Nigeria: Another 'Day of the African Child'

This Day (Lagos)
OPINION June 12 2007 Posted to the web June 13 2007
Bukola Olatunji And Lagos

It has been 31 years since thousands of South African black school children marched on the streets of Soweto, on June 16, 1976, to protest the inferior quality of their education and to demand their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of them were shot down; and in the two weeks of protest that followed, no fewer than an additional 100 people were killed and more than a thousand injured.

To honour the memory of those killed and the courage of all those who marched, the Day of the African Child has been celebrated, worldwide, on 16 June every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

The day serves as an opportunity to reflect on progress toward health, education, equality and protection for all African children. The theme for this year's celebration is, 'Child Trafficking'.

It may be impossible to get accurate figures of victims of child trafficking either nationally, regionally or globally. According Plan, a global partnership of caring people, founded in 1937 to bring hope and help to the world's poorest children; trafficking of children is one of the most severe violations of human rights in the world today, involving over a million children worldwide. It refers to the illegal transport of human beings, in particular women and children, for the purpose of selling them or exploiting their labour. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says "Child labour is a massive problem, one that affects one out of every six children in the world today.

A 79-page report, 'Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo', released in 2003 highlights Togo as a case study of trafficking in the West African region. It documents how children as young as three years old are exploited as domestic and agricultural workers in several countries. Traffickers lure children from their homes with promises of high-quality schooling and vocational training abroad. Many of the children are orphans, forced to become breadwinners following the death of a parent from AIDS or other causes.

A scandal over the issue of child labour in West Africa blew up in 2002, when nearly half the chocolate produced in the United States was linked to cocoa beans harvested by child labourers in Côte d'Ivoire. Many of these children had been trafficked from neighbouring countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso.

Why this has thrived is aptly captured in the words of Joseph Addison:

"Education is a companion which no misfortune can depress, no crime can destroy, no enemy can alienate, no despotism can enslave. At home, a friend; abroad, an introduction; in solitude, a solace; and in society, an ornament. It chastens vice, it guides virtue, it gives at once grace and government to genius. Without it, what is man? A splendid slave, a reasoning savage."

The average African child remains locked in the vicious circle where poverty is the prime factor for lack of education and lack of education, the prime factor for poverty. As such, poverty is passed on from one generation to the next.

International treaties and charters, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) - Article 13 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACWRC) - Article 11 recognise education as the right of every child. Every nation-state also recognises the importance of education to its survival, although the commitment to ensuring that all its citizens achieve this is another matter.

According to Plan, one of the most effective means of preventing trafficking is to provide youth with opportunities to receive quality education. The more youth (and adults) know about their rights, the better equipped they are to fight violations of these rights.

Given the will and means, every parent wants his or her child to be able to read and write, to acquire the best education possible. But not every child is able to attain this.

Coming home to Nigeria, governments at all levels pledge to commit themselves to the delivery of qualitative education, but the facts on ground show that only the rich can readily afford good quality education. The conditions of abject poverty in which millions of Nigerians live, affect the chances of their children getting educated. Many of them are forced into street hawking, prostitution and bus conducting, among others.

A veteran primary teacher at the Ansar-ud-deen Primary School, Lagos Island, Mrs. Charlotte Irantiola said, "Most of these children are from broken homes. They are being raised by single parents with very little budgeted to support their education. Some of them are a result of unwanted pregnancies and consequently, are not planned for. They arrive as extra burdens on already overburdened grandparents who can scarcely afford extra expenditure on education."

She also noted the wrong attitude of some people to education. She said, "The social orientation of some people, especially on the Lagos Island affects the education of their children. They prefer to buy expensive clothes and lavish money on parties, instead of spending money on the education of their children."

In addition to these, she observed that "There is a dearth of worthy role models especially on the Island where a lot of 'area boys' abound. These impressionable youngsters end up emulating those around them." She gave the example of a " boy in my school that goes from class to class stealing the belongings of his peers so much that his reputation precedes him. As he enters any class, the word spreads that the chap is around and everyone should secure their property."

No part of the country is spared the existence of mushroom private schools, the result of the failure of the public school system. Many of them cannot afford to hire good teachers, yet they charge fees. A teacher in one of such so-called 'private Nursery and Primary' schools on the Lagos Island was recently heard teaching the children Nigeria's national pledge and saying, ' uphold her 'honest' and glory', instead of 'uphold her honour and glory.' The same person, while correcting a pupil said, "Are you promise to be a good child?"

Instances also abound of brilliant children dropping out of school due to financial constraints. A boy in a secondary school in Lagos was forced to skip some papers in the just concluded Junior School Certificate Examination (JSCE) because he owed the fees for a whole session - about N60, 000. But for the intervention of a 'Good Samaritan', the boy would have dropped out for good. It was said that the principal allowed him to owe that much because the boy was so brilliant that the principal was reluctant to see him go and hoped his fees would eventually be paid. A whole session was the farthest he could go, but not school administrators could afford to be that humane.

Mr. James Atoyebi was recently celebrated for not giving up on his dreams. A student was forced to drop out of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife while studying Law in the 80s, due to financial difficulty. After more than two decades of struggling to keep body and soul together, he wrote JAMB again. Not only did he pass, the man, who is in his late 40s came first in the examination and his return to OAU for the same Law degree, two years ago, was widely celebrated with a lot of financial aid from we that will ensure his graduation this time. Forget the fact that a lot of time is wasted already and a former classmate is a Head of Department in the same Faculty.

The 'International Conference on School Fee Abolition: Planning for Quality and Financial Sustainability', jointly organised by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), UNICEF, the World Bank and the Ministry of Basic Education of Mali; which begins in Bamako on June 19, is timely. Governments of African countries must genuinely commit themselves to abolishing all forms of school fees and hidden costs, at least in the first nine years of education to secure the future of the African child.

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