12 May 2015

Out-Of-School Children: A Scar On The Conscience Of All Nigerians - by Debbie Ariyo

The Boko Haram insurgency has had one major impact on Nigerian children – the near decimation of the education system in the North-East thereby worsening the phenomenon of out-of-school children. But even before the rise of Boko Haram, Nigeria has always had the unenviable position as the country with the highest rate of children out of school in the world. The Boko Haram insurgency has only made the problem worse. Many schools have closed down out of fear of being attacked – indeed, many schools have been attacked with children killed, maimed – even abducted as in the case of the over 200 girls taken from their school in Chibok in April 2014.

Looking at the figures quoted in the 2012 UNICEF Report on out-of-school children in Nigeria (produced as part of the global strategy to have all children in school by 2015), one cannot but be despondent. With an estimated 10 million children out of school, these are not figures one would expect to see in a country like Nigeria with abundant resources and a succession of governments that should really be concerned about this matter and therefore, keen to address it.

But so far, there has been very little political will to address the issue of out-of-school children in the country. In particular, this UNICEF report highlights the depressing North and South divide in education provision in Nigeria. The proportion of children not in school in the North, even making allowances for Boko Haram disturbances, is extremely alarming. For example, Kebbi State has 633,498 children of school age but 69 per cent or 437,963 are not in school. Zamfara State has 633,545 school age children – but 482,739 or 76 per cent are out of school. In fact, as of 2012 when the report was compiled, Zamfara State had the highest number of children out of school in the whole of Nigeria.

But this phenomenon is not limited to the North, even if the situation is a lot worse there. Down South in Oyo State, 20 per cent of the children do not go to school – that is 185,544 children – the highest in the South. States like Anambra and Imo in the South-East and Ogun and Lagos in the South-West have relatively low rates of out-of-school children. Ekiti State has the lowest number of children out of school in the country. However, on aggregate, the North-East has the highest rate of children out of school and the South-West, the lowest rate of out-of-school children.

We know there are many factors that contribute to this phenomenon. The issue of early marriage in the North is one which needs to be tackled head-on, with bold and aggressive policy implementation and legislation if we are to see any drop in the number of girls out of school in that part of the country. So far, successive governments have been very weak and docile in addressing this issue by pandering to religious bigots; yet, we are only delaying the inevitable. It is irrational for any government to be comfortable with the anomaly of early marriage especially one that prides itself as the largest economy in Africa.

Much has been written about the Almajiri syndrome, the link with child poverty and the opportunity provided terrorist groups like Boko Haram to recruit its mass number of fighters from this mass of street children. It has to be said that the government of Goodluck Jonathan attempted to tackle this issue by setting up a number of special Almajiri schools. However, in my view, what was required was a multi-thronged approach to take on the Almajiri phenomenon head-on.

There are many recommendations in the UNICEF report for the government to implement in order to address the issue of out-of-school children. However, as far as I know, very little has so far been done – meaning the global effort to have all children in school by this year, 2015, remains very much a mirage in Nigeria. This is a sad reality, because even without the global initiative, Nigeria should be capable of pushing for a strong education sector in which all its children would have an opportunity to grow and develop, build their knowledge and skills.

This is one of the reasons I am fascinated by the ongoing Elementary School Feeding Programme in Osun State. Of course, this is a revamped programme based on a Federal Government pilot project but kudos must be given to the government of Osun for not only continuing the programme, but for ensuring thousands of children continue to benefit. The government claims that it feeds over 245,000 children each day in all its elementary schools. It says that it has achieved a 25 per cent increase in school enrolment as a result. While of course there has not been an independent programme evaluation done to assess its true impact, it is certain that the project would have had some benefits which can be reassessed and replicated in other states.

The incoming government of Muhammadu Buhari must prioritise education and aim to reverse the number of out-of-school children by the end of its four years in power. It must do so by revisiting some of the recommendations in the UNICEF report, and work hard at raising enrolment level by introducing a phased-in version of the school feeding programme, prioritising states with the most need. In addition, rebuilding the education infrastructure in the North-East destroyed by Boko Haram should be a priority. With an estimated 10 million children out of school in the country, it is high time something concrete was done to address this scar on the conscience of every well-meaning Nigerian and save future generations from perdition.

- Ms Ariyo, OBE, is Chief Executive of AFRUCA UK, an organisation promoting the rights and welfare of African children (www.afruca.org), and a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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