Atiku: How Nigeria is failing its youths

Atiku Abubakar at the Baze University on Friday

Atiku Abubakar at Baze University

Being Commencement Remarks at the Baze University Graduation Ceremony
By Atiku Abubakar, Waziri Adamawa, Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999–2007)

When I was young, anytime I came back from primary school, I used to take my neighbour’s cattle to the bush for rearing in exchange for grains that I give to my grandparents to feed the house. I was a schoolboy and a herdsboy, and I fed my family.

When I was 11 years old my father got drowned and died while crossing a river in the neighbourhood. He was not up to 40 years of age before he died. Being the only child, I was raised by my maternal grandparents. I remember, sometimes we could barely afford one meal in a day.

Despite my difficult background, I went to school for free, in fact, I was paid to go to school. Initially, my father did not buy the idea of me going to school, for which he had to go to jail. I furthered my education to other tertiary institutions. I was the Students Union President at the school of Hygiene, Kano.

My journey to education is different from yours. Your parents may have paid tuition fees for your education, but you did not have to rear cattle for food. However, both you and I got educated eventually. The paths may be different, nonetheless, the destination remains the same. Let us help others to reach the destination too.

The moral lesson of my story is that with the right leadership, even a poor child like me could be educated and become anything he/she wants.

Without education, I may not be what I am today. If I were to be born today, with the same background that I had in 1946, I may not have gotten the education I have today.

The calamity of our situation is that there are many more “Atikus” out there, yearning for opportunities to blossom through a decent public education. That is why I am fully committed to advocacy for and investment in education so that the inability to pay should not preclude any Nigerian child from realizing his/her full potentials. I built a variety of schools at all levels; I even converted an area in my hometown into an educational community with many schools in one location. I give scholarships to children who are growing up like the way I grew up so that they too can realize their dreams of meaningful and prosperous lives.

Dear Graduands, your success, your education, is not only for you alone, but it is also your ladder to help lift others up. I want to challenge you to help others achieve their dreams too. True success lies in helping others.

As we participate in this wonderful commencement today, I would like to congratulate all the new degree holders and their families. I congratulate them not only for their individual achievements — which are many — but also for their new abilities to contribute to our society. For an education is not only an individual achievement. An education is a social one, an achievement for the whole society. Education improves a society, it improves Nigeria. Your education has the potential, if used wisely, to help us all. Your education matters.

How does education improve a society?
Education, knowledge, is the foundation of any society. In our globalized and technological world, national wealth is more and more based on knowledge, on innovation and on entrepreneurship. It is education that makes these possible. And especially for a country like Nigeria, that education must be available to girls as well as to boys.

The evidence is clear: Societies are transformed when girls and women are educated. We see this all over the world. When women are educated, families are smaller and healthier. When women are educated, more children go to school. Let me repeat that very important fact. More children go to school when women are educated. Infant and child mortality is reduced.

National economic growth increases, and corruption is reduced. All this from educating women, and from educating men too, of course. From getting the sort of education we are celebrating here today.

But education contributes in even more ways than improving health and prosperity. A study by UNESCO found that educated people are “more likely to participate in the democratic process and exercise their civil right.”

The Brookings Institution in the U.S. discovered that increasing secondary school enrolment from 30–80% reduces the probability of civil war by almost two-thirds. So, where you have a better educated population, you are more likely to see democracy thrive. Our Nigerian democracy. So clearly, I am talking about education at all levels, the education of very small children to the adult university degree holders I see before me here today. It all matters.

UNESCO reports that here in Nigeria we have more children out of school than in any other country in the world. We top the list. One out of every five children who are out of school in the entire world live here, live right here in Nigeria.

High quality early childhood education may be one of the most important educational investments a society can make. And one of the most important economic ones, too. Why is this? Rapid brain development occurs early in life. Brain research shows that good quality early childhood education, supplemented by quality nutrition, is essential to better health, and to improved educational outcomes that last a whole lifetime.

The Center for Disease Control in the US has found that early childhood education is an important contributor to better health in children, and that health in turn provides a foundation for children’s academic success, health, and general well-being. It even acts as a protective factor against the future onset of adult disease and disability. Everyone in a society benefits from the widespread availability of a quality education, from infancy to adulthood.

Well then, how does Nigeria fare at this challenging time? How does Nigeria measure up? How are we doing? Not very well, it seems. It pains me to share this information with you. The most striking thing for which Nigeria has become known all over the world has been captured in a BBC headline: Nigeria’s Kidnapped Children. There are even whole websites now devoted to the latest kidnapping news in Nigeria. Our country.

And what has been our response to this horrible situation? Some say we cannot protect these most vulnerable of our citizens. Our very own children. No, they say. We can’t protect them in Nigeria’s schools. So, we should just close the schools and send them all home.

Who cares if they are educated or not? Just send them home. What would we do if our airports were threatened? What would we say to the airlines? Would we say, “Our airports are threatened. We are closing our airports. Do not fly your planes to Nigeria.” No! Of course not. If our ports were threatened, would we turn back the ships? Yet when schools are threatened, we don’t do everything in our power to defend them. Instead, we close them and send the children home.

Here is the terrible truth: we are failing our youth in Nigeria. And it goes far beyond the kidnapping.

