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INVESTIGATION: Dehumanised and demoralised, unpaid teachers dying in droves in Akwa Ibom
This is the third in a six-part series by CLETUS UKPONG on how corruption, poor planning, shoddy policy implementation, and outright neglect led to the near-collapse of public education in Akwa Ibom, one of Nigeria’s richest states.
THE shortage of teachers in Akwa Ibom public secondary schools has reached a disastrous level.
Eunice Thomas, a former commissioner for education in the state, understood the enormity of the crisis at hand and made two attempts at tackling it.
As a commissioner then, she declared a state of emergency on education in the state when she came across the startling revelation that several public schools were without teachers in English Language, mathematics, and other subjects.
And yet students in the affected schools were taking part in external examinations like the West African Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) and the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME).
A geology graduate, Mrs Thomas, while still doing her official job as a commissioner, volunteered and began teaching chemistry and biology lessons at a public school near her home at Etoi, Uyo, to prepare the students for their WASSCE examinations, she told PREMIUM TIMES.
Just when she began rallying ministry officials, policy experts, principals and teachers for the onerous task of turning things around, she was sacked by the then governor, Godswill Akpabio. She had stayed for only six months in office as education commissioner.
Three years after she left office, Mrs Thomas, still worried about the shortage of teachers in public schools in the state, launched a non-profit called Teachers’ Volunteers Scheme (TVS).
A shocking data released by TVS in 2016 showed that 616 teachers were teaching English Language to 400,603 students across 250 public secondary schools in the state, while 415 teachers were taking that same number of students mathematics.
The student-teacher ratios for English Language and mathematics in the state in 2016, according to TVS, were 1: 650 and 1: 965 respectively.
According to Mrs Thomas, 480 university graduates have so far volunteered for the TVS.
Unfortunately, the scheme was discontinued after three months because people erroneously thought she created it to mobilise support for a particular politician who was running for the governorship of the state, she said.
Mrs Thomas said she is working on a plan to revive and reform the scheme.
As at today, there are still several public secondary schools in the state without teachers in many subjects, according to an extensive PREMIUM TIMES investigation.
For instance, Ukpaubong Community Secondary School, Itam, in Itu Local Government Area, has no teacher in computer science, Christian religious studies, accounting, and insurance. Another school in Itu, Ntiat/Mbak Comprehensive Secondary School, Itu Urban, has no teacher in introductory technology, Christian religious studies, physical and health education, and Ibibio language.
Still in Itu, African Church Secondary Commercial School, Oku Iboku, has no teacher in physical and health education, Ibibio language, government, marketing, Christian religious studies, geography, and accounting.
Atakpo Comprehensive Secondary School, Mbiaya Uruan, Uruan Local Government Area, has no teacher in the following subjects: government, physics, geography, French, and Ibibio language.
The situation is worse in primary schools, this newspaper learnt.
“It’s a bad situation,” the state Chairman, Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), Etim Ukpong, who is also the state leader of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) told PREMIUM TIMES.
During the 2016 May Day rally in Uyo, Mr Ukpong publicly told the state Governor, Udom Emmanuel, that the “classrooms in our schools are virtually without teachers”.
A retired permanent secretary, ministry of education, revealed to this newspaper that 17,300 new teachers were needed to fill the vacuum in public secondary schools in the state as at 2013.
For that year, he said, the state had only 6,000 to 7,000 teachers in all the 250 public secondary schools.
English Language, mathematics, geography, and economics are among the subjects that were critically in need of teachers, the retired permanent secretary said, adding that there were not up to 50 teachers teaching home economics in all the secondary schools in Akwa Ibom.
READ PART ONE OF THIS SERIES HERE: INVESTIGATION: Learning In Tears: Inside the massive decay in public schools in oil-rich Akwa Ibom
BOTCHED EFFORTS AT TEACHERS RECRUITMENT
The Akwa Ibom government in 2012 took over six community secondary schools from their original owners and consequently offered direct employment to their teachers and the non-teaching staff. But the process of perfecting the employment contract came to an inconclusive and embarrassing end because of the action of corrupt state officials who wanted to use that avenue to smuggle people into the state civil service.
“You could imagine small community schools producing about 546 staff!” the NLC chairman, Mr Ukpong, told PREMIUM TIMES. “Naturally, the governor was not happy with it.
“The government set up a committee headed by the then Head of Civil Service, Cecilia Udosen, to look into the problem. The committee pruned the number down to 444. But the current administration rejected it, saying that to accept it would mean accepting illegality.
“That is where we are right now,” Mr Ukpong said.
But while the corrupt officials who caused the disruption walked away unpunished and are still in the state public service, the affected teachers have not received their salary for about four years now. Moreover, the government is yet to clearly define their status (even though they were given letters of employment by government).
Till date, the teachers have continued to teach in their respective schools, with the hope that someday the government will regularise their contract. Fifteen of them have died so far while waiting for that hope to be fulfilled, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
In an attempt to call attention to their plight, one of the teachers in January 2016 threw himself into the front of a moving vehicle in Governor Emmanuel’s convoy near the entrance gate of the Government House, Uyo.
