By Suyi Ayodele
“…I do not stand here as the man who gave your land to the people of Idanre. I stand here as your servant, the servant of all children of Oduduwa in Nigeria. What we have planned is for the good of your children and therefore your own good too. Education is the only way in which we can make progress in the new world. It is this education that my government promises to give your children, free of charge to all of you. I want you all to go and register your children who are over the age of six for this opportunity. Don’t let anyone deceive you, it is not a trick to cheat you. It is for the good of your children,” Chief Obafemi Awolowo declared and waited for a response.
The dateline was 1950. The venue was the palace of the Deji of Akure. The reigning Deji of Akure then was His majesty, Oba Afunbiowo Adesida. The account of this event states that the Deji “was brought, carried to the throne, frail and weak” to receive Chief Awolowo and his entourage. The then Premier of the Western Region was in Akure to mobilise the people for the Free Primary Education Policy of his government.
Awolowo was not a friend of the Akure people. Or better still, until that fateful day, an average Akure indigene regarded Awolowo as the enemy of Akure Kingdom. The sage did not kill any Akure man. His ‘crime’ was that some years back, as a lawyer, Awolowo represented Idanre, a neighbouring town in a land dispute with the people of Akure. Awolowo won the case for Idanre, and he became the ‘enemy’ number one of Akure kingdom. That itself is understandable. A kii ti Kootu de se ore (we don’t return from litigation to be become friends) is an axiom that gains ground till date, among the Yoruba people. So, Awolowo, knew that he would require more than the wisdom of Solomon to convince the Deji of Akure to buy into the free primary education policy. The Obas of that golden era owned the land and the people. If the Deji said yes to the policy, the entire Akure kingdom would say yes. And if he had a different view, that would be the end of the policy. Awo and his team knew this and so, they waited patiently to hear what the Deji would say.
And Oba Afunbiowo (He that is clean as money) Adesida did not disappoint. Responding, the number one traditional ruler told the visiting team that with his age and experience, “nothing is free.” He asked to know what he, and his subjects would pay to have the “free” education for their children. The answer that came from the Awolowo team jolted the Oba. “Just 10 Shillings”, they told the Deji. Kabiyesi must have laughed in his heart. ‘These guys surely don’t know what they are saying’, he must have told himself. He was the Kabiyesi. He was old. He had harem. He had children that tradition and norm forbid to be numbered. And here he was in his palace, and someone was saying with just 10 shillings all his children would go to school free of charge. Kabiyesi told Awolowo what was running in his (Deji’s) mind and the man with the double zero spectacles sprang up and answered His Majesty thus: “All Kabiyesi has to pay for all his children is 10 Shillings and all of them will go to school free of charge”. Deal! The response of Oba Afunbiowo Adesida sent the crowd into wild jubilation. “The people of Akure and districts accept the free primary education”, the Oba said, and ordered town criers to go to work immediately to announce the good tidings (See Kole Omotoso’s “Just Before Dawn”, pages 194-195).
This happened 68 years ago. An average governor in the six states of the geo-political zone known as South-West was not yet born in that period. So, they are all beneficiaries of that policy. My late father, while recalling the feats achieved by the 1955 free primary education policy of Awolowo, told me on several occasions, that the Ayedun people of the then Egbeoba in the now Ikole Local Government Area of Ekiti State, took immediate advantage of the programme and recalled their children, who were already making 100 heaps of yam a day, and enrolled them in Awolowo’s schools. A check of the history of that locality showed that there were far older educated persons from Ayedun axis than any other town in that environment. By the beginning of the Second Republic (1979-1983), Chief Awolowo took the policy to a higher notch with his Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) policy of free and qualitative education up to secondary school level. I was a beneficiary of that policy till 1983, when general Muhammadu Buhari truncated that Republic through his December 31, 1983, coup d’état and introduced N20 school fees, which he backdated to September 1983. Even as I penned this piece, I could picture a few of my school mates who dropped out because their parents could not afford to pay the N40 fee (first and second term) imposed on them by the cold-hearted military government of General Buhari. Governor Abiodun Oyebanji of Ekiti State is also a beneficiary of the UPN’s free education. He knows what it is for parents with a sizable number of children to train the children in schools. He equally knows, as an Ekiti man, that in Ekiti State, what comes first is education. The question agitating my mind is: what is Governor Oyebanji doing with education in Ekiti State? I will answer that question presently. But let us return to Awolowo.
Do the dead look back to see what those they left behind do to their (dead) legacies? Oku Olomo ki sun (the dead who procreated before his death does not sleep), is a Yoruba philosophy that depicts the people’s belief that the dead, who are ancestors by virtue of the children and wards they left behind, look after the living even from the great beyond. This philosophy is used, especially when those left behind continue with the legacies of the departed forebears. If Chief Awolowo were to look back from his grave and behold what his ‘children’ are doing with his legacy of free education, what would be his thought? Would the sage be happy? Would he beat his chest and say he left behind ‘children’ that are worthy to be called “Awoists”? Or would he simply shake his head and ask the powers that rule the universe why they allowed termites to make a mess of the biggest legacy he bequeathed to this generation. Are we not moving gradually to the stage when we will be asking the dead to recall the wicked living?
Yoruba politics comes with its dramas. Songs, I mean, derisive songs, play key roles in the people’s electioneering. They use songs to deride the opposing political parties. In the last 30 years or so, especially after the transition of Awolowo, no politician of worth in the South-West would go to campaign without using the name of the late sage. Some even wear the same cap style as Awolowo. But the people are not deceived. Whenever they see such deceits, they use songs to tell the fake Awoists, who they are. One of such songs comes easily to mind now. “Awolowo le fi tan wa o; jibiti le lu wa o eh” (It is Awolowo’s name you used to deceive us; you simply scammed us), the song goes. The people know that Awoism as a political philosophy goes beyond wearing Awolowo’s cap. Awoism is not about raising two fingers in the air as a sign of victory as the late humanist was wont to do. It is about living and sustaining the legacies, principles and personal worths that made Awolowo a universal human being, such that at his death, the nation lamented that he was “the best president Nigeria never had”!
