Friday, June 20, 2008

A nation of angry teachers

IT used to be said that a teacher's reward is in heaven. Not any more. Nigerian teachers are no longer looking up to the Heavens to help them. They want their reward here and now. No teacher will agree to be deceived with that old wives' tale about how it is more rewarding to suffer on earth in exchange for a life of eternal bliss in a place called Heaven. No one has seen Heaven, and its existence is real only to the religious. And so we find on our hands, at the moment, the rebellion of the Nigerian Union of Teachers, the umbrella body for school teachers in publicly owned primary and secondary schools. On June 13, the teachers ended a three-day warning strike, which resulted in the closure of public schools in many states of the federation, and the suspension of the on-going secondary school, NECO, final year examinations.

The teachers felt obliged to suspend the warning strike because the Federal Government had promised to implement a new and enhanced Teachers Salary Scale (TSS). This is simply a pay rise, negotiated with the Federal Government, and agreed upon since 1991, but which the government in its usual manner had refused to implement. Before June 13, the NUT promised to embark on "the mother of all strikes". Now less than a week later, the teachers are back to the trenches. They have announced a seven-day ultimatum, now extended by another seven days, following the intervention of the Senate Committee on Education. The NUT enjoys the support of the Nigeria Labour Congress, which has vowed to ask all Nigerian workers to support the teachers and shut down the country possibly. A major crisis is in the offing in the education sector. The teachers sound inconsolable.

Why are the teachers still at war with the Federal Government after they had been told that a directive has been given for the payment of TSS and that there is enough money in the budget to take care of this? We confront here an interesting aspect of the Nigerian paradox. The teachers' position is summed up in the following statement attributed to Chief Onem Nelson Onem, the NUT President: "... we say that if you want to pay, that there must be a circular, but there is nowhere salaries are paid by mere use of mouth. But when are you going to pay? Give us the time and give us enabling circular." Nobody, not just the NUT, trusts Nigerian public officials when they make promises or comments on matters of state policy.

A declaration even by the Presidency that a certain course of action will be taken in public interest is immediately thrown into the dust-bin of cynicism by affected stakeholders. The Nigerian government is notorious for not honouring agreements. The NUT is on strike over an agreement that was reached in 1991! In 1996, the same Federal Government had directed that the TSS should be implemented but this was not done. Agreements? Ask the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the umbrella union for university teachers which is also having a running battle with the Federal Government over a long list of issues. In better-organized societies, public officials are regarded as men and women of honour who can make promises and stand by them and who can be held accountable even on the strength of their words of mouth. The NUT is saying clearly that Nigerian officials cannot be trusted.

Its leaders are complaining about the arrogance of the Minister of Education and officials of the Federal Ministry of Education. So they want a circular, a written commitment and directive by the Federal Government. At a meeting with the Federal Minister of Education, the powerful Minister of Education had reportedly told NUT officials that he wished them good luck with their proposed strike. He had reportedly told them also: "I am not bothered". The teachers say: "we are bothered". They should be. Nigerian public officials are poor communicators. They aggravate situations that could otherwise have been handled through careful dialogue. The Federal Minister of Education, Aja Nwachukwu, and his team should be held responsible for provoking NUT members into the present round of intransigence. Dialogue, not arrogance, is what is required.

But the NUT should also not overstate its case. Teachers at the primary and secondary school level, particularly in the public schools are among the worst paid set of workers in Nigeria. Ministries of Education at the state level treat secondary school teachers badly, holding on to their salaries for months; primary school teachers are worse off. School teachers deserve better wages. No doubt about that. They need to be motivated. Certainly. Official talk about the professionalisation of teaching must become concrete in form of the deepening of capacity to ensure more qualitative service delivery. These are serious issues. But the problem with the public school system is not all about the Teachers Salary Scale, as the NUT appears to be making out. By insisting on pay rise and pay rise alone and promising an Iraqi-war like operation in the school system, the protesting NUT members sound as if with more money in their pockets, all the problems in the public school system will disappear.

The NUT, in seeking public sympathy for its cause, should broaden and refine its message. What does the NUT think about the state of the schools? What is the NUT saying about the classrooms that are collapsing, and the non-availability of teaching materials including chalk and duster? Public schools have gone so bad in all parts of the country, even the teachers in those schools send their children to private schools. Once upon a time in this country, headmasters and principals had their own children on the pupils' enrolment list in the same schools where they worked. But today, both the teachers and the rest of society are avoiding public schools which have become training grounds for future miscreants and criminals. The nature of the tragedy was illustrated the other year, when a group of primary school pupils murdered their teacher for daring to reprimand a student who was cheating in the examination hall. The children accused her of desecrating a Holy Book and they descended on her until she lay dead.

