Michael NnebeTuesday, January 14, 2014
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here was a time when Nigeria universities ranked among the best. When my wife was doing her medical residency and fellowship in New York back in the early nineties most New York hospitals actively sought Nigerian medical graduates into their programs. Today if you are a medical graduate from any Nigerian university in the last ten years you will have a hard time getting into any residency program in America. Things have gotten steadily worse in Nigeria's educational system. Five years ago there was not a single Nigerian university on the list of Africa's top 100 universities. In 2010 about two of our universities made the list somewhere at the bottom, and last year we have four or five Nigeria universities on this prestigious list of Africa's top 100 universities, but none in the top twenty. I'm referring to the credible international list, not some bogus lists recently set up by a couple of Nigerian universities to make them look good.

In the past fifteen years, the Academic Staff Union of Nigeria universities (ASUU) have repeatedly engaged in prolonged strikes just about every other year. The last one, a six-month strike just ended a few weeks ago. No wonder our universities can't compete internationally, especially here in Africa. As bad as our educational system may be, what we have in the Southern part of Nigeria represents the gold standard when compared to what is going on in the North. Before I go much further, perhaps I should first give kudos to Governor Ibrahim Shema of Katsina state for his ongoing revolution in education. I must also commend the governor of Nasarawa state for declaring free education to primary and secondary education during his 2014 budget presentation. When I talk of educational revolution in Katsina, I'm talking in relative terms and in comparison to other Northern states. Educational problem in Northern Nigeria goes beyond the universities; there is indeed an endemic crisis at the lower echelon of education across the entire North.

Northern Nigeria is too important for us to ignore. Nigeria can never achieve her greatness if any part of this country is left behind in the all-too-important field of education. Although I am an Igbo man, it saddens me to know that for every year in the last ten, Imo state alone produces more JAMB applications than all the twelve states in the Northeast and Northwest combined, or that Imo and Anambra states alone produce more JAMB applicants every year than the whole Northern Nigeria combined. These statistics are nothing new in Nigeria. What is even more troubling to me is that before 1999, Nigeria was ruled by Northerners in 35 out of 39 years since our independence in 1960. How could these men have been so callous towards their own tribesmen? How could they have been so grossly negligent of their own children? Not only did they allow this downward inequality to go on, they attacked anyone who is courageous to point out this disparity. I recalled that Dr. Alex Ekwueme gave a speech about ten years ago when he highlighted this inequity and the need for Northern leaders to rise up and do something about it, and he was then vigorously attacked by some Northerners.

Well, I am not a politician, and I am not worried about anybody attacking me for speaking my mind, especially on something this important to the overall progress of our country. But this is not just a Northern problem, it is a Nigerian problem. The implication of such inequity in education would no doubt reflect on Nigeria's overall production possibility boundaries. It is true that now, even in the so called better educated South, many graduates cannot find jobs, sometime for years after they left universities. Yes, this is the reality today in Nigeria, but if and when Nigeria politicians catch up to their responsibilities and create environment that revives our manufacturing sector, then the existing gulf in the North would make it difficult for companies to find skilled labor in that region. The implication of this is that we may see a one-sided development in Nigeria with most companies locating their offices in the South and only a few in the North. In a fully growing economy, such inequity could easily account for up to three percentage point reduction in potential GDP growth annually. That is, we may be growing at 7% when we could grow at 10%. For now, it seems to me that we have lost the last two generations, but it is not yet too late for our government to begin paying serious attention to this problem. One area that is even more alarming is in the girl child education.

Eight states in Northern Nigeria have the country's worst girl child education by all measuring indices. According to the latest scorecard by a group of nongovernmental researchers, Kebbi, Sokoto, Bauchi, Jigawa, Yobe, Zanfara, Katsina, and Gombe states have Nigeria's worst girl child education and highest female illiteracy. The ten states with the highest number of girls not in secondary school are found in the North, and these ten states, along with Kano, have the highest percentage of female ages between 15 to 24 years who cannot read or write. Not coincidentally, there is a link between poor educational attainment for girls, forced marriage of underage children, and under age child bearing. In states like Sokoto, Bauchi, Kaduna and others, 96% of primary school students attend public schools; the same research body found that 80% of primary school teachers in those areas are grossly unqualified. In states like Jigawa, the school enrolment rate for the girl child is down to a pitiful 8% with even less numbers staying on to finish. The scale of the problem is self evident, and these are the sort of problem that not only our Northern governors, but also our Federal government should be giving all their attention.

I would love to see a federal government targeted effort at addressing this problem. It is a major crisis, which if left unaddressed could altogether derail those lofty development goals that Nigeria government have repeatedly set for this country. I would like to see something in the form of Niger Delta Development Commission, which was set up to address the endemic poverty and degradation that became of the Niger Delta area for so long. A Northern Nigeria Education Commission could go a long way to addressing this serious educational gap. It will require a lot of money, but more than money is the application of proper strategies, especially the sort that rewards women for sending their children to school, proper funding to recruit well-qualified teachers, and to coordinate with the various Northern states houses of assemblies and religious houses for a joint effort at tackling this problem. Nigeria needs evidence based policy making on this front. But in the end very little will be achieved if the like of Senator Ahmed Yerima continues to facilitate an environment that exploits little girls instead of protecting them from exploitation. Boko Haram is entirely another problem though one that I believe is only temporary.

Michael Nnebe is a former Wall Street Investment Banker and the Author of several novels, including; Every Dream Has A Price, Riverside Park, Blood Covenant, Gloomy Shadows, Passing wishes, Prime Suspect, and others.