Gabriel Ogunjobi travels to the borderland between Nigeria and Benin Republic in Ogun State where brutal attacks on farmers by marauding herdsmen have caused untold tragedies. He reports on how COVID-19 realities are worsening a situation already too painful to describe, but which is creating a new army of out of school children and young people.
At Agbon village, Abidemi Ilo is laid on a mat at the veranda. He is being encouraged to ingest a little more of pap-cake and vegetables. He struggles because his whole body still aches badly from his hospital-dressed wound. January 10, 2020 was the day what he had long feared finally occurred. He became another victim in the long-running but ignored violence that cattle herders routinely inflicted on farmers across the border corridors of Ogun State. He was attacked, along with his father, Pa Sola, who was 80-year plus, on their two-plot yam farmland. The older man was not so lucky. He was hacked to death. Sola received machete wounds on his arm and his right foot.
The only reason Mr Ilo opted for home-care after spending three months at Federal Medical Centre in Ilaro, Ogun state, is to look after three of his children who are still at primary school.
“There is no one to take care of them. They wandered in the neighbourhood. They have not been going to school because their mother stayed with me at the hospital for nights and days since I was rushed-in.”
As he spoke, Mr Ilo’s children were standing behind the door that leads from the inner house to the veranda. They looked on watching as their father sobbed emotionally.
Mr Ilo is yet to overcome the trauma from the farm attack and is very unlikely to return for cultivation anytime soon. It also means primary education for the children will be on hold until further notice because of the lack of income to bear school needs. Maybe, they would even learn some crafts just like their elder brother, Sola, did learn vulcanizing.
The story bears similarities with that of 15-year old Folarin said to be in primary three at Community School, Asa, and whose father was killed on a farm in the same community.
Determinedly, Folarin returned to school after his father’s gruesome killing and has since been undertaking all sorts of manual labour to keep himself in school. But his younger brother had to halt his education and opted for motorcycle-riding business instead.
This sort of tragedy and the consequences on the education of the children of direct victims illustrate the vulnerability of children and young people on this Yoruba borderline between Nigeria and Benin Republic.
In March 2020, a newspaper reported on reduction in school enrolment in Ogun border communities due to the persistent clashes between local farmers and wandering herders.
In the prominent Ketu constituency at Yewa (Egbado) North Local Government, at least 53 of the 60 plus communities are in the frontline of violent marauding by cattle herders. Some of the most affected communities include Ogunba-Ayetoro, Asa, Ijoun, Igan-Alade, Ibore, Iselu. The 2006 national census puts the population of the constituency at 99,000. This is equivalent to 60 per cent of the 181,826 total population of the entire local government.
Apart from the continuum of community despair about safety and its telling effect on school enrolment, there is also the issue of lack of schools and the parlous state of most of those available in those communities. Such is the situation that the number of out-of-school children in the region may be growing exponentially.
School building in the area dates back to the 70s or earlier. Many of them are in a state of disrepair and in the most unsanitary environment, to say the least.
At Ogunba-Ayetoro, for instance, the local community school is a building of about five classrooms built of wood and iron-sheet. At full capacity, it can house up to 70 students. However, it is lacking in all the amenities one can associate with a school. This includes toilet facilities for the students or water for drinking. The environment is overgrown with elephant grass\weeds and severely neglected such that the building now looks the picture of a derelict storehouse.
One of the farmers cultivating on the land, Sunday Oke, informed this reporter that up to 200 children could show up in dry seasons when the herders rarely pasture and it is felt to be safe.
“Around last year, there were barely 60 to 70 school-children because herders scared them away. This year, we have only heard of those herders in Asa. They’re not yet here and may not be until around November/December,” he adds.
More and more schools are in a sorry state…
Of the twelve villages serving the Community Primary School at Ogunba-Ayetoro, only children from the near villages of Araromi, Ori-Oke, Agbale, Abe Isin and Saba would, by that November, be able to find their way to school if their parents ever let them.
The sight is not different at the Community Primary School in Oke Odo, Ibore, about 10km from Ogunba-Ayetoro. While children are subjected to learn under the perils of reptiles, the school is peculiar for yet another reason: it has two structures but neither of them meets UNICEF’s standard of primary school of providing significant personal and social environment in the lives of the pupils and the environment being physically safe, emotionally secure and psychologically enabling.
If it ever rains, it only means the children will be learning in swamps owing to the deplorable farmyard area.
More shocking is the 2015-built school directly behind the palace of the Oba Eselu of Iseluland. The flamboyant pillar offering direction at the express-road between Ilaro and Oja Odan is luring to assume the pupils’ learning facility would be an impressive structure to behold. But, the Community Primary School in Ilupeju, Oja Odan, is yet another eyesore. Knitted with bamboo and palm-front roof, the parallel structure is a makeshift abode for goats at night-time, lacking ventilation and proper illumination; it’s like a hut-like of a school.
The Eselu of Iseluland in Oja-Odan, in the Yewa-North Local Government Area of Ogun State, Oba Akintunde Akinyemi, bore his worry about the future of the children in his kingdom.
According to him: “communities here are abandoned, maybe because they are on the border and far from the attention of the government but the consequences are now evident. That’s why there’re increased rates of child labour for the girls and smuggling for the boys because they lack education.”
The killing of children, hacked to death in ambushes, in some of those clashes, aggravated the fear of parents about the safety of their children on their way to or return from school.
With the state of those schools, it is moot point to ask if they would be fit for learning purposes in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic.