He got hit by the vehicle and was also beaten up by security officials attached to the governor, those who witnessed the incident said.
During the 2016 May Day rally at the Uyo Township Stadium, the teachers smuggled themselves into the NUT line during the march-past.
When they reached the spot where Governor Emmanuel was taking salute, they brought out their hidden placards and displayed them before the governor to tell of the injustice done to them.
The state chairman of NUT, Mr Ukpong, during the rally, pleaded with the governor on behalf of the teachers.
“For the free and compulsory education to be meaningful, many things have to be done. One of them, Sir, is to employ teachers,” Mr Ukpong told the governor.
“The set of teachers brought in through the State Secondary Education Board, and who have been working without salaries since January 2013 can help narrow the yawning gap. They are not many, we plead on their behalf,” he said.
One of the affected teachers, Uwem Bassey, told PREMIUM TIMES, “We’re going through terrible suffering. The way and manner we have been treated is enough proof that the people of this state have lost their humanity.”
Mr Bassey, 49, says his survival and that of his three children now depend on his wife who deals on fairly used shoes.
“I’m appealing to the governor to intervene for the sake of our lives,” he said with teary eyes. “Please let the government think about us.”
Also, the state government in 2015, during the last days of Godswill Akpabio administration, hurriedly recruited 5,000 teachers for public secondary schools.
But after the teachers received their employment letters and were waiting for posting to schools, Mr Akpabio’s successor, Governor Emmanuel, terminated their appointment on the ground that the recruitment process was tainted by fraud.
Since then the case has dragged on with some of the teachers suing the government for wrongful termination of employment.
Others resorted to prayers, with the hope that God would touch the heart of the governor to rescind his decision.
The recruitment is being done piecemeal after the government administered a new test to the 5,000 teachers in February 2017.
In August 2017, the government announced the employment of 1,500 teachers, out of the 5,000.
One of the newly recruited teachers told PREMIUM TIMES that she paid N500, 000 bribe to a government official before she was finally employed.
Two of the recruited teachers also told this reporter that they know of people who didn’t write the February 2017 test but were able to get employment letters after paying between N300, 000 to N500, 000 bribe.
The government, this April, released additional 500 names of newly employed secondary school teachers from among the 5,000. The contract letter says their employment took effect from April 1, 2018, but they are yet to be called to assume duties or posted to schools as at the time of filing this report.
The 1,500 teachers employed in August 2017 haven’t been paid their September and October 2017 salary; the government started paying them from November, even when the contract paper says their employment took effect from September of that year, according to PREMIUM TIMES investigation.
“TEACHERS BUILDING BEAUTIFUL HOUSES FROM PROCEEDS OF EXAMINATION MALPRACTICE.”
Apart from inadequate number of teachers, there is also the problem of poor teacher quality, low morale and widespread corruption within the teaching practice in the state.
Nicholas Luke, a retired secondary school teacher in the state told this reporter, “What has finally killed the education system in the state is examination malpractice masterminded by teachers.”
Mr Luke said the enrolment of students in the SS 3 in rural communities is usually high because of how teachers assist students in such communities to cheat in external examinations.
“The question is, why are teachers deeply involved in examination malpractice? And the answer is, because the teacher feels that the politician owns a four-storey building, while he doesn’t own even a bicycle.
“Today, teachers are now building beautiful houses from proceeds of examination malpractices. I know some of them. A teacher that is on level 10 has a two-storey building, courtesy of examination malpractice.
“It’s endemic,” he said.
Teachers’ salary, because of special salary structure, is slightly better than that of their counterparts in the Akwa Ibom state civil service.
A fresh university graduate employed as teacher in the state public school earns about N50, 000 monthly salary, compared to a civil servant whose salary is about N45, 000.
A school principal receives between N350, 000 and N400, 000 as monthly salary.
But that doesn’t mean all is well financially with teachers in the state, according to experts in the education sector.
“As a principal of a school on level 17, for example, your counterpart in the ministry is a director and is entitled to an official car, and a few other things,” said a former teacher who retired as a director in the state’s education ministry.
“In fact, there are people who work in the ministry, they are not up to level 12, but at the end of the month what they take home is better than what the principal gets.
“Where a vehicle is not there, a director in the ministry is entitled to an imprest which allows him hire vehicle for official duties. A principal isn’t entitle to an official vehicle, he will have to find his way or pay from his salary,” he said.
Government officials and experts attribute the problem of education in the state basically to poor process of recruiting teachers and poor funding.
Eno Usoro, a professor of business education at the University of Uyo (Uniuyo), Akwa Ibom State, said many people who studied education at the university are outside the classrooms, while those who studied other courses are the ones recruited as teachers.
Antiaobong Ekong, a professor of agriculture education in Uniuyo and a former commissioner for education in the state, corroborated Mrs Usoro’s claims. “Those who didn’t study education are always the first to be employed as teachers by the government because of political connection,” he said.
“You can’t sow yam and then expect to harvest cocoyam,” the state chairman of NUT, Mr Ukpong, said of the poor qualities of teachers in the public schools. “If the teachers are of poor quality, it means the society itself is of poor quality.