UNESCO reports that here in Nigeria we have more children out of school than in any other country in the world. We top the list. One out of every five children who are out of school in the entire world live here, live right here in Nigeria. What kind of lives will they have as illiterates, our young people with no ability to read or to write, with no ability to add and subtract? What skills will our young people have to earn a living in the modern world? This is 2021, not 1821. What are we doing to prepare them for the world of computers and the Internet, all these illiterate little children?

Nigeria does not have enough well-trained teachers. We do not have modern schools. In many places we have no schools at all. No desks. And no books. Our children, our Nigerian children, do not have access to the world’s knowledge that is right there at their fingertips on the Internet.

Worse still, girls and women in Nigeria lag even farther behind in education, father behind in health, in political participation, and in the labor force. Currently, the male illiteracy rate in Nigeria is 29%. But female illiteracy is 48%! Both of these figures are alarming.

And all of these challenges are doubling every 21 years. What do I mean by that?

Nigeria has one of the fastest growing populations in the world. Our total population is doubling every 21 years. Doubling. In just 21 years there will be twice as many Nigerians as there are today.

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And in the face of this population growth, right now, not 21 years from now, right now we have some of the worst educational indicators in the world. And in the face of this educational disaster, last year national spending on education in Nigeria actually fell to its lowest point in a decade. Population is doubling. Education spending is declining. It’s almost unimaginable.

So, my friends, Nigeria is at a critical moment in our history. Whether our growing population will be educated or illiterate, whether they will be employed or permanently out of work, at peace or at war with one another, all this will depend on what happens right now and in the next few years.

But while the situation seems dire, there are solutions. There are solutions that we need to implement immediately.

What is to be done?
There are at least three priorities which must guide us in addressing this educational crisis;

First, we must make education a national priority, which means not only far better funding, but also holding ourselves accountable. It is about results, not just about spending more money.

Second, we must dedicate ourselves to a better use of technology, to increasing access for all to cutting edge educational technology and using it effectively to improve performance at all levels of education in Nigeria.

And third, we must put a priority on educating girls and women, an absolutely crucial component of social, economic, and political development.

So, what should we do? Clearly, we must fund more schools. But what kind of schools?

Schools with unprepared teachers, with no books, no restrooms, no modern technology? No, we must re-imagine and then build schools for this 21st century. Schools that are connected to the world’s knowledge. Schools connected to all the knowledge now on the internet. How do we do this?

Despite our almost overwhelming challenges in education, a nationwide program focused on digital technologies and education really could ensure that all of our children are educated — and quickly, so we do not lose another generation. This is not just a fantasy. I know this is possible.
I know because I have seen it work in person. The university I founded, the American University of Nigeria, developed and implemented digitally based educational programs for young schoolchildren during the height of the Boko Haram crisis. Here’s what happened.

Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people had fled from the north to the relative safety of Yola. Of course, local Yola schools couldn’t accommodate them. So AUN launched a public education project, Project TELA — Technology Enhanced Learning for All — with funding from the US government.

TELA engaged the whole community in an effort to improve reading and math for the thousands of displaced students. So, students, faculty, and staff at AUN first created digital and radio-based lessons and stories in the local language.

Then people from the community were trained as volunteer facilitators and assigned learning centers and groups of “students” to supervise.

The radio broadcasts began, and mobile classrooms were visited by volunteers, volunteers who were critically important in improving reading and math scores.

Radios plus a few laptop computers plus volunteers. The results were remarkable: we achieved basic widespread literacy and numeracy more rapidly than anyone had expected. Rapidly and inexpensively. Attitudes toward learning and education improved. It was a huge community effort and it worked.

This program helped to educate more than 20,000 students in the area. Imagine this happening in every community in Nigeria where there is a university that could duplicate these efforts. And the added bonus is that University students and faculty themselves develop critical technology skills as they build sustainable and educated communities.

Distance, digital teaching and learning works. During the pandemic, we learned that those who had access to the Internet and learning technologies could keep on learning. But once again, the poor, and especially girls, did not have this access. They fell further behind.

Here is what a national digital strategy must include:
Development of both digital — especially mobile — and radio-based learning platforms. This can and should happen in institutions of higher learning.

Reorienting National Service so that all participants are focusing on e-learning. This would not only help educate our children but give our youth the technology education they themselves will need to be successful.
But how could this be possible? Surprisingly, the basics are already in place.

It is true that currently only about half of Nigeria’s population has access to the Internet. But a surprising 90% have access to mobile devices. In addition, almost the entire population has access to radio: using radio is how most Nigerians get their news.

So, imagine a Nigeria where every phone had free mobile learning apps, where every radio station had hours set aside for learning programs, and Internet access was available for all — in urban as well as rural areas.

A national strategy focused on digital education would allow us to rapidly advance as a country. Digital content — developed at universities like this one — could be distributed across multiple delivery channels leveraging all available technologies — print, radio, TV, mobile, and on-line, to ensure that students are engaged and learning.

Teachers also must be trained to use new technologies to engage students in learning. Teacher support and training on use of remote learning technologies and adaptations to pedagogy are essential.

The international community is spending millions of dollars helping us to improve education in Nigeria, and of course we are appreciative. But as a society, we must do far more to appreciate and fund education ourselves.

Digital technologies hold the promise of expanding and improving education.

We have seen that it can, that it does, work. These technologies give Nigeria the means to become a prosperous, more equitable and a more democratic nation, one that we can all be proud of. It is the job of all of us to see that it happens.

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