INVESTIGATION: Government questionable priorities fuel prevalence of out-of-school children in Akwa Ibom state

By Ekemini Simon 

Glory Tom, a 9-year-old girl from the oil-rich area of Ibeno in Akwa Ibom State sits about every morning on the veranda with a gloomy face, waving at her peers on their way to school. Every day, she is reminded that she no longer could go to school.

Glory Tom. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

Although she had wanted to become a teacher in the future, her dream was cut short in  2019, when her mother and the breadwinner of the family died during childbirth of her twin sisters.

Her unemployed father, David Tom says he could not afford to send Glory and her siblings to school.

In her neighbourhood, two sisters; 8-year-old Joyce Idorenyin and 7-year-old Gladys Idorenyin have never seen the four walls of a classroom since birth. During school hours, the children are found waiting for the return of fishing boats so that they could assist in selecting fish and earn an income for feeding.

Joyce Idoreyin. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

The children’s parents gave TheMail full access to speak to the children, describing their helplessness and need for government intervention.

The Village Head of this Community, Inuaeyet Ikot, Chief Ikot Bassey Essien says there are over 200 out-of-school-children in his community alone. He identifies the unavailability of primary school in his community and poverty as reasons why many children dropped out of school.

Village Head of Inuaeyet Ikot, Chief Ikot Bassey Essien. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

“We don’t have any government primary or secondary school in this village. Parents pay not less than N300 as transport fare for their wards to get to the nearest primary school at Mkpanak and return. Also, N600 is paid for our children to get to secondary school. Many here do not even have enough to eat. Where do they start from,” he asked.

Children at Ibeno beach waiting for boats to return during school hours. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

The story is not different from many children at the riverine local government area, Mbo. Many children seen by this reporter at the Ibaka seashore were working during school hours.

Children sighted at Ibaka beach during school hours. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

There were two homeless orphans, David Jesse and one who simply gave his name as Aboy. They were seen together during school hours at Ibaka beach market, waiting for fishermen to return so they could help them sort fish and earn some income.

from left to right: David Jesse and Aboy. Credit: Ekemini Simon

Jesse stopped his primary education last year after his mother’s death to join Aboy on the street. Aboy’s parents were killed by sea pirates in 2017. Therefore, both have given up hopes about school and use market stalls as their home.

The National Youth President of Ibaka, Mr. Daniel Udombo told TheMail Newspaper that the community is inundated with many out-of-school children owing to the economic challenges coupled with security challenges facing the residents.

National Youth President of Ibaka, Daniel Udombo. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

“The reason we have many out-of-school children here is because many children who are stigmatized as witches and wizards and do not have where to stay come here. They know they can find little things to do like helping the fishermen to select fishes and then receive little pay,” he said.

“Another reason is that many children here are orphans whose parents were killed by sea pirates. Some of their parents came from other countries and they simply do not have relatives here to cater to their basic needs let alone pay school fees”.

Yet, the village head of the community, Chief Asuquo Asuquo Etifit adds that the poor infrastructural condition of the school in the community especially at the government primary school, Ibaka has made many parents prefer their children to stay out of school.

Village Head of Ibaka, Chief Asuquo Asuquo Etifit. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

“There are no chairs in our primary school. When parents see their children sitting on the bare floor for classes, they become disturbed and many choose to withdraw their children to avoid health problems and wait until they have money to send them to private schools where they will have a comfortable learning environment,” he said.

These children are just a few of the many out-of-school children in the oil-rich State of Akwa Ibom, especially in the riverine communities.

The insight into the problem of out-of-school children is not really strange to the state. In August last year, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) published its 2020 report on men and women in Nigeria, which shows that Akwa Ibom State ranks second highest in Nigeria and highest among the Southern States with 581,800 estimated Number of Out-of-School Children at Primary School Level in 2017/2018.

This data was earlier published in the 2018 digest of basic education statistics by the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC).