How did the old man do it in 1955? What would have happened, if for instance, Kabiyesi Afunbiowo Adesida, the Deji of Akure, was not able to send his “two hundred and fifty, and even…” children to school by paying just 10 Shillings for all of them? When an epoch is fortunate to have a leader who has foresight, the era is regarded as the Golden Era. We are in the season of the locust, where the beneficiaries of Awolowo’s free education that made the children of the very poor to go to school, and amounted to something in life, are now taking education out of the reach of the average people, while the very poor are forgotten. The Western Nigeria Annual Abstract of Education Statistics, (1955-66) states that in 1955-1956, the Awolowo government increased the percentage of grants to primary education to 52 per cent, moved it to 60 percent in 1958, jacked it up to 69 per cent in 1969; 82 per cent in 1960 and 80 per cent in 1966. During that same period, the least percentage of the region’s budget dedicated to education was 28.9 per cent, with the highest being 41 per cent. The effect of these deliberate policies was that more children were enrolled in school while their parents paid next to nothing. Ademola Ajayi, in a paper titled: “The Development of Free Education in Western Nigeria”, says the scheme, quoting a 1974 paper by the late Babs Fafunwa, as: “the boldest and perhaps the most unprecedented educational scheme in Africa South of the Sahara”. That is how history records Awolowo’s 1955 initiative that gave civilisation to the Western Region ahead of its peers.
But what do we have today? Last Tuesday, April 11, 2023, the government of Abiodun Oyebanji of Ekiti State woke up to increase school fees at the state university, the Ekiti State University, Ado Ekiti. According to the table of school fees approved by the university for the 2022/2023 academic session, indigenes of the state who apply to study Medicine and Surgery in the university will pay the sum of N655,000 while non-indigenes will cough up N755,000. Nursing Science, the table says goes for N405,00 for indigenes and N505,000 for others. Law now costs N405,000 for children, whose parents’ taxes built that school and non-indigenes will pay N505,000. An Ekiti child who wants to study Yoruba Language is being asked to pay N205,000 and others will pay N255,000. In addition, the intending students will pay acceptance fees ranging from N112,000 to N62,000 depending on the course of study. Interestingly, for the 2020/2021 academic session, the fees were: N375,000 and N468,000 for indigenes and non-indigenes respectively who applied to study Medicine, N255,000 and N318,000 for Law; Nursing Sciences N250,00 and N312,000 and English Language N130,000 and N162,000.
Expectedly, when the schedule was released, the students trooped out to protest the shylock fee. The university authorities responded swiftly by shutting down the institution. A two-paragraph statement endorsed by Bode Olofinmuagun, Head, Directorate of Information and Corporate Affairs of the university, titled: “Suspension of Academic Activities for Two Weeks”, ordered all students “to vacate the campus premises immediately and should not be seen within the campus premises for the next two weeks. Parents and guardians are hereby advised to invite their wards home immediately. Any student found wandering around the university premises does so at his/her own risk”. As you read this, the students of the institution, some of them billed to start their examinations yesterday, Monday, April 17, are back at home. There is nothing to guarantee that if they are allowed to resume after the two weeks announced, the students would not go back to the streets.
The increase in school fees in the Ekiti State University has far reaching implications for the state. Victor-Marie Hugo, the French Romantic writer and politician, once said, “He who opens a school closes a prison”. I don’t know what informed the decision in the first place, but I know that if allowed to stand, many children in the state will be out of school by this academic session. And I will tell you why. What do we have in Ekiti for instance? The state is purely a civil service state with most of the workers in the teaching profession. I have been imagining how the primary school teacher at Ugboroko Primary School, who earns less than N40,000 in a month, and who has three children of tertiary education ages will be able to cope with a fee of N655, 000 for any of the children who wishes to study Medicine and Surgery and N205,000 for another child angling to read Yoruba Language. How on earth will the rice farmer of Ayedun Ekiti be able to raise N505,000 school fee and an additional N112,000 acceptance fee for his or her daughter who has an admission to study Nursing Sciences at the university? How many gararwa (local measurement) of rice will he or she sell to make up that money? What about the yam farmers at Ijero, Aba Igbira, Iyemero, Iroko and Afao Ekiti? How many lorry-loads of tubers of yam will they require to be able to raise the new school fees for their children and wards that have been admitted to the university? How do they sustain those children in a school without official accommodation facilities, especially when the fees increase as the students advance in the studies? How many of those children will have their hopes of a tertiary education dashed because a government suddenly becomes insensitive and jacks up school fees? How many teachers, civil servants, petty traders, and artisans in Ekiti State can afford the “acceptance fees” in the first instance? Where are we headed in Ekiti? Who do we call upon to help to speak to the conscience of those in authority in Ekiti State at this moment to note that the only pride of the Ekiti people is education? Who will bail the poor people out, when, unfortunately, those we can call up to intervene and make Ekiti State Government and the authorities of the universities to toe the path of pity are also into the shylock business of astronomical school fees? Is Governor Oyebanji conscious of what history will say about him when he leaves office? If he wants history to be kind to him, he will, without further hesitation, direct the university to revert to its 2020/2021 academic session school fees and make life easy for the struggling people of Ekiti State. To do otherwise, he will have the blood of any student who drops out because of these unreasonable school fees on his head. In addition to that, the Alales of Ekiti will also ask! This is not a curse!
(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Tuesday, April 18, 2023)