The first inkling many had that Maiduguri was going agog was the realization that flights were fully booked throughout last week on the two airlines that went in and out of the city daily. The more curious would have found out that Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, was heading to Maiduguri to spend the whole of Thursday commissioning projects. It would be an unusual period to embark on such exercise, as the political campaigns are over and I presume there were no more political points to chalk up. But then one could hazard a guess that it was more a matter of style by the Governor, Kashim Shettima, to single out those efforts that were close to his heart, the Mega Schools and the Industrial hub in particular, to showcase them to the President and the country at large.
I was fortunate to be on the packed Tuesday flight on Max Air on Tuesday and got in to Maiduguri in time to observe the preparations leading up to the Presidential visit. Readers of this page would recall that I had written quite a number of times on the Mega public schools now coming up in Borno State, because I regard them as unique in Nigeria’s context where we glorify private schools that are exclusive to the other strata of the society whom we all know are in the majority. Many of us in leadership positions now were nurtured in those well-run public schools of the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
It is indeed sad that in most parts of the country, the conditions in public schools have deteriorated to such an extent that they are almost wholly patronised only by the children of the most deprived in the community. The infrastructure in these schools are deplorable and they lack adequate funds to attract good teachers and modern teaching materials. Students pass out of these school half-baked and would not be good material for the institutions of higher learning and the employment market as well. The result is that a large number of those who pass out of these schools become redundant, many become miscreants that could easily be recruited into crimes and other antisocial activities.
Now, here was a new approach as conceived by Governor Kashim Shettima – using public funds to set up well-built schools, comparative to the best private schools in the country, equipping them with some of the latest teaching equipment, recruiting the best available teachers and setting them apart in many ways so as to become beacons in the educational sector. The schools would even have an independent power source, solar panels, supported by inverters. A further attraction is that the schools would have boarding facilities and will also not charge any fees, tuition or otherwise. The interesting thing about these schools is that there is a deliberate effort to select mostly females from poor families plus orphans particularly those who lost parents to the heinous activities of the hated Boko Haram insurgents. The selection into the schools was entrusted in the hands of public spirited, prominent citizens of the state that have a reputation of being not easily compromised.
But these school are not just a token, one or two glorified structures for the unsuspecting visitor to marvel. They are many – over 40 in number and will take between 1200 to 2400 students at full stream, and they were constructed in all the local government areas of the state. It is only in 4 or 5 local governments out of the 27 in the state that construction of the Mega schools is yet to begin. And this is due to the fact that these local governments are yet to be completely secure. In fact, in Maiduguri and the adjacent Jere metropolitan areas where the schools debuted, there are over ten in number and are clearly ubiquitous.
The next day, Wednesday, was a busy one as I was in the midst of the planning committee members who were conducting final checks on all the Mega schools to be commissioned. At a stage in the evening we caught up with the Governor who was doing his own checks on the Mega schools. We met him at the one situated on the Bye-pass. I was at his heels some of the time when he was looking over some of the nitty-gritties in the classrooms and hostels. After the Magrib prayers the Governor had chairs drawn up in one of the classrooms where we chatted on the future of the Mega schools. He was clearly in a buoyant mood seeing the culmination of his efforts and investments, at last within view of realization.
He talked a great deal on the deplorable state of education in the far-northern states and why their governments must make a quantum effort to step up investments in the sector. This is needed even far more in the north-east where the statistics of out of school children is one of highest in the world. It is even worst in Borno State that had been ravaged by Boko Haram insurgents who particularly targeted schools to inflict their worst atrocities. He therefore had no doubts that he was on the right track making such a humongous intervention in the education sector and also deliberately skewing the admission into the schools to the children of the poor and the deprived. This is because, as he explained, 100% of those out of school statistics is made up by the children of the poor and the deprived. They are the ones in IDP camps and the ones running around in the streets.
It was uplifting to hear him speak, particularly when he clearly expresses such genuine concern in his voice. But I had a nagging feeling that public schools have been failing spectacularly over the years, because many governments in the country have refused to sustain the level of funding to keep them afloat. Probably that’s why many are sceptical about the capacity of governments to run public schools. He must be aware of such widespread scepticism and I did not hesitate to raise such fears with the Governor, but he quickly doused them. He told me that they have learnt valuable lessons from yesterday’s failures and will now put in place institutions that will have independent sources of funds to run the schools in a seamless manner. And he is adamant that we must make our public institutions work efficiently if we are to make any progress in this country. He is confident that with the level of involvement by the community leaders in the implementation of the project and the commitment of the next Governor, Professor, Babagana Umara Zulum to the whole endeavour the destiny of the Mega schools is assured.
Thursday was routine. It came to pass as expected, despite some fake news in the social media that the President had skipped Maiduguri and had gone straight to London. The President’s plane touched at the Maiduguri Air force base as detailed and after the usual ceremonies, went ahead to the Industrial base at Jimtilo, a short distance away. Reports say that he was amazed at the range of industries, 16 in number and the 5.3ha farm under retractable roof that is actually the hub. Many of the industries, such as the solar panels and the PVC are said to be the largest in the country. He came straight to the Ngomari Mega school, named after an illustrious son of the state, Baba Gana Kingibe. From a distance I could see the President throwing banters at a very pleased Kingibe. After commissioning the school, he took time to go round one or two of the classes to see the equipment and facilities provided. He would leave and go ahead to commission other schools, a 246 apartment housing complex, a radio diagnostic complex and a township road.