Solution Identified, Yet no Commitment

The government of Akwa Ibom State is not oblivious of its poor record on out-of-school children. Analysis of the budget and financial statements of Akwa Ibom State between 2016 and 2021 shows that the problem was already identified and provisions were made on paper to tackle the prevalence six years before the NBS published its report in 2021. But there have been no monetary releases for the execution of these programmes since 2016.

For instance, in the budget of the Ministry of Education, the State provided for a project tagged “Campaign against non-enrolment of school-age children (Checking hawking and loitering during school hours)”. Budgetary provisions are as follows: In 2016 -N2.5m; N3m each was budgeted for 2017 and 2018. In 2019, N15m was budgeted. These provisions total N23.5m. TheMail Newspaper through a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry had asked for information on what the State spent on this item. The ministry ignored the request. Yet, checks into the financial statements of 2016 and 2018 showed that no money was released for the programme. TheMail newspaper was unable to access capital spending for 2017.

However, the 2019 financial statement reports that the State spent N11m in this fiscal year for the programme. The Newspaper through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request asked for evidence of spending on this item, particularly the media organisation used for the campaign or the form the campaign was carried out, dates and areas covered by the campaign. The ministry again ignored the request, thus raising suspicion against the execution of the programme.

Interestingly, the Accountant General’s report originally published for 2019 revealed that extra-budgetary spending among other scandalous disbursements does not capture spending for this project. This suggests that the  report for the year recorded N11m spending in order to balance the account and correct extra-budgetary spending as a cover for other scandalous items.

Also, since out-of-school children are mostly found in remote areas, the state government between 2016 and 2018 budgeted for the “Creation of Awareness of free and Compulsory Education in the remote areas of the State”.

The budgetary provisions were N2m each for the three fiscal years totaling N6m. The financial statements for 2016 and 2018 show that there were no releases. The ministry did not respond to requests that sought to know the spending for 2017.

What is more, in the budget of 2019 through 2021, the State initiated a project tagged “Conduct of Community and Household Research /Survey/mapping on out-of-school children by the Ministry of Education”. In 2019, N25m was budgeted but no release.  In 2020, N500, 000 was budgeted, and in 2021-N2m. These amount to N27.5m. Again, the ministry failed to respond to the request for spending data, raising suspicion that no release was made.

In 2019 through 2021, the state government initiated a project tagged “Collation and publication of report on out-of-school children in booklet form (3,000 copies @ N1, 000 per booklet) by Akwa Ibom State Ministry of Education”. N3m was budgeted for the subhead in 2019 without a release. N200, 000 each was provided for in the 2020 revised budget and 2021 budget. The ministry again failed to respond to requests for insight into the spending for this period.

Interestingly, budgetary provisions to address the problem of out-of-school children went beyond the Ministry of Education, the government of Akwa Ibom State also made budgetary provisions to the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB) for the “Mass Mobilisation/ Sensitisation Programme to Mop up out-of-School Children” This agency of government was introduced to serve as a catalyst for achieving free, compulsory and universal education for all school age children irrespective of their socio-economic circumstance.

While N5m was earmarked for the programme in 2017, N3m each was budgeted in 2018 and 2019. The total budget within these three years stands at N11m. Yet, the financial statements show that there were no releases in 2018 and 2019. Since the capital spending in the financial statement for 2017 could not be accessed by this newspaper, TheMail Newspaper through FOI request asked the Board for the spending made in 2017. This was ignored.

Infographics on Budgetary provisions to address the prevalence of out-of-school children.

The need for government to provide releases for campaigns to address the problem of out-of-school children was emphasised on October 20, 2020 when the House of Assembly Committee on Education visited SUBEB for oversight duties.

The then Chairman of the Board, Maria Ikorok warned that these out-of-school children are proliferating in numbers, especially in rural areas and harped on the need for government to be deliberate in giving attention to the problem. Despite the warning, the situation has remained unchanged. Nevertheless, there are yet other issues at the root of the preponderance of out-of-school children in Akwa Ibom State.

Contentious Free and Compulsory Education

The government of Akwa Ibom State claims that both public primary and secondary schools are free in the State. Yet, investigations have shown otherwise.