“There was a time in this country when a teacher was the best gentleman around. Today, the society treats teachers poorly. The teachers are not given due respect. It is the societal factors that have made them not to be effective,” he said.
A retired official in the education ministry told this newspaper that things have degenerated to an incredible level where teachers in the state now feel ashamed to publicly introduce themselves as teachers.
“If you introduce yourself as a teacher, people usually think you are some kind of a misfit, economically,” said the retired official.
“There is a subtle stigma here – people think that teachers don’t have money and cannot be as rich as people in other professions.”
He said the discrimination against education as a discipline starts right in the university.
“A student scores 250 point in JAMB and go into the university to study medicine. Another student scores 250 and go in to study education. But if the state government wants to give bursary or scholarship, the guy studying medicine gets three times more than what the guy studying education gets.
“So, it would look as if teaching is not as important as other professions.
“That’s how teachers are generally treated,” he said.
He continues, “The present turnout from our schools, I am not sure will be competent to handle positions in the near future. Even in journalism profession, you would have come across a number of people who cannot write a good news report for people to read.
“These are happening as a throwback for the neglect of teachers who feel they are not sufficiently motivated to do their best.”
Emem Edoho, a former president of the National Association of Akwa Ibom State Students (NAAKISS), said the size of the population of graduates and school certificate holders who can’t write a good sentence is an indicator of the “extremely deplorable and degraded” standard of education in the state.
“I hired a lawyer to defend my town union recently in Eket High court over a civil claim. To my greatest surprise, the lawyer, could not move a motion in the open court. I had to debrief him and secure the services of a competent lawyer in Uyo,” Mr Edoho said.
“I am aware of a graduate in my workplace who cannot write a memo. I am also aware there are worse cases,” a lawyer in the state, Mbebe Albert, told this newspaper.
“BLAME THE GOVERNMENT, NOT TEACHERS.”
Most people who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said the state government should rather be blamed for the ineffectiveness and corruption among teachers in public schools.
They cited the delay in payment of salary, non-payment of promotion arrears, leave grants, and gratuities, as well as corruption among government officials and the political class as having far-reaching negative impact on the teaching profession in the state.
“When we talk about payment of promotion arrears, leave grants, and gratuities to the teachers in Akwa Ibom, the administration of Udom Emmanuel is the worst in the history of the state,” said a secondary teacher who didn’t want his name mentioned for fear of being victimized.
“The teachers in this state are suffering. They are angry with the governor,” he said.
During the 2016 May Day rally, the state Chairman of NUT, Mr Ukpong, took time to explain to Governor Emmanuel the issues around
promotion arrears, the leave grants, and gratuities.
“An average public servant has only three occasions when he can mould blocks (to build his personal house),” Mr Ukpong told Governor Emmanuel.
“These are when he is paid leave grants, when he is paid promotion arrears, and at retirement when he is paid gratuity.
“If he is denied these, or any of the three, he is most likely not going to be able to mould blocks, talkless of being able to build a house for himself throughout his life.
“We humbly plead that you help us, Sir,” the NUT leader said.
NEXT OF KIN PUT PRESSURE ON GOVERNMENT TEACHERS’ GRATUITIES
The government’s inability to pay gratuity to primary school teachers who died while serving the state has emboldened their relatives to come together to form a pressure group called Next of Kin of Late Primary School Teachers in Akwa Ibom State.
For several months now, the group has held regular protest march against the government.
That is besides writing protest letters to public officials, including Governor Emmanuel and the Speaker of the state House of Assembly, Onofiok Luke.
The police in January 2017 arrested three members of the group and charged them to court for protesting in front of the Government House gate. The court found them not guilty.
Some members of the group said the government has paid them part of their late parents’ entitlements. Others said they were still waiting for payment.
Benson Udo, one of the group leaders, told PREMIUM TIMES they were hopeful, despite their travails.
“Though wearied and tempted to lose faith because of not getting a response to the several letters we have sent to your office, we are still confident that this government isn’t just a listening one but also an active one,” the group told Governor Emmanuel in a 2016 letter.
“It is bad that our loved ones died in active service. Our inability to receive their entitlement many years after is like walking through the valley of death. Paying us the money will bring huge consolation.
“Ninety-nine per cent of us that voted for you could not have been wrong,” they told the governor.
The then commissioner for education in the state, Paul Udofia, declined comment for this report when he was contacted by PREMIUM TIMES before he was eventually sacked by Governor Emmanuel.
His successor, Victor Inoka, also declined comment, saying having just been appointed to office, he was still “studying the situation”.
THE WAY FORWARD
A state of emergency should be declared for 10 years in the education sector in the state, says the former NAAKISS president, Mr Edoho, who sees primary education as the weakest link, where the rot is most severe.
“When the foundation is weak every other thing erected on it cannot stand. We need to redesign the curriculum for primary education, recruit qualified instructors and counsellors for each school.
“Teachers training colleges should be reintroduced at least one per senatorial district to retrain our teachers. Recruitment of teachers should be reformed and made transparent and devoid of all forms of favouritism. Educational supervisors should be deployed and strengthened across the state to monitor both the conduct of the teachers and students,” he said.
This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.