WEDNESDAY Column by Garba Shehu
Many years after alarm bells began ringing in Southern Nigeria protesting lower cut-off marks for Northern candidates for admission into Federal Government Colleges, a Federal High Court in Lagos has struck down the government’s admission policy. Justice John Tsoho who handed down the landmark decision says that admission into federal colleges should no longer be based on “other factors” than merit.
A foremost lawyer, Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) had approached the court on the basis of the constitution and the 2009 Fundamental Human Rights Enforcement Rules of the Court to ask that the policy of admission that recognizes ethnicity, gender, religion and place of origin was discriminatory and therefore against the constitution. In handing down his decision, Justice Tsoho asserted that the admission policy of the federal government was a clear departure from the 1999 Constitution (as amended), adding that the policy was discriminatory and went on to declare it null and void.
For many parents and their wards in Southern states of the federation where the education system is firmly established and therefore well advanced, it defies comprehension that a candidate from, say Osun will need 127 marks, Imo 138 and Anambra 138 to qualify for admission, while a child from Yobe and Zamfara requires less than half of these numbers to get enrolment.
Taken in isolation of the several factors that gave rise to these differential points of entry, many will feel outraged that we run a system that is inherently discriminatory, unfair and unjust. But it is equally surprising that the technical points of Olisa Agbakoba’s arguments could sway the Judge to set aside factors of imbalance, capacity and endowment to put the Court in collision course with, not only common sense but the federal system of government with diversity at the core of its existence.
A federal system inherently recognizes diversity of component parts and to that extent, seeks to balance the disadvantages of some parts with the others, so that they are mitigated. That is why grant support differs from one state to another. Take for instance funding for ecological projects. Ecological devastation of say Anambra or Enugu is not the same as you have in Nasarawa or Osun States. You don’t say each of the states must draw equal sums because the constitution speaks about the equality of state.
Under the current dispensation, there is a massive intervention by government aimed at mitigating the past neglect of the Niger Delta. We now have a ministry for Niger Delta. In addition to that, there is a development commission, the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC, both of them enjoying the full backing of the Federal Executive Council, the National Assembly and the entire citizens of the country in the belief that to bring peace, stability and equality of all citizens to bear on that region, government needed to go beyond the normal budgetary allocations to accelerate development of the neglected areas.
In the same vein, the President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan has himself spoken severally about a planned intervention in the North-East, in order to ameliorate the losses and hardship caused by the on-going insurgency.
Lower cut-off point in Nigeria has a history of its own that included, but not limited to the poor acceptance of the modern school system for cultural reasons in the region; the poor state of education infrastructure including the lack of teachers in sufficient quantity and quality as well as poor governance generally characteristic of the North. The children have no hand in these.
Until 1978 when the United States Supreme Court forbade racial quotas in college admissions, even the country’s best colleges and universities reserved quotas for lower-income students, unrepresented minorities and athletes. Despite the Supreme Court ruling, suspicions continue to linger about the Harvard and University of California, UCL continuing use of race as a way of building on diverse student body.
Besides, there are several studies showing that skills that are validated by admission tests and examination are not necessarily those that enhance classroom participation or inter-personal dynamics when doing research with peers or professors.
Arguments canvassed by Mr. Agbakoba though technically sound and founded on the constitution, fail to take into account embedded disadvantages suffered by certain parts of the country which needed to be corrected through the allocation of those quotas. America has outlawed quotas because those under-represented sections of the populace – blacks, women and Asian American have mostly risen to the level where they thrive on their own, earning placements in schools without the need for quotas. The problem we have here is that people simply copy or adopt foreign solutions without adapting them to our situations.
In scrapping the admission policy of the Ministry of Education, one is left to wonder whether the judge has weighed the political and social implications of the order he has given. Nigeria is today a country ravaged by the Boko Haram insurgency which has been linked directly to poverty and the lack of education. One of the policies of the current administration that has won it plaudits is its establishment of the Almajiri School System, which seeks to remove 10 million children roaming the streets so that they get access to the school system.
A Judge who orders more children from these areas be pushed to the streets through denial of access to schools is adding to the country’s problem not solving it. This order will only broaden the recruitment base of the Boko Haram. It will lead to the reduction of school intake in volatile sections of the country. If the litigants had in mind the pursuit for equality for all through the justice system, you wonder why they targeted school enrolment instead of the glaringly unequal distribution of state resources and such other privileges that have brought about the social crisis rocking the country.
Justice that is fair and equitable all over the world recognizes mitigating factors and it cannot be different dealing with disadvantaged kids. There is a mitigating factor even in criminal trial. A federal system of administration should seek to bring up and strengthen all component parts not to weaken any part thereof. It is significant that this court decision is coming at a time of differing perceptions of the government at the centre, with many having the view that it is tilted and biased against the North. The court order can only reinforce this negative perception, and a sense that there is after all, a method in the madness.
While government should be impelled by this political judgment to seek a solution that satisfies all, the Attorney-General of the Federation should in the meantime appeal against it without delay