Findings show that parents and guardians still have to pay for various charge tags in some primary and all secondary schools across the State before their wards can be accommodated. It has been gathered that the State government had asked secondary schools to charge Intervention fees of N500 per term.  Findings revealed that the authorisation has opened a leeway for arbitrary charges among other demands from principals including Head Teachers of Primary Schools.

For some primary schools especially in the rural areas, they now charge N500 for handwork and N200 for examination fees. Although many Secondary Schools now charge N1, 200 per term for intervention fee, Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and Examination fee, there are schools that have added other requirements. Of interest is the Special Education Centre for Children with Special Needs, Uyo.  TheMail newspaper obtained from parents a list of charges to be fulfilled before a child could commence school.

Analysis of the list revealed items that government subvention should have addressed to include; two big toilet papers at N1200, detergents- N1200, brooms, cutlass and hoe -N3,600, 2  file jackets- N600, Intervention fee- N1500 totalling N8,100 per session.

Contacted, the Principal of the school, Esther Unung claimed that besides Intervention fees, other requirements are only optional. “We only ask for those items when admission is about to be given to a child. Till a child leaves school, they don’t provide it again. Moreover, they are not compulsory. We only present it to parents as a requirement. If they are unable to afford it, we do not stop their children from gaining admission.” she said.

The arbitrary charges and requirements discovered in many schools, although appears insignificant to those privileged to have their children in private school, many in extreme poverty are unable to afford the charges even as they wriggle with providing school uniforms, books among other educational needs. The NBS 2019 report on Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria puts Nigerians living in extreme poverty at 89.2 million (40.1 percent of Nigeria’s population).

Parents and guidance of children who are out of school say they cannot afford the cost of enrolling their wards in public school because of these charges and requirements.

One of such parents who is constrained to afford the charges is Promise Idorenyin, the mother to Joyce and Gladys mentioned at the outset. She says when she took her children to register at the nearest primary school to her community, Government Primary School Mkpanak, in Ibeno local government area, she was told by the school authority that the fee for each pupil will be N4, 000 thus totalling N8, 000 for her two children.

“We don’t even have money to eat as a family. After buying their books and uniform, will I come and pay N8, 000 as fees? We can’t afford that. I wish the government would help me to further them in school. If school is truly free, I will send them”, she told TheMail.

Mrs. Promise Idoreyin. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

The arbitrary school fees charged by the public primary school is mentioned by Glory’s father, David Tom as a challenge that causes her daughter to drop out.  When TheMail newspaper visited the school as an undercover parent who will enroll a child at the beginning of the new session in September, the Head Teacher said the charge will be between N3, 000 to N5, 000. When asked what the charge was for, she said she could only give the explanation in September.

Signpost of Primary School, Mkpanak. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

The experience was not too far off at the only public secondary school in Ibeno, Secondary Grammar School, Upenekang. When TheMail newspaper interacted with students of the school, they told this newspaper that for returning students, they only have to pay N500 for intervention, N500 for Parent-Teachers Association (PTA), and N500 for continuous assessment totalling N1, 500 per term. For new students, they will have to add N500 for personal files and N10, 000 for school uniform and cardigan.

However, when this newspaper inquired from the school the reason behind the charges despite the government’s free education policy, the Vice Principal Administration, Mrs Rose Abia denied that the school received other charges besides Intervention fee and PTA.

Vice Principal Administration, Mrs. Rose Abia. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

She explained that the Intervention fee charged is approved by the government for infrastructural maintenance while PTA charge is a remuneration arrangement by parents and authorities of the local government area to pay security personnel and about 30 PTA staff who teach in the school due to inadequacy of government employed teachers.

The Vice Principal added “The money we get is not even adequate. At the moment, we are owing PTA staff three months’ salary.”

Contacted, the Director, Secondary and Higher Education, Dr Glory Ekpo said the only charge approved for secondary school is N500 per term hence all other charges are illegal.