‘We learn in the congregation of animals’
Ferried by a young bike-rider, Adeolu Kolade, I arrived at Community High School, Ebute Igbooro, some minutes past 1 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8. Situated on a large expanse of land, the school is a gateless compound with a large playing field overgrown by stubborn elephant grass.
While schools are yet to resume due to COVID-19 enforced shutdown, I was met by three students, Joel Egbeleye, Solomon Shofisile and Daniel Adekoya, who had been drafted in by their headteacher to show me around.
They are busy with the packing of planks detached from the top of the room for the block of junior classes – a plan for renovation by the state ministry of education.
Joel claims that ‘nothing is wrong with the block of classrooms considered for renovation by the government.’
‘Our classrooms that need proper renovation were ignored.’
What baffles the trio is that the structure considered for renovation by the Ogun state ministry of education is the newest in the school while the terrible senior secondary classes are left untouched.
The headteacher, Jonathan Oriokoku, corroborated this by saying that the school management was ignored when they tried to draw the attention of the representatives of the ministry to the rot in the senior classes. The representatives made insisted that their instructions did not include the more needy classrooms.
Although the headteacher could not accurately recollect the exact year the newer (government-constructed) structure was erected, he said it could not be further than 2012 and 2013. The dilapidated building, on the other hand, was erected by the Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) in the early 2000s
Joel and Solomon are both in the Art department of the senior secondary school 2 and Daniel is in Sciences. Arts and Commercial students share the same classroom. The students in the two departments are 120 plus. The class was originally expected to accommodate about 35 students.
“Sometimes, we don’t even enjoy the teaching because we are too many in the class. Look at the roof. Check the windows for yourself,” one of them advises me.
“It is not even a matter of lie. We learn in the congregation of goats and sheep who come to pasture at times.”
On the floor of the classrooms are goat’s dungs. The desks in the room vary in their condition with some broken, some in fair state but all showing evidence of prolonged use. The classroom ceilings are disjointed and appear to be waiting for the slightest of windstorm to push it to the ground. This picture is representative of all the classrooms from the senior school one to three.
If the school is fenced, the concern about the flock of sheep and cows polluting the classrooms will be gone. But social distancing in the time of COVID-19 is still a headache.
The school has a total of 1,125 students. In the JSS classes, there are 615 and SSS classes have 510 students. For the two classes occupied by SS2 alone, there are 90 students in the science department.
‘When COVID-19 comes, government shivers’
At Islamic High School, Oja-Odan, Yewa North, the management felt that their prayers were being answered when they received a phone call from the Ogun Stare ministry of education in the first week of July asking what their needs were for JSS3 and SS 3 students to resume.
The school has a total of 1,000 students who occupy two blocks of classrooms and a makeshift extension for junior students.
Originally owned and funded by the Islamic Association, the modest infrastructure was put in place by the parents- teachers association of the community.
At the behest of the community which was struggling at financing the school, the Ibikunle Amosun administration decided to transfer ownership of the school to the state two years ago.
The take-over process could however not be completed before Mr Amosun left office. His successor, Dapo Abiodun, did not reverse the decision; hence it is now a full government school. Teachers have been paid salaries since but there appears to be nothing else to show for the government ownership.
Among the infrastructure transferred to the government is an unfinished auditorium capable of sitting up to 3,000 students for general examinations such as junior and senior WAEC. The structure remains at the roofing level unattended and surrounded by overgrown weeds.
This explains why the Principal, Oghenechukwu Elvis, was first excited when that call came from the ministry of education.
When he heard it was about getting a section of the students back, his enthusiasm faded. “But we need more than just that. The school is completely overcrowded and infrastructure are in deficit,” he said.
Nonetheless, he remains optimistic that COVID-19 will make the government remember them.
‘Reopening in Nigeria now is a death sentence’, says education advocate
Hamzat Lawal, an advocate for education and founder of the not-for-profit organisation, Connected Development (CODE), points out that it will be suicidal to reopen all schools at the same time when COVID-19 may still be spreading. According to him, the level of infrastructural deficit across Nigerian public schools is too high for the right amount of safety needed to be properly put in place.
The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 gave recommendations for sanitation, use of face masks and social distancing if reopening of schools would be considered.
According to Mr Lawal, ‘COVID-19 has shown that Nigeria is very poor and under-developed. Many of the communities at the conflict-bed of the country lack portable water and other basic amenities. The schools are also dilapidated, overcrowded and some of the children have to sit on the floor to learn.’
“The people are so poor that many of the parents don’t even wear face masks let alone compel their children to do it. It is nearly impossible to ensure COVID-19 guidelines are adhered to if schools reopen.
‘If it will take Nigeria till 2021 before resumption, let the children sit at home. It is a death sentence to call for reopening of schools now. And, I will never be a party to that,” he said.
● state void of education commissioner
In September 2019, Ogun State Governor Dapo Abiodun facilitated the release of a N10.3 billion counterpart fund by the federal government to the state for the rehabilitation of 236 schools.
But most of the schools visited by this reporter have not been funded in any recent times. Both primary and secondary schools are decrepit and to abide by the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on preventing the spread of COVID-19 is arduous.
It is also noteworthy that the governor who assumed office over year ago is still to appoint a substantive commissioner of education.
Professor Sidi Osho, a professor of food technology and former Vice-Chancellor at Afe Babalola University, Ado-Ekiti (ABUAD), who was shortlisted for the position was rejected by the state’s house of assembly over her dismissal as a lecturer among other allegations.
She was, however, retained by the governor as the Special Adviser on higher education. She refused an interview when this reporter reached her to know about the government’s preparation ahead of resumption.