By Seember Nyager
The news media in Nigeria recently reported a call by Vice President Namadi Sambo at the 20th Nigerian Economic Summit for all hands to be on deck to revitalize the education sector. This call is not new. Previous administrations have always noted the importance of Education and the need for more investment to go into the Education Sector. Indeed, it was the identification of the need for a more inclusive education sector that led to the creation of the Universal Basic Education Scheme. However, the principles and policies to push forward our Education reforms are in sharp contrast with the prevailing practices and particularly the refusal by the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) to provide information on its spending plans for Primary Education advancement.
Following a request by procurement monitors for UBEC’s proposed procurement plans, UBEC has insisted on two occasions and in writing, that Procurement Plans cannot be publicly disclosed. According to UBEC, Procurement Plans are exempt because they could give an advantage to any person or frustrate procurement. Realizing that the public procurement process is concerned with the decision making around the choices of goods, works and/or services that would achieve our development aspirations, how else can an inclusive primary education sector be framed and decided upon, if various stakeholders are not an integral part of the plan? If the track record of our Education Sector is anything to go by, then it would take more than exclusive decision making by UBEC to rejuvenate our failing Education System.
The Vice President was quoted as saying, “We intend to develop a skilled workforce which will be able to drive the development of the Nigerian economy, drive change and innovation and ensure that Nigeria attains her rightful place in the comity of nations. This is consistent with our aspiration of becoming one of the 20 largest economies in the world by year 2020…” While this is a great aspiration, we cannot take it for granted that for any innovation to occur, there must be considerable consultation, sharing of ideas and a space for competition so that the best wins. There must also be space for willing contractors to show their worth through pilot schemes and based on the results of any such piloted schemes, contractors could be chosen. At the moment, our contracting and/or procurement processes are rigid;, pandering more to form than substance and until there is space for more participation, innovation in public sector education would remain a pipe dream and the best that we would get is white elephant projects.
Independent reports have concluded that Nigeria has the highest number of out-of-school children and employers often complain that graduates from Nigeria are not employable because they lack the required skills a certain level of education should have imparted. These challenges commence at the foundations of our educational system and UBEC in some respects, is charged with making this foundation more solid. UBEC needs to make public its procurement plans to allow various stakeholders in the Nigerian project effectively participate in decision making around Primary Health Education.
Another area of concern are the current success targets being set. A look at the UBEC website shows results focused on number of primary school enrolment; very similar to the second Millennium Development Goal (MDG). Nigeria can aspire and realise much higher than the target currently set by the MDGs. Considering that we have the world’s highest number of out-of-school children, an increased enrolment in primary schools by a certain percentage is a good goal but it must speak to another; and that is the quality of education being meted out. Currently we have not seen this and until we do, we may be going nowhere slowly.
Another issue that must be taken seriously is the unwillingness of public institutions to be questioned. How can a body set up to ensure more inclusive education be so repelled by accountability to the extent that she unjustifiably relies on a Nigerian law to deny access to her plans? If the body that was set up to make education more inclusive behaves in this manner, we should not be surprised that the children we raise would also refuse to be questioned; they would see their opinions as superior (even when they are poor), they would become spitting images of the best (or worst) of us, squashing rather than embracing intelligent views they cannot conceive and accepting mediocrity to hide incompetence. The glaring problem with this is that such a value system does not encourage development or advancement and a new Nigeria cannot keep rehashing traditional values that ought to be discarded and expect different results.
Some of the challenges identified above are the reasons procurement monitors in Nigeria have written a petition to the National Human Rights Commission and the Attorney General of the Federation, requesting for the prompt intervention of these institutions to enable individuals and interest groups within Nigeria access the procurement plans of the Universal Basic Education Commission. Procurement monitors have also pointed out that records such as plans by public institutions should be in the public space (and this is backed by Section 2 of the Freedom of Information Act 2011) and a request need not be made to make these public.
It is time to stop secret contracting in the Education Sector. This is a further call to the Universal Basic Education Commissioner, to the Vice President, the entire Government structure in Nigeria and all well-meaning Nigerians; if you really want us to move forward, it is time to discourage all forms of secret contracts in Public Sector Education. Innovation and revitalization across the Education Sector would require timely access to proposed plans and other contracting documents. We hope that our hands will be allowed on deck this time.
Ms. Seember Nyager is chief executive at the Nigeria Procurement Monitors.