Yet, it cannot be said that the State Government is oblivious of the unauthorised charges. The State Government has education monitoring teams in place from the Ministry of Education, Inspectorate Services, and Office of the Secretary to the State Government. Analysis of the Financial Statements of the State revealed that these three offices, within six years (2015 through 2020) received grants and subvention for “Education Monitoring” amounting to N169.1million.

 

Government Spending on Controversial Free Education

Despite the charges by public schools, checks into the State Approved budget of the administration of Governor Udom Emmanuel reveal that between 2015 and 2022, the State Government budgeted N4.1bn for primary schools in the State as ” Payment of subvention (N100 per child)” while N4.7bn is the budget for the same period for secondary schools as “payment of subvention (N200 per Child)”.

TheMail Newspaper in FOI request to the Ministry of Education had sought to know the total number of pupils in primary school and students in secondary school across the State per year within the period under review. This request was neglected.

Yet, the release of the budgeted sum has been questionable. For instance, Checks into the State’s Financial Statements for 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019 showed that out of the N2.02bn budgeted for primary schools these four years, only N597 Million was recorded as the actual spending. This reported expenditure is 29.6 percent of the amount budgeted thus raising questions if the sum was adequate for what the State earmarked for the implementation of free education for public primary schools.

 

For secondary schools, during the four-year period in which TheMail newspaper could access the financial statements, out of the N2.47bn budgeted, only N865 Million was released. This is 35 percent of the amount budgeted.

Head Teachers in Primary Schools and Principal of Schools contacted by TheMail newspaper who refused their name on print since they have not been authorised to speak revealed that subvention to schools have not been regular and has been abysmally poor hence makes the free education policy impractical. One of the school administrators noted “Payment of subvention was only regular and substantial during the administration of Governor Godswill Akpabio. That was the reason free and compulsory education worked during that administration.

“Under this administration, it is very irregular. And for schools to run, these little charges are necessary else the school system will collapse totally. It is money for subvention that we use to buy chalk which is N1300 per pack and a day we use at least two packs. We use this same money to buy toilet paper, notes of lessons among other necessities for classes.”

Another public school administrator explained that it is because the Government acknowledges that subvention to schools has not been regular and very poor to sustain schools, hence the approval given for schools to get intervention fees.

What is more, a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Education who cannot be named in this report because of security concerns revealed that even the amount recorded in the financial statements as being disbursed does not even get to the Ministry, not to mention being disbursed to schools.

“The N400 million you have shown as being spent in 2019 on secondary schools is not even possible. We have not seen such an amount not to mention disbursement to schools. With 251 secondary schools in 2019, it will mean that at least one school got a minimum of N1.5 million as subvention. Which school can boast of even 1/4 of that amount?” the Source queried.

TheMail newspaper in an FOI request sought for information and evidence of payment of subvention to each public school in the State. The Ministry of Education did not honour this request. A follow-up reminder sent to the Ministry at the expiration of seven working days provided for in the FOIA still did not get a response till date thus raising suspicion that there is something fishy in the disbursement of the funds to schools.

Meanwhile, the government-approved intervention fee of N1, 500 paid by students per session is seven times higher than the N200 the government budgets per child in secondary school.

Difficulty to Access Public Schools – Another Concern 

Easy access to public schools has also posed a serious challenge birthing many school dropouts. This is the case with Prince Jonathan who stays at Mkpanak, Ibeno. After finishing primary school last year, he is unable to commence secondary school because of the over 4 kilometres distance he has to cover before getting to the only public secondary school in the local government area, Government Grammar School, Upenekang.

Prince Jonathan. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

His father, Joseph Jonathan says although it is difficult to feed his family daily, he will have to cough out N600 daily and at least N12,000 monthly as the cost of his son’s transport fare if he is to further his academics to secondary school. The cost is about double for those around Okoroutip and Atabrikang communities.

Mr. Joseph Jonathan. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

Having only one secondary school in Ibeno local government area has caused many children to stop school and venture into the fishing business immediately after their primary school.

But this challenge would have been reduced if the model secondary school at Atabrikang, started by the state government during the administration of Governor Victor Attah had been completed and put to use. After Obong Attah left office in 2007, the model school has remained abandoned even though it appears yearly in the State budget.

