In 2017 while working as a fixer for Regency Foundation on a documentary about the Centre for Girls Education, I saw Amina. She was standing beside the walls of a classroom in Tudun Wada Zaria, listening to and repeating the words from the voices of other children inside a class.
One...Two...Three...Four...she counted along with the children in the class. Then at ten, she picked up a tray from the floor filled with cooked groundnuts, put the tray on her head, and walked slowly away from the school premises. Amina is one of over five hundred thousand out-of-school children, in just Kaduna state alone.
Every child is expected to go to school. But for a developing country of over 200 million citizens, it is clear that the school facilities are not enough. In Nigeria, like Amina, the children left behind from learning opportunities are mostly from rural areas that are hard to reach. They work to support their families as they come from very poor households. They are mostly girls and are equally the most vulnerable in the world.
While many of the problems in Nigeria often seem louder and take more importance in the national spotlight, endemic corruption in Nigeria’s education system does equally insidious damage to the country as well. At the most fundamental, corruption in Nigeria’s education sector deeply threatens the well-being of the country by sabotaging the growth of educated, competent, and ethical individuals to fill the country’s labour force, and for future leadership.
Lack of transparency at the heart of Nigeria’s schooling system.
The corresponding problems are numerous - leakages in the system caused by corrupt practices since Nigeria’s return to Democracy have prevailed to date. Most public schools are underfunded, and increasing security challenges have continued to keep more students out of schools. Resilient cultural and religious systems are still denying young girls the opportunity to compete and succeed among their male peers.
More recently, economic challenges amplified by the coronavirus pandemic has reduced the income capacity of millions of families, resulting in more children out of school. The elephant in the room is a lack of transparency in Nigeria’s public school system. Ironically, failing public and private institutions beyond Nigerian schools are part of the endemic problems crippling Nigeria’s schooling system.
While a series of education professionals, politicians, civil society organizations, and human rights groups have become experts in calling out against the injustice of Nigerians' failing systems, very few organizations are equipped with the skills required to develop actual frameworks that can solve these problems. The question is how to build foundational structures to support a functional school system in Nigeria. The answer is found in understanding where the fundamental issues lie. Failing educational systems are tied to other systems: political, economic and social conditions.
How change-actors are responding.
Education remains a fundamental human right and serves as a major driver of economic and social development. When individuals and organizations focus their efforts on these loosely connected problems, their solutions translate to a better schooling system for children. Organizations seeking to address problems in the education sector are numerous. One organization, the Private and Public Development Centre (PPDC), is tackling this problem differently.
The Public and Private Development Centre- PPDC has been working towards improving the schooling system in various ways: Ensuring that schools are safer through advocacy, and increasing advocacy efforts to drive accountability by private companies managing procurement projects. But more specifically, PPDC identifies and empowers local community actors, and amplifies their voices when they ask questions and seek improvements on issues very specific to schools around them.
Community members and Civil Society Organisations in Nigerian states like Ekiti, Anambra and Kaduna are now looking into and working to tackle problems related to bid-rigging in the procurement of textbooks and school supplies, diversion of funds and equipment; teacher absenteeism; and exploitation of schoolchildren for sex or unpaid labour.
As a result, an increased number of local actors are becoming invested in problems that are directly harming education opportunities for children and adults in their communities. Even though these problems are numerous, PPDC is supporting the process that ensures that they are now being uncovered, looked into, and faced squarely by local actors as well.
These actions are bearing fruit. Community disagreements are being solved. More students are speaking about their learning conditions, and community members' voices are now being given platforms. There is still much to be done, but these efforts are laying foundation principles for better accountability.
A growing education sector problem.
One in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria. Ongoing security challenges may even raise these figures up. In Nigeria’s north-eastern zone, over 800 schools have been closed, almost 500 classrooms destroyed, and more than a thousand more classrooms have been damaged.
If these figures continue to rise, if over ten million children remain out of school, uncared for, they may become a security threat to Nigeria in less than a decade.
Social Change actors, while tackling these endemic problems through holistic means such as holding governments accountable, can also work towards discovering intersections where local solutions may be more effective. By balancing the responsibility for local development from being wholly government-driven to now include citizen-driven processes, PPDC is helping to ensure that more power is in the hands of the people.
This is changing the narrative. With the rise of insurgency groups and fake news, a nation of educated people is in itself a form of current and future insurance as well as security. Corruption in the education sector erodes social trust, worsens inequality, and sabotages development. But good education sector systems will continue to play a crucial part in disentangling the dangers caused by corruption, and this is where our focus can go into.
Sherriff Tahiru is a Nigerian researcher & writer based in Brussels, Belgium. He writes about economic development, politics, human rights and social change. He is the founder of W45Inc