When the ban on politics as practiced in democratic societies was lifted in 1978, one of the foremost political parties to be registered was the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN). The party had free and compulsory education as one of its four cardinal programs (Manifesto). In demonstrating the association’s intention to illuminate Nigeria with education, it used a burning candle stick as its logo.
Though the UPN did not win the presidential election that followed in 1979, its chairman and presidential candidate, chief Obafemi Awolowo ensured that the four cardinal programs of his party were religiously implemented as promised. The UPN’s manifesto was thus used in the five states where the party’s candidates emerged as governors. These states included Lagos, Oyo, Ogun, Bendel and Ondo.
Interestingly, all except two of these governors were teachers. The non-teachers among them were Alhaji Lateef Jakande (Lagos) and Chief Bola Ige (Oyo). But even at that, these two states had their deputy governors as teachers. While Dr. Olunloyo, a mathematician was for Oyo State, Rafin Jafojo assisted Jakande in Lagos. Even the UPN leader in the Senate, Rafiu Chief Odebiyi was a teacher.
In the case of Bendel (the present Edo and Delta) State, both the governor and his deputy were teachers. Chief Demas Akpore, a principal at Government College Ughelli was deputy to Professor Ambrose Ali who taught Morbid Anatomy at the University of Benin. Those were the days when teachers held sway in the society.
As soon as these UPN governors were sworn-in, they placed a total ban on the payment of school fees in their states primary and secondary schools. They also provided free text books and writing materials for students and pupils. To absorb the children of secondary school age who were not in school as at October 1, 1979, these governors equally introduced two shifts system to their existing secondary schools in the interim. This was later normalized with the building of more classrooms and recruitment of teachers.
The UPN governors were not only in opposition to the NPN government at the centre, they governed their states at the time the federal revenue was shared to states according to population and the number of local governments. Which means that these were some of the poorest states in Nigeria at the time with the exception of Oyo.
Unlike what we have now, there were no private schools except those owned by the missionaries or commercial schools where typing and shorthand were taught.
To adequately cater for the increased number of students in Bendel State, Professor Ambrose Ali established three Colleges of Education at Warri, Benin and Agbor in addition to the existing one at Abraka and Afuze (mainly for sports). Teacher Training Colleges were also set up in places like Owa-Oyibu for the training of primary school teachers.
The result of government’s accomplishments in education during this era was the “mass production” of teachers beginning from 1982. This crop of trained teachers was equally recruited into the teaching service in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Most of this class of trained teachers is today principals of secondary schools and Head teachers of Primary schools.
Just as they came, these old committed men and women are also presently at the peak of their mandatory thirty-five years permissible public service period. This is the crux of the matter. Are our governments at this various levels adequately prepared to handle the vacuum to be created by the pending mass retirement of teachers and their welfare after service? This question becomes pertinent given current acute shortage of competent teachers in schools and the continued fading away of the dignity of teachers.
The condition of Nigerian teachers has so deteriorated that neither government nor teachers themselves seem to have clues as to what exactly to do to restore glory to the profession.
Apart from their general poor condition of service, those who teach English language and Mathematics are treated as if teaching is a punishment. It is very common to find one mathematics teacher having more than forty teaching periods in one week while those teaching geography rarely have up to ten classes within the same period. And this is mainly due to the fact that schools lack teachers of core subjects like mathematics and English language. These few core subject teachers administer more tests and mark more scripts while earning the same salaries with others.
While it is true that teachers have been relegated to the background socially, politically and economically, the greater danger remains the fact that our nation is endangered without adequate care for teachers. No nation can truly develop without good teachers in good learning environments.
It is appauling to find experienced Nigerian teachers driving commercial motorcycles popularly called Okada after school hours and weekends to make ends meet while their colleagues elsewhere drive official cars provided by government.
The grievous implication of the poverty-induced conduct of men and women of this calling is that the younger generation no longer considers it as a first choice in career development.
The government should therefore embrace the civilized custom of filling existing vacancies in the teaching profession as they arise instead of waiting for a special time of recruitment.
The teachers themselves must understand that they have a role to play in making themselves indispensable in the society. Their trade unions and professional bodies should be able to create codes of conduct that enhance the image of men and women of the profession of all categories of teachers.
On the whole, the only solution to poor governance and underdevelopment of any nation remains the provision of the right education through the efforts of right teachers that the society can look up to as it was in the past. And the only specie of leaders who can guarantee this in Nigeria are those that are themselves educated enough to recognize the thin line of demarcation between knowledge and ignorance. Nigerians owe themselves a duty to identify these fellows and vote accordingly during elections.
BY AUGUSTINE OMILO