Moreover, findings reveal that most communities within fishing settlements in the State do not have public primary schools. For students to leave these areas to communities with schools, they must use boats. This challenge makes it difficult for children within these areas to access formal education  Still, the Government of Akwa Ibom State in the budget of SUBEB from 2015 through 2022 has approved N3 million each year for the “Provision of 3 No. 40 HP outboard engine”, to make students access school. Checks into four years financial statements accessed by TheMail reveal that there has been no release for the acquisition of this boat.

Governor Emmanuel Cruises on Jet while Out-of-school-children Increase

Analysis of government spending within the period under review has shown that paucity of funds was not a challenge to adequately fund as budgeted programmes that sought to directly address the problem of out-of-school children and also fund the free and compulsory education policy of the State.

A child hawking during school hours in Ibeno. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

The analysis of the State’s financial statements revealed that in each year of 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019, the State Governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel had prioritized spending multi-million naira of state resources on his travels through the maintenance of the State Aircraft.

Funds disbursed on this subhead which many citizens of the State have described as elitist with the call for the state to sell the aircraft would have been more than enough to tackle the concerns of school enrolment in the State.

For instance, in 2015, N265 Million was needed to execute programmes that will address the problem of out-of-school children and balance the subvention for both primary and secondary schools as budgeted. Even one-third of the N967.1 million spent that year for the maintenance of the Governor’s private jet would have adequately catered for these educational needs.

In 2016, the N957 million the state spent for the maintenance of the aircraft was 30 percent higher than the N734.5 million needed for subvention and programmes to enhance school enrolment.

In 2018, the N2bn spent on state aircraft was 104 percent higher than N980.6 needed to pay subvention and address issues of out-of-school-children.

Same in 2019 when the state spent N2.5bn on the aircraft. This was 127 percent higher than the N1.1bn needed to improve school enrolment.

What Free Education Law, Child Right Law Provide

Although the State Government has approved Intervention fees to be collected by secondary schools while some school heads (Primary and Secondary) get unauthorized charges, this uncanny development contravenes the Compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Law of Akwa Ibom State (2005).

Section 4 (1) provides that “All services provided in public primary and junior secondary schools shall be charge free”. The Child Rights Law of Akwa Ibom State (2008) correlates the provision by adding in section 15 (1) that “Every child has the right to free, compulsory and universal basic education and it shall be the duty of the Government of Akwa Ibom State to provide such education.”

Subsection 2 of section 4 of the Free Education Law prescribes a fine of N25,000 or imprisonment for a term of three (3) years or both for ” Any person who receives or obtains any fee or any other charge contrary to the provision of subsection 1″.

Interestingly, the government is not the only one obligated to play the role that should address the problem of out-of-school children. Parents have a pivotal role. The Child Rights Law of Akwa Ibom State (2008) provides in section 15 (2) that “Every parent or guardian shall ensure that his child or ward attends and completes his- (a) primary school education; and (b) junior secondary education.” Subsection (3) adds that “Every parent, guardian or person who has the care and custody of a child who has completed his basic education, shall endeavour to send the child to a senior secondary school, except the child shall be encouraged to learn an appropriate trade and the employer of the child shall provide the necessaries for learning the trade.”

Akwa Ibom State Government fails to present evidence of spending to Fight Out-of-school children

The Ministry of Education and State Universal Basic Education Board could not provide evidence of government spending to address the increase in the number of out-of-school children.

The FOIA request and reminders for key documents and information to these two MDAs were disregarded. However, in reply to the letter to the Ministry of Education, the Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Akwa Ibom State, Mr Uko Udom a month after our request told TheMail that the request cannot be granted since the FOIA has not been adopted in the state.

Attorney General’s Reply to TheMail’s FOI request.

The Acting Chairman, State Universal Basic Education Board, Mr. Iniobong  Akpan during an interview with TheMail also insisted that SUBEB will not respond to the request. He said “Who gave you the powers to ask for what we spend? Go to the Accounts Committee of the House of Assembly and make your request during Public Hearing “.