Other teachers and the school Principal were helpless. What is the NUT saying about this tragic situation, whereby school pupils, barely out of their diapers have already tasted human blood, right on the hallowed grounds of a school? The NUT's voice must be heard on this and other issues relating to standards. UNESCO and the Federal Ministry of Education reckon that over 11 million Nigerian children of school age are out of school. Nigeria is far behind in meeting the medium-term Millennium Development Goals on access to education for all. At this rate, by the year 2020, Nigeria would still be facing a serious crisis in the education sector. There is a growing skills deficit in the country, a reflection of the creeping reduction in the quality of human capital and national competitiveness; the long-term effect is that Nigeria cannot be counted among the world's best 20 economies in 2020, with such a national manpower crisis. What does the NUT think? Even when its members get more money; this challenge will remain and the teachers who want heaven, here and now, must be willing to play their part.

The education bureaucracy in the public sector is organized for failure, and former Minister for Education, Oby Ezekwesili had drawn attention to this through the reform programme that was initiated during her tenure but the bureaucrats resisted the reform, and diluted the message, and promoted the more controversial aspects of the reform agenda. A reform in the nature of a state of emergency is long overdue in Nigeria's education system. NUT is complaining rightly about the arrogance of government officials. To be added to this, as footnote, however, is the seeming lack of commitment on the part of public school teachers particularly the state level. It is still possible to come across some diligent teachers within the system mostly in the model and unity schools, but generally, in many of the public primary and secondary schools, a combination of angst and frustration has driven the teachers into the habit of indifference. They arrive late, they leave early, they leave the children to their own devices. There are school teachers, struggling to make ends meet, who spend more time, running a business on the side: those who are not running a barbing salon or a pepper soup joint, operate okada or kabukabu in the evening hours. No time to prepare school lessons. Many of the teachers are unhappy with the job because they'd rather be an oil company employee, or a bank executive.

The monetisation of the Nigerian value system has destroyed the dignity of labour. Professionalism is measured only in terms of the size of the pay packet. The teachers of old, in this same country were happy to be seen to be contributing to the future of the country by helping to mould lives; today, teachers are angry with a country that demands so much, and offers little in return. Ironically, an enhanced teachers salary scale may provide fresh motivation, but it does not guarantee better performance. Making the public school system more functional, more performance-oriented will require a review of the national education philosophy, a restructuring of the curriculum and a re-definition of national manpower goals.

Further, it is not exactly clear who the target of the NUT's anger is? The NUT is heaping all blame on the Federal Government, and in so doing, it is openly side-stepping the principle of federalism. Teachers who work in state-owned schools should direct their grievances to the states. Education is on the concurrent list. But the NUT is insisting on making a good case, the bad way by arguing that its agreement with the Federal Government should be binding on the states. The body wants the Federal Government to issue a circular compelling the states to pay the new Teachers Salary Scale. The error in this logic had been pointed out before now to the NUT and its allies, but they continue to push a position that belongs to a unitary system of government. They are only being clever by half, knowing that in the present structure of education funding, the Federal Government has already by itself taken on states' responsibilities, even if this has not been backed with performance.

The NUT was led in its early years by nationalists, by men and women who wanted better welfare for teachers but who were also very strong advocates for national progress. The present crop of NUT leaders should not give the impression that they will adopt any strategy at all, fair or foul, just because they are dealing with state officials who cannot be trusted to play fair. NUT leaders have said for example that they will mobilize teachers in private schools to join the NUT strike whenever it is declared. Where is the connection? Owners of private schools are not duty bound to pay exactly the same rates as government.

The loser in all of this is Nigeria. The public school system is bad enough as it is, further disruptions within it can only worsen the situation. Government must show a keener interest in the public education system. A scrappy public education system robs the average citizen of the right to education, and significantly of access to opportunities for self-advancement. Nursery, primary and secondary school education provide the foundation for the country's manpower creation process. Its violation imperils the nation. The Federal Government must re-open dialogue with the Nigerian Union of Teachers and the states, currently playing possum in the matter, must show interest.