Rotimi Olawale is the Founder, Youth Foundation for Development Education and Leadership (YouthhubAfrica), a non-profit organisation. He tells ALEXANDER OKERE why state governments need to make use of the funds provided by the Universal Basic Education Commission to improve the standard of education
In a tweet on July 11, 2020, you called on Nigerians to ask their respective state governments to access the over N68.8bn Universal Basic Education funds. What was the motivation behind that?
The motivation came from the extensive work we have done in understanding the workings of the UBE funds in the last three years. My colleagues and I at YouthhubAfrica have filed and received responses to at least four Freedom of Information requests to the UBE Commission to understand the status of the UBE grants to states. Coupled with this is the fact that Nigeria has one of the highest rates of out-of-school children in the world, with a significant percentage of these being young girls. We cannot have a situation where funds to provide education for these children lie untouched in government coffers, while they don’t have access to education. These were the motivation for seeking citizens actions to support our call to states to take decisive action.
From your findings, which of the states have yet to access the funds and for how long?
From our analysis, the states lagging behind are Kwara, Enugu and Anambra, who haven’t accessed a dime out of the N4.2bn allocated to each of them over a three-year period. Plateau State took a small percentage of its 2017 allocation but have an outstanding from 2017 to date. The Federal Capital Territory also has N2.99bn untouched from 2018 till date.
What do you think is responsible for the refusal of some of the states to pay their counterpart grants to access the UBE funds?
There are many reasons we have heard about. Many states have complained that they can’t simply afford the 50 per cent counterpart funding requirement that the fund demands; as you may know, each state receives an equal amount every year from the UBE funds. Others have also said the excessive focus on infrastructure, which the commission requires that 75 per cent of the funds should be spent on, doesn’t give states the opportunity to spend the funds where it best fits.
Are such excuses tenable?
I think, at the end of the day, the excuses are not tenable. The states are allowed to request the amount they can match if they are unable to match all.
You said Nigeria had over 10 million out-of-school children, yet some states refused to access the UBE funds. Considering that many of such children are said to be almajiris, amid the growing population, what impact do you think accessing the funds will have on that?
At the end of the day, we need to rethink how education is delivered to children in Nigeria. The first stage is getting kids off the streets into schools. The next phase is thinking about the quality of education received. And we are not talking about new classrooms; we are primarily focusing on literacy and numeracy skills. Can our kids who go to public schools read and write? Can they compete with kids in Seoul, South Korea or Harare, Zimbabwe, or are we lagging behind? Some countries suffer from inadequate funds, but it seems we have some funding locked down by bureaucracy and we are unable to unlock it to solve these problems. And that’s why, for instance, we have also called on the National Assembly to call a public hearing on the UBE to see if there’s a need to rejig the act establishing the commission and the funding.
Your organisation has been calling for signatures for an open letter you plan to send to the governors of the affected states. What is it about?
The idea behind the signatures is to demonstrate to state governors and stakeholders that concern for education isn’t just from one organisation; there are hundreds of citizens who are concerned and use that as a public pressure point for action. We have over 500 persons who have signed the letter and it keeps growing every day. We are committed to sending the letters to the top 10 state governments who have the most of the funds that have not been accessed in the UBE funds and then find ways to engage them both privately and publicly for immediate action.
There had been similar calls in the past to no avail. Why do you think yours will make a difference?
Ours is not a one-off action; this is just the public-facing action. We are discussing with the National Assembly on UBE reforms. We have had engagements with UBEC to try and understand where the knotty issues are. Overall, we are approaching this holistically and we are committed to this for the long run. We are also part of a coalition of organisations who are doing various works around the UBE and interested in seeing the scheme deliver the promises for Nigerian children, especially girls.
What will be your next line of action, if the states hold their ground in spite of your letter?
We will continue to apply pressure on all ends as well as mobilise citizens to demand action from the government. At the end of the day, we are confident that with the right push, some of the state governments will wake up to their responsibilities, considering that, post-COVID-19, the educational sector will require additional resources.
The lack of accountability by elected or appointed government officials in Nigeria, despite public protests, has continued to be a major concern. Why do you think such officials treat accountability and transparency in public office with levity?
I think, at the end of the day, elected officials in Nigeria believe they don’t owe accountability to citizens. Also, several citizens don’t actually know it’s their right to know what government officials are doing on their behalf. I think, as we continue to educate citizens and ignite more active citizens, there will be more demand on the side of the citizens. Also, over time, some of these citizens’ demands, if unmet, will eventually become a banana peel for government officials seeking re-election into office. This will not happen immediately; we are beginning to see pockets of successful citizens action. One of such is the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, while another is the ongoing campaign for the passage of the Violence against Persons (Prohibition) Act in states across Nigeria. I am sure we will begin to see more successful citizens-led campaigns in subsequent months.
As a pro-youth organisation, what is your assessment of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young Nigerians in the areas of employment or job creation and education?
The impact of the pandemic has been felt by young Nigerians, first on education. As you know, education across Nigeria has ground to a halt, except for the top one per cent who have the opportunity to continue virtual classes. On job creation, there have been many young people who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19. Nigeria is also dealing with very low oil revenues alongside the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that many state governments are also struggling to pay salaries, which will further compound problems. As you know, Nigeria is a nuclear, tightly-knit society, where friends and family look after one another and siblings pay what has been called the ‘black tax’, by supporting their brothers, sisters and cousins financially or by paying for them to learn a trade or gain education until they can stand on their own. Therefore, for every Nigerian that has a job, there are usually several dependants. So, if one person loses a job, the reverberation of this is much higher than in developed countries.
How can youths cope with such impacts going into the post-COVID-19 world?
I think the future of work has been severely impacted. Young Nigerians need to embrace technology and find legitimate means to make a living by virtual means. This is where the world is headed and young people in Nigeria need to be prepared for this. Nations will no longer be rated by how much oil or cubic feet of gas they have. They are being rated by the quality of their workforce and it is time young Nigerians began to compete globally. And with the necessary government support, young Nigerians will soar high.
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