The failure of these two offices to respond to the FOI request is a familiar practice of public institutions in Akwa Ibom State. Yet, the excuse given by the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice has been found wanting. There are several rulings which have insisted that states too are answerable to the FOIA as long as whatever demands made are in public interest. The last of such ruling is the 34-page judgment delivered on March 27, 2018 by Appeal Court in Ondo State which expressly noted that no state has the right to shun demands made under the FOI Act. This insight was noted in TheMail’s reply to the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice.

TheMail’s reply to Attorney General’s decline of FOI request.

Besides ignoring  FOIA requests, the Ministry of Education and the legislative arm of the government of Akwa Ibom State were dodgy in their response to comments on key issues.

The State Commissioner for Education, Idongesit Etiebet after several visits to her office, calls and messages only responded to a WhatsApp message on July 22, directing this newspaper to channel concerns to the Information Officer of the Ministry.

“Please meet the ministry’s information officer”. The Ministry’s Information Officer, Nsikak Akpan, Director, Secondary and Higher Education, Mrs. Glory Ekpo and Director, State Education Quality Assurance Services, Mrs. Roseline Mfon when contacted all insisted that questions raised should be directed back to the Commissioner. TheMail had requested to know if approval was given for the collection of intervention, PTA, handwork and examination fees at public schools, the reason for the approved charges despite free education law and what the ministry has done and plans to address out-of-school-children.

The experience was not different when the Chairman, House of Assembly Committee on Education, Mr. Godwin Ekpo was contacted severally in his office and on phone for clarification on the oversight responsibility played by the Assembly on the issue of out-of-school children. On July 19, he promised to speak after liaising with the Commissioner for Education. Since then, he has ignored requests for comment, despite several reminders sent to him.

TheMail specifically asked about the committee’s actions on the non-release of funds for programmes on out-of-school-children, the committee’s actions after NBS published a report on out-of-school-children last year, their actions on charges in public schools against free and compulsory education law of the State.

Government not to Blame for Increase in number of out-of-school-children -SUBEB Chairman Insists 

The Acting Chairman of SUBEB insists that the government of Akwa Ibom State is not to blame for the prevalence of out-of-school children in the State.

Acting Chairman of SUBEB, Mr. Iniobong Akpan. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

Although the Chairman disputed the veracity of the NBS’ report, he claimed that SUBEB has been carrying out sensitisation programmes in order to address the problem of out-of-school children. “There are times we visit communities and we see such children. Parents are to blame for procreating when they do not have the ability to cater for them. They cannot leave everything for the government. We often sensitise them to procreate the number of children they can take care of.”

Akpan said SUBEB is also on the lookout for teachers who get unapproved charges thus thwarting the free education law of the state.

The Acting Chairman blamed the leadership of communities for condoning teachers who engage in arbitrary charges. He stated “We caught one of such head teachers and I can assure you that strict discipline will follow. However, there is a School Based Management Committee in every village and village heads are the Chairmen. Their work is to give feedback on what is happening in their location.

Akwa Ibom State Government must Prioritize Education Now- NGO

A Non-governmental organisation, Youth for Change Initiative (YOFCI) has called on the Akwa Ibom State Government to give more priority to education.

YOFCI Executive Director, Peace Edem said the problem of out-of-school children is aggravated due to poor attention given to children and education in Akwa Ibom State.

YOFCI Executive Director, Peace Edem. Credit: Ekemini Simon.

“It is very disturbing that programmes that should have addressed issues of out-of-school-children never received attention through releases for years despite costing very little millions of naira. Yet, controversial spending for the elites which are in billions gets attention.

“However, we must not look at out-of-school children as only those who cannot go to school. I have seen quite many in the capital city loitering with friends in school uniforms during school hours. Their parents think they are in school but they are not. Where are the teachers and education inspectors that we used to have?

“If this practice continues, it is a danger for the future because it is these out-of-school-children that would be exploited to become criminals. Government must immediately become deliberate to address this menace”.

*This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting*

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