Nestled in one of the high-flown suburbs of Lagos, The Civic Centre was a place for a sober event. Not often do ex-classmates amass big names to a hall to ponder the dynamic of secondary education in Nigeria. Especially at a time like this when few pay attention to our schools. Rather, everyone who can afford it wants their wards out of the county.
It was the old boys of Government College, Ughelli, the September 1973 set, who organised it. I am an old boy of that set, and we sat together early in the year to work out a podium for a fest of ideas. We had it October 26. The chairperson was a well-known intellectual, exponent of mathematics and the first female vice chancellor in Nigeria, Professor Grace Alele-Williams. Another distinguished female, former teacher and educationist Senator Oluremi Tinubu, also starred in the event.
From the north was one of the brightest minds anywhere, Governor Kashim Shetima of Borno State. Another well-honed personage, the charismatic Governor Seriake Dickson of Bayelsa State. Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode was represented by his special adviser on education, Obafela Bank-Olemoh. The chairman of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick, came around as well. The JAMB Registrar Professor Ishaq Oloyede missed the event but distinguished it with a representative Professor Afeez Oladosu.
We had a good range, and the audience enjoyed each speaker. Professor Alele-Williams surprised me when she showed up, and she observed it when she materialised at the venue. She had doubted she would make it because of the imperative of countervailing event. But there she was. And she kicked off the event with engaging speech about the decay of education and she spoke on the virtue of not only education quality but the essence of gender sensitivity. Setting of the panel discussion was Governor Dickson, who spiced his speech with jibe at GCU for not granting him admission he applied. But his heart was still with the school.
He spoke about grassroots education and his speech showed how he was retrieving the state from the backwaters to the modern ways. He emphasised the value of secondary education and reeled out what he had done with the Ijaw Academy as well as his being the first governor to install boarding school in the state. He was challenged when he became governor as to where he would get the funding for boarding schools. “Now in Bayelsa, we have almost 15 model boarding schools.” About 3000 students are now on government scholarships.
Borno State Governor Shettima stunned everyone with his delivery. Levitating his talk with philosophy, statistics and anecdote. A politician with the fastest rising profile in the country, he had impressed Nigerians with his courage and aplomb in the nasty days of Boko Haram. Many saw at the colloquium that it was no hollow courage.
Deep intellectual engagement and moral vision were on display that day from his lips. With clear-eyed diction and eloquence, he spoke of efforts he was making to turn Borno around in the wake of militant depredations, a thing I have personally witnessed and will document soon on this page. He spoke on the girl child but warned that if we do not take care of the youths today they will take care of us tomorrow.
Senator Tinubu gave a pungent delivery about gender education. Speaking against the background as a former teacher, organiser of children and mobiliser for generational good, she warned about taking care of what we imbue the young with. She spoke with heart and mind to a rapturous audience. Pinnick draped the air with the talk on sports and Prof. Oladosu who represented Prof. Oloyede spoke on standards.
Gov. Ambode lamented the decline, which he chalked up to lack of funding. He noted that funding was not adequate, but innovative ideas. Code Lagos launched recently is one of such innovative ideas to vault students to global standards and students in the state will learn how to code in three years.
From all that happened, it was clear what we wanted. As we all know, education is not just about what we ingest from textbooks. But it counts. It is not just what we hear from the thespian fervour of our great teachers. We cannot discount that.
It is not only about the strict regimen in the routine glory of a school day from dawn to dusk, including cleaning our bed spaces, ironing our uniforms, observing prep hours, etc. But we have to tally these into it as well.
It is about all these. The lucubration, the punishments, the praises for a great essay in class, a smooth crack at a mathematical puzzle, a score at the football field, etc.
This is education of the mind, body, and spirit, a light that lights everywhere. That creates what the Greeks designated as Paideia, which entails the cultural education that gives birth to a model citizen, what the British call a gentleman in a noble sense, or the American with a picture shorn of feudal overhang. In Nigerian, the closest I can associate with it is what the Yoruba call Omoluabi.
That is the legacy of Government College, Ughelli, to us who have made it. We of the class of September 1973 are proud of this legacy, and whatever we do, whether we soar in the high places of the world or not, we know that we carry in us a sweet burden to do good to this society. And that is why we chose the topic for the Colloquium, Raising a Wise Generation.
Unmistakably present was the poet and GCU old boy John P. Clark. Governor Shettima reminded us of his books, including America their America, Ozidi and Song of a Goat. Also his brother, another old boy Ambassador B. A. Clark materialised.
GCU was as of 2003 a shadow of its old glory. A boarding school system had collapsed into day school, and weeds garlanded the landscape darkly. The classrooms blocks lost colour, and teachers were low-grade. Under the leadership of the late Gamaliel Onosode, who was the president of the old boys, it was decided to start work on the school. We needed N350 million to revive a school of one mile square and bigger than most universities, with nine halls of residence, four standard football fields, two hockey fields, an athletics field, two lawn tennis courts, etc. The old boys have raised over N500 million.
We are still working. Boarding is back, buildings restored and still more work to do. My class has set out to build a tech centre for modern technology from technical drawing, to metal work, to wood work, to software and hardware, computer skills, programming, etc. Gov. Shettima wondered why Nigerians were still focused on mundane matters when the world was under the spell of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc.
What we are doing at GCU should be an eye-opener to all. Our great schools are in decline. Was it not a disgrace that Queens College was grappling with deaths from water? As senator Tinubu said, education is not for government alone. GCU old boys are asking to be part of governing council. If we are to save the secondary school, we need to follow the model of GCU. Government College Umuahia that gave us the great Achebe is doing same.