Powerful proprietors behind early school resumption — NUT President

The National President of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, Mr. Michael Olukoya, in this interview with TOBI AWORINDE, talks about the union’s opposition of the September 22 resumption date for primary and secondary schools across the country, as declared by the Federal Government, and other issues

Why is the Nigerian Union of Teachers opposed to the September 22 resumption date declared by the Federal Government?

Our government is trying to act more in the interest of economic benefits, rather than to save the lives of the future leaders of this great country. Ebola is an epidemic, for which, up till today, no proven cure has been found. In that instance, I think we should not be in a hurry to open schools. The NUT disagrees with the decision to resume on September 22

Our disagreement is premised on the fact that: One, we were not carried along as a principal stakeholder in the education sector. Two, we wrote the current Minister of Education (Ibrahim Shekarau) to seek his audience on this matter, but up till today, we have (allegedly) not been
given audience nor has our letter been replied. Three, we have a responsibility to protect the lives of our members.

With these, among others, we should learn from what is happening in Liberia. Here, we are rushing back to school; in Liberia, where the effect of the virus is of greater proportion, are they thinking of going to school right now? Under a good government, the leaders should be convinced beyond reasonable doubt and we should be able to tell, based on scientific evidence, that every local government and state is free of the Ebola scourge. We need a testimonial from the last known afflicted person or somebody who might have carried out surveillance duties.

Some argue that schools should resume, as the situation in Liberia and other seriously affected West African countries should not be compared with Nigeria because the crisis is believed to be better handled here. Do you agree?

It is not true. How many of us have gone to Guinea or Liberia, especially now that we have this scourge? Let’s not begin to make mockery where none exists. We have the responsibility of ensuring that we are free of Ebola before we go back to school. All these arguments about Liberia and others do not concern us. The Liberian government will protect the lives of Liberians. Likewise, the government of Nigeria should protect the lives of Nigerians.

What measures should the Federal Government put in place to ensure the safety of pupils and teachers?

I expect that our government should be exclusively convinced that every state and local government is Ebola-free before calling for resumption of schools. Even after finding that states and local governments are free of Ebola, they should allow even more days to take stock and ensure there is no report of anything like Ebola. Only then should schools be asked to resume. At least, we should be sure that everything has been put in place.

That aside, government has a responsibility to ensure that all our health officers are posted to schools to train the teachers. They should put the facilities—the screening machines—in place and teach the teachers how to use and enforce them; and enlighten them about hygienic measures—about the importance of washing hands with soap and the use of sanitisers. How many of these are in place at the moment?

I think we have it as a duty to ensure that everything necessary is done before we say we are rushing back to school. For instance, we read in the papers that a one-year-old showed symptoms of the Ebola virus. That child has now been taken from Rivers State to Lagos State. Through a secondary or primary contact, who knows what could have been done to innocent Nigerians? Permit me to commend the Lagos and Kaduna state governments. In the news on Wednesday, Kaduna released some money to buy Ebola equipment in schools to be used by teachers and about 13,000 teachers were trained by the state government. These are the things we expect the Federal Government to put in place before we begin to ask our children to return to school.

Some people want to plunge this country into avoidable problems through carelessness because of the love of money, such as the powerful school proprietors and proprietresses, who are all out to make money before Sallah. We owe it to ourselves to work together and collaborate. It is not anybody’s wish that we should have this type of challenge. But then, it has come; we have to manage it effectively. It is on that account that we have given government the necessary support but they do not seem to see things from our perspective.

Consequently, we will meet on Tuesday at 9 o’clock in Abuja to review this. Today, I read that the House of Representatives Committee on Education is trying to reason along with the yearnings of Nigerians. But it seems as if the government is given to playing politics of
insincerity; they are saying nothing is happening. Is that what they will continue to say—to deny something that is glaringly true? This is the reason for our meeting on Tuesday; we will decide for the Nigerian pupils and teachers because we have a responsibility to protect our lives.

With the recent suspected case in the Obafemi Awolowo University, is itnot necessary that tertiary institutions be shut too?

For now, tertiary schools may remain opened. One, the degree of immunityin children is low, when you compare it with that of adults. The doctorswill speak more on that. The children are more prone to all these healthrisks. The adults in the university can control themselves. They canwash their hands and so on. All these safety rules could be easilyapplied in their case. As a result of indiscriminate love they have forone another, the younger ones may be exposed to someone afflicted withthe disease and they would not mind because they do so many things together. But the rest of us are old enough, so we know what ishappening and how to avoid infection.

What is your take on the arguments, especially by private schoolproprietors, that continued closure of schools would affect the academiccalendar?

That is where I still blame the government of this country. How many ofour proprietors and proprietresses are professional educators? Anycurriculum is capable of being implemented if you are a professionaldoing the job. Let us save our lives first and then life will continue.

There are many ways of making up for lost time, if only one knows whatone is doing. For me, I will not want people to be driven by economicbenefits at the risk of people’s lives.

What prospective date are you then recommending that the FederalGovernment fix for resumption?

For now, bearing all logistics, I will say October 13 should be strictlyadhered to. Even with this October 13 resumption date, we should not goto sleep. We should beckon on all our governments to put the safetymeasures in place—provision of sanitisers and screening machines, training of teachers, more robust sensitisation in the media, and so on.

All these must be adequately provided before that October 13 resumption date. But these ought to have been planned for even before Nigeria’s first case of Ebola…

That is Nigeria for you. Your guess is as good as mine.

What is the role of the NUT in the sensitisation exercise, while the schools remain shut?

The NUT, like I told you earlier, is not only for Aluta; we are aprofessional organisation. We are ever ready to collaborate with the three tiers of government to ensure that the lives of our people are protected, as far as the control of this scourge is concerned. We are ready, if invited, to make available our members. We shall equally partner with anybody willing to contribute in fighting this problem we are faced with. We have invited a consultant to our meeting on Tuesday to provide us with a one-day sensitisation programme on what is required
to curtail the Ebola scourge.

What is the latest on the over 200 primary school teachers in Benue who died during the nine-month strike in the state?

It was mentioned during our meeting last Wednesday in Abuja. We have not taken a decision. It has being pencilled for discussion in our meeting on Tuesday.

Is the NUT still pushing for the rescue of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls?

We must. That’s our responsibility. We have suffered too much from all the challenges we have in this country today. It is over 150 days since our girls in Chibok were abducted. They still live in anguish. Nothing is being done to rescue these girls. We are pleading with the government
to intensify efforts to ensure that these girls are released and reunited with their parents.

How does the NUT plan to keep the subject of the girls’ rescue on the front burner, amid electioneering ahead of the 2015 elections?

When we get to that bridge, the idea for crossing will come up. Don’t worry. We are also taking note of all those things that our leaders have not done. Immediately they begin to rear their heads, we will confront them squarely.

As a delegate to the just-concluded national conference, what are the recommendations you found commendable?

I must say that if I am asked today to name the greatest achievement that the government of President Goodluck Jonathan has recorded, I will tell you that it is the national conference. All the decisions at the conference, if faithfully implemented, will transform Nigeria into another United States of America. If he has the political will to implement all those things that the national conference recommended, I assure you, the sky is the limit for this country, now and in the future.

So what are some of the high points of the conference, in your view?

They are many: The resolutions on security, land reforms, education, labour and many others. Apart from some people who tried to smuggle in some things that are anti-Nigerian, which were quickly rebuffed, decisions were taken based on a majority of 70 per cent. You know what
that means; for the first time, people discussed as compatriots, whether it was regarding creation of states, devolution of powers, or any other recommendation. We had about 20 committees and it was as if they went into the archives to address the challenges that Nigerians are facing.

Each committee did a marvellous job. My concern is that the government, at whatever level, should go ahead and implement the recommendations to the letter.

I served as a member on the Committee on Transportation. Consider Ajaokuta in Kogi State, for instance. Ajaokuta started many years back, during the government of Shehu Shagari. Shagari was the President of this country from 1979 to 1983. He pumped money into that establishment.

That place alone can create over 10,000 jobs, but what is happening to it? It was seriously scrutinised at the conference and we resolved that the people, along with the government of this country, should declare a state of emergency in the transportation sector. In essence, if all the

recommendations of the conference are implemented, Nigerians in the Diaspora, who in fact participated in the conference, would come back home and begin to beat their chests that they are fulfilled Nigerians.

Was there any recommendation that you were not particularly keen on?

The one I will mention is the recommendation that local governments should control primary education. The present-day local government, no matter the amount of its resources, can never bring about positive change in primary education. But the conferees did not see it that way.

They said all over the world, it was done differently, so it was asterisked. State creation is necessary, but at the same time, it must not be too many to the extent that they cannot be regulated. It should be regulated so that it does not encourage laziness.

What happens today is that many state governments come to Abuja at the end of the month to collect allocations, instead of looking inward and encouraging internally generated revenues that are robust. When you begin to see it from that angle, you will understand the factors that
should be considered when it comes to state creation in Nigeria. If we are creating new states, we should be thinking of how they will survive.

One of the criticisms against creation of more states is that it will lead to unnecessary consumption of more public funds. Do you agree?

At every point in time, people are entitled to their opinion. For me, the majority has the voice. There is nothing one will do to escape being criticised. But as far as I am concerned, even the states that we have now are too many. That is my opinion and I may be wrong. It is encouraging laziness, insensitivity, wastage and what have you. That is why we advise that it is important to be cautious in the area of state creation. If you want to create more states, ensure that they have the economic capacity to survive without the ‘cap-in-hand syndrome.’

In what way will the issue of state creation likely affect the affairs of teachers?

There is no way we could be adversely affected. As long as Nigeria remains the same, if you make Nigeria one state or one thousand states, and if every (state) government will be responsible and visionary, I see no way in which we, as teachers, will be adversely affected.

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