wait for the true ownership to be determined and then hand over the property to whichever of the gladiators the court declares as owner. Not so? But quite contrarily, the Ogun State Government (which is purportedly run by representatives of the people and is therefore bound. to govern in the peoples' best interests) has now joined the fray on the side of the Anglican Church.
The court is therefore called upon to resolve a conundrum in which the Anglican Church insists on holding on to the property it has been graciously gifted by a government which is only too eager to escape its responsibilities; as the Obas insist on keeping the peoples' property in their hands and preserving a cherished heritage. Attempts by some elders to broker a peaceful resolution has hit the rocks (as they say), meaning that litigation will proceed apace.
For many of us, unschooled in the history of many of these truly "old" schools, the revelation that that legendary school was actually established by the Egba people, not the Anglican Church, is something of a shock. It now emerges that many of the old schools were actually community schools, built by contributions from local citizens, and given over to "missionaries" to manage. But how many more of such schools have thus been fraudulently assigned without complaint; how many "missions" have profited from the sweats of the people, how many parents have forfeited the right of having their wards attend quality, affordable public schools all on the fraudulent and self-serving excuse of seeking to improve standards of education?
As events develop in Abeokuta, we get an opportunity to do stocktaking. You might recall that these schools were taken over by the then military governments in the late I970s to arrest what they rightly saw as a commercialization of education, which did nothing to improve general standards, but which did everything to distort the social balance, with many of the "mission schools" being run as mere extensions of churches centres of proselytisation where the young and innocent received some education and a lot of brainwashing.
When the schools were taken over, many of their owners were compensated from the public treasury. Yes, some famously refused to collect the compensation and elected to "donate" the schools but that was their option which they were free to exercise. Having taken up the responsibility, the various state governments then invested the public purse in' improving the facilities, often replacing dilapidated structures with modern ones, and generally administering them in the public interest.
Of course, we do admit that government has not done a good job of running our education sector, whether primary, secondary or tertiary (can anyone point out one sector which government has done a good job of running?), but the point is that if government were to hand over these schools after so many years and after having invested billions of public funds on them, the proper thing is to hand them over to qualified private entities in a transparent and competitive manner.
We would not fail to note that many of the schools "returned" to the missions - venerable public schools where all citizens, rich or poor could have their children get good education have now joined the profiteering racket of "private school education".
If appearances are anything to go by, few ventures are as profitable as private schools in Nigeria today, once you are able to invest. All you need is a fancy building, brand new school buses (bank loans will settle that), a spattering of fair skinned expatriate students, maybe even a white headmaster who probably barely managed to graduate from university in Empty shire or some squalid European village (at the other extreme, you can simply get two rooms in a dilapidated shack, get a few benches and chalk), and you are in business.
Literally, you can charge millions of naira per session (or whatever you consider appropriate to sustain your lifestyle). You can employ half-baked teachers and pay them a pittance. You can exploit the system to make sure your students get bright results in WAEC or NECO examinations (even if they never manage to win any of the various science, mathematics or other competitions generally used to measure standards). Whatever it takes to keep the parents happy, the same as the private universities now mushrooming all over the place. The governments have made sure that public schools are not worth the sweat, and who can blame the average parent for wanting the "best" for their children? To be clear, we should not be understood as saying there is no merit in private school education.
Every society deserves a balanced educational framework where both public and private institutions - well funded and properly regulated would exist side-by-side; where pupils' fundamental rights are protected and their minds truly nurtured.
But since that is not the subject matter of this piece, we shall not dwell on the issue. We just need to make the point that the promised benefits of the return of schools are yet to be seen.
Almost ten years after the Lagos State Government (which blazed the dubious trail) handed over schools to missions, have the problems bandied in support of the handing over been solved? We were told that handing over the schools to the missions was the only way of arresting the declining standards of education and deteriorating moral standards. So now, have the schools become citadels of learning and havens of moral rebirth?
Have exam malpractices (which were supposedly the preserve of public schools) been eradicated? Are we building more upright citizens, or smarter crooks? Has the overall quality of education improved? Has learning become a pleasurable experience for the young minds eagerly waiting to confront tomorrow? Is the welfare of teachers now guaranteed? Is their quality assured?
Are we certain that those who have the responsibility of moulding our children's minds and exercising their brains have the moral character to be entrusted with our future? Are we laying the foundations for a sustainable educational sector which allows all citizens access to quality education in institutions catering to their spiritual preference?
Since these questions are wider than the dispute which the court in Abeokuta has been called upon to resolve, we would not expect answers from that direction. But these are pertinent questions we should ask both those who eagerly handed over collective trusts they were incapable of sustaining, and the self-serving opportunists who received the "stolen goods".
For as long as we are condemned to hand over the running of our public institutions to charlatans who would do anything to minimise their responsibilities whilst maximising their own benefits, so long shall we be faced with the spectre of regressing whilst others are making progress handing over schools to churches whilst others are building better public institutions.
As for those angling to once again control what is not theirs, surely, they should hearken to their faith's teaching as our Faith does not to covet other peoples' property?
This article was culled from the publications of Deen Communication Limited