By Azuka Onwuka
Nigeria knows how to make simple things difficult by creating crises where there should be none. Let me buttress this with two personal experiences.
Years back, I attended an event in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. I checked into a hotel that evening because my appointment was in the morning of the next day. I had arrived a day earlier to avoid any unforeseen delays from Lagos. The next day, I left early for the event. Unfortunately, it lasted more than I expected. I returned to the hotel around 2pm to check out. The hotel staff said I had overshot the check-out time of noon, and would therefore pay for another full day. It sounded unfair to me. We discussed it a bit and I paid and left, feeling that I had been ripped off.
Not long after that, I attended a conference in London, United Kingdom. I paid for one day because I was not sure if that was the hotel I would lodge in after that day. The next morning, I left for the conference. When I returned in the evening, I slotted my card in the door but the door did not open. I thought something was wrong and tried a couple of times, but the red light was showing that the door did not recognise my card.
I went to the lounge to complain to the receptionist. He checked and told me that my payment expired at noon that day and my things were moved out of the room. He showed me where my personal effects had been kept. I checked them to confirm that nothing was missing. Everything – as far as I could recall – was there. I paid for more nights and got another room.
I had learnt my lesson. Technology was put to good use to avoid arguments. Even if a person did not pay for a new day but was inside the room after midday, most likely the card would cease to work to open the door. The person would most likely be informed that the payment had elapsed. If the person refused to renew it or check out immediately, the police would be invited.
Compare that to my Nigerian experience. I was allowed to overstay my time and then told that I had to pay for it. I had to argue it with human beings who could use their discretion to let me go without paying or insist on payment.
That is the same with the case of the boy who got the highest score in this year’s Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination. Franklin Ekele scored 347 over 400 but may not be admitted by the University of Lagos, which he applied to. According to the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board which organised the examination, the boy is 15 years and does not meet the minimum age benchmark of 16 years.
There has been an outpouring of outrage over this attempt to deny such an exceptionally brilliant boy admission because of age restriction. The argument has been that his performance above older candidates shows that the age restriction is baseless. Denying such a candidate admission, it is argued, amounts to killing the aspirations of exceptionally gifted children.
If JAMB had acted like a modern organisation, this argument would not have arisen at all. If at the point of registering for the exam, any candidate who was less than 16 years was not allowed to complete the registration process, this brouhaha would not have arisen, since JAMB is basking in the euphoria of online registration and online examination.
Any candidate who chooses a false birthday from the one in the candidate’s documents can then be prosecuted for perjury and forgery, if the candidate later starts complaining of being denied admission due to age. It will be clear that the candidate intentionally used an older age to become legible to register for the examination.
But beyond the issue of JAMB exploiting the vantages of technology to curb this annual dirge, there is also the issue of playing by the rules by candidates. Every society or system that wants order and progress operates with laws that are clearly spelt out. Even companies and brands add “terms and conditions” to their offers to customers. The essence of the laws is to ensure that nobody is discriminated against based on the person’s relationship with the managers of the system, who are human beings with human whims and prejudices.
There are age restrictions for people who vote and are voted for. There are age restrictions on jobs at different levels. There are employment restrictions based on academic qualifications. There are restrictions based on height for those seeking recruitment in the army, police and other para-military organisations. Serious organisations do not twist these conditions for individuals, because doing so is injustice to others who had been turned down in the past based on similar restrictions. For example, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka has a condition that every candidate must have a minimum of a credit in one science subject to be eligible to be offered admission into any course in the university. If one has the highest UTME score in Nigeria but does not obtain a credit in a science subject, that candidate cannot be offered admission. Those who falsified their result to add a science subject to their certificate, even if found out in the final year, are rusticated.
Similarly, a Nigerian lad who represents the nation at the Under-16 World Cup may score all the winning goals, but he is not qualified to vote in Nigeria’s elections until he becomes 18 years old. If he cuts corners and falsifies his age to enable him to vote, he is breaching the law and may be punished if found out.
Nigeria faced a test case in 1999 when a bright and amiable legislator named Alhaji Salisu Buhari became the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was doing very well as the Speaker until The News magazine blew his cover: He was one year younger than the required minimum age of 30 years for members of the House of Representatives. So he falsified his age and also forged a certificate claiming to be a graduate of Toronto University. He eventually resigned with ignominy and faced the music.
The best way to challenge a rule or policy is not to ask for the rule to be bent for the sake of an individual. The noble way is to take the matter to court and hope for repeal. But is 15 years (or even 17 years) ripe enough for a child to be in the university? What is the hurry for? If the voting age is 18 years, and a Nigerian is called a minor who cannot be sent to prison for any crime until 18 years, what is the compelling reason for a Nigerian to be admitted into the university before 18 years?
The academic feat of Franklin is a challenge to other young people. He is an exceptionally brilliant boy. But insisting that the rule be bent to offer him university admission in a public university is encouraging corruption. This hot brain should not be drawn into that dirt. He should wait and take the exam next year when he will be 16 years old. He may even score higher than he did this year. My nephew, Kenechukwu, scored 308 last year but was not offered admission by the University of Nigeria to study medicine. He was disappointed. But this year, he took the exam again and scored 321.
An intelligent child is an intelligent child. Restrictions cannot stop that person from shining. Franklin has just shown the world a slice of the stuff he is made of. By next year, he will unfold his intelligence more than he did this year and gain admission through the front door rather than through the back door which some people are campaigning for.
Azuka Onwuka is a Public Affairs Analyst.