Annang Mma! Ukot Mi Mma! Mma-ma de!! Yak Abasi adion Akwa Ibom State.
Let me thank you for asking me to share my perspectives on an issue that is not only important but dear to my heart: the education of our children, and what you can do to help, especially given your advantaged status of residing in one of the world’s most developed countries; where literacy is valued.
But before we go further, please let’s take a minute to pray for the lives lost and persons traumatized, following the recent #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. May the good LORD grant our leaders the wisdom to always do the right things; and may the lives lost, not be in vain, in Jesus name. Amen!
Let me begin by acknowledging the contributions that most of you have made towards improving the lives of our people back home. According to the Central Bank of Nigeria data, Nigeria received $17.57 billion in direct diaspora remittances between January and November 2019. There is no doubt that your hard-earned dollars was part of this. So, I thank you. I know you plan to continue helping; which is probably why you extended an invitation for me to speak to you on this issue. However, in exploring how to go about it, permit me to remind you of one of our proverbs, which says “K’use itie nte akeduọ, kap se itie nte akefiọnọ”(meaning, do not look at where you fell but where you slipped). As you all know, a slip precedes a fall!
NIGERIA’S EDUCATION SECTOR
There is an urgent demand for a holistic, speedy revamp of Nigeria’s education sector. Reasons range from poor funding to inadequate facilities and lack of competent teachers, among others. The rot is so deep that today, there is an increasing loss of confidence especially in our public school system. Those who are seemingly financially comfortable; prefer to enroll their wards in private schools, even in countries we never would have thought of before now. Since these schools don’t come cheap, and are unaffordable to majority of the citizens, it is therefore not surprising that there is a nexus between the collapse of our educational system, the competition to embrace private schools in and outside the country, and corruption.
But beyond corruption, social conflicts are now on the rise, especially between the privileged, including you, and the rest of the society, who either did not go to school at all or went through one that did not equip them with the needed morals. I don’t need to remind you about how you are perceived by some people whenever you visit home. If you think you are roundly appreciated, this is possible only to the extent that you continue to satisfy their needs. That assumed love immediately disappears once you are no longer in a position to fund it. My point is this: there was something about the education of our time that equipped us to become who we are today; and we must bring that back if we want to normalize the society. That is why I am asking you not to look at where we fell, but rather, where we slipped.
In 2004, following my tour of work assignments which included the US (New Orleans, Coral Cables, and Houston), and Belgium, I was opportune to be appointed an Executive Director of Mobil Producing Nigeria. I was probably the youngest director of an international oil and gas company at that time; and life was good. Work was very tedious, and we happily looked forward to ‘Friday Boys’ Night’. But it did not take long to realize that while these outings were desirable, the major item on the table, after a few rounds of drinks, was always how to make Nigeria better. Individually, we had stories of what we were doing at family or community levels, but at a broader level, we looked up to Government as the sole agent on more important areas of our lives.
Nigeria as we know, does not lack opportunities for intervention. So, the more I thought about the early missionaries—who came with the church and schools, and transformed our lives, the more I became convinced that we could do something more holistic to change the course of events. Through the Inoyo Toro Foundation, we opted to intervene in the education sector in Akwa Ibom state, with focus on Science, Mathematics and English Language teachers. It has been 13 years of rewarding but I must add, adrenaline-charged experience.
There was yet another reason why we found an intervention in the education sector necessary. This had to do with being employed by ExxonMobil, which, though operating in Nigeria, had the same global standards, including a performance matrix that held everyone to account, irrespective of nationality or background. I am sure you all can recollect how you felt when you first arrived the US; your first semester in college, when you were teased for speaking with an accent; being unable to do what was considered normal, including using the ATM; or not knowing what food to order in a restaurant, even with money in your pocket, or how to read a map for direction (remember there was no Global Positioning System-GPS, until recently), etc.? But now, levels have changed! Looking back, you may ask, how did you cope? What made you survive?
That was exactly how some of us felt when we joined the company. Considering how competitive the environment was—in terms of employment and subsequent career growth—we decided to come together so that we could help one another. We set up ‘UFOK’, through which we volunteered time to teach and mentor students; search for qualified applicants, prepare them for interviews, and generally on-board them when hired. We offered advice to school authorities, as well as local and the state government, especially on the need to improve the standards of education to ensure our people were in a good position to compete. While we recorded some successes, some of us were convinced that much still needed to be done, especially in the education sector. We therefore proceeded to act in 2007.
THE INOYO TORO FOUNDATION
Let me upfront acknowledge that whenever you choose to intervene, in any matter of public interest, you will need a high dose of willpower to succeed, given that your motive will be questioned, often, but sadly, by those unwilling or unable to act. I am sure that those of you who embark on regular medical missions home have stories to share. We probably would have given up very early because the teachers we set out to help did not believe we were genuine; neither did the government show any encouragement at the initial stage. In fact, despite my personal closeness to Governor Godswill Akpabio, who supported what we were doing, some of his aides were bent on frustrating our efforts. They believed the intervention effort was political; or worse, an effort to ridicule Government’s free education policy.
I will never forget November 2012, when Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, the current Governor of Kaduna state arrived Uyo as the guest speaker, and we were told that there was a directive for officials, including the teachers, to boycott the function. But that was not true. I am happy that I was able to reach the Governor who was out of the country and he instructed his deputy to represent him. Similarly, in 2013, while Osita Chidoka, Chief Executive, Federal Road Safety Corp, as guest speaker acknowledged the ‘uncommon transformation’ efforts of Governor Akpabio, he also advised that the real and sustainable transformation must be in the education sector. These comments did not go well with some people and we were thoroughly carpeted. Unfortunately, most of those who were attacking did not know the relationship the Governor had with Osita and by the time he read the speech, he was even appreciative of the remarks. I am citing these examples to demonstrate how nightmarish it is to get things done, but you must persevere. The staff and Board members, incorruptible Teacher’s Screening Committee (starting with the pioneer Chairman, the late Professor Mbipom, who passed away in 2013; and now Dr. Enobong Joshua of the Mathematics Department, University of Uyo), sponsors and mentors, some from outside the state, have been doggedly committed to the cause and I thank them all. I am deeply appreciative of my wife who always reminded me that this effort was not about us, but about the teachers and students. She was right!
ACTIVITIES OF THE FOUNDATION
This is our flagship programme, with 238 teachers winning cash awards of N500, 000 per subject; and the same amount for the Grand-Mentor Prize. The selection process is tedious and transparent, and only those who excel get rewarded. There is absolutely no external influence. Over 2,000 teachers have so far benefitted from capacity trainings put together by Accenture and the American International School, Lagos.
The Mentorship Programme
“An educational system isn’t worth a great deal if it teaches young people how to make a living but doesn’t teach them how to make a life.” - Unknown
This Mentorship Programme enables successful professionals to adopt and mentor students. With 262 public secondary schools in Akwa Ibom state, our target is that every school must have a mentor. As of 2019, the Foundation had almost 100 mentors and over 3000 students have been impacted since inception. Some of the early mentees are now university graduates and have signed up to mentor other students.
I must admit that this programme is indeed life-changing. I know how these students feel when they walk into Ibom Hotel, to spend time with their mentors. I witnessed the nervousness in students (and even the Principal) of Enwang Comprehensive Secondary school, Mbo Local Government Area, when they first met their mentor, Major General Isidore Edet, and how in subsequent years, it’s always an exciting re-union. I saw the joy of students of Community Comprehensive Secondary School, Ikot Eyo, Nsit Ubium, when they interacted with their mentor Samuel Essien of New York, via Skype. I have observed Ani Umoren, a mentor for over a decade, break down complex matters to his students of Government Secondary school, Nto Nsek, and you wish he was assigned a permanent role in the classroom.
The Principal’s Award
Instituted 3 years ago, this is intended to reward excellence in schools’ administration. It is targeted at creative or innovative thinking put in place to make the school impactful to students and teachers.
A half-hour phone-in radio programme on Planet FM 101.1 Uyo, comes up every Sunday between 3pm and 3.30pm Nigerian time. This is meant to inform and enlighten the populace on activities in the education sector. It is also meant to share the experiences of teachers, students and heads of schools with a view to harnessing resources for intervention and solutions. These have recorded positive feedback from the public.
Collaborations in Key Educational Sectors
In 2011, partnership was secured with Keystone Bank Plc, aimed at providing ICT Centers in 4 secondary schools in the State, namely: Cornelia Connelly College, Uyo, Independent High School, Essien Udim, Methodist Boys’ High School, Oron, and Salvation Army Secondary School, Akai Ubium. Each center was provided with a fully equipped computer laboratory, serviced by 30 VSAT Internet ready computers, a dedicated 27 kVA generator, a British Curriculum and a privately employed coordinator to effectively coordinate studies across the four schools.
In 2020, borne out of the need to have more Akwa Ibom youths seize opportunities in the performing arts industry, the Foundation collaborated with Mrs. Emem Isong-Mordi’s Royal Arts Academy, to train youths in acting, directing, editing, screenwriting, movie production and cinematography. Thirty three students were sponsored by the Foundation as pioneer students, to undertake systematic trainings in these areas. I hope you all know who Emem is and have been watching some of her movies, like AYAMMA, which is now on NETFLIX.
International Center for Energy and Environmental Sustainability Research, University of Uyo
While this is outside the Foundation scope, it is a project you should be interested. In 2015, in an effort to strengthen research, innovation, technology and capacity improvement in Akwa Ibom State, I supported the establishment of this research center which focuses on:
• Incubation of ideas and inventions;
• Transformation of academic researches into technologies for commercialization;
• Offering solutions for small and medium scale enterprises;
• Human capacity development for green business growth.
Directed by Dr. Edu Inam, a promising academic and Associate Professor of Chemistry in the University of Uyo, the center is in need of more support and I miss no opportunity to solicit such in order to drive advances in science, technology and innovation for the betterment of our society.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO?
Let me share a story of what happened in 2008, when the first set of award-winning teachers came to American International School, Lagos, for training. Larry Ettah, then Group Managing Director of UAC Plc, hosted these teachers to a dinner at his Ikoyi residence. As is customary with such events, one of them was asked to offer a vote of thanks at the end of the dinner. The guests were almost moved to tears when Mr. Edet Okon Esedeke, a Mathematics teacher at the Methodist Senior Science College, Oron, spoke. For almost all of them, that was the first time they entered an airplane and staying in a hotel—a life changing experience. But the main deal, captured in his words was this: “never in my life have I been appreciated by anyone for my teaching efforts."
Mr. Esedeke may not know, but he gave us the much needed fillip to sustain this programme. That he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics means he was a brilliant student, but regrettably, he got trapped for over 2 decades in a system that could not appreciate him and his peers. I am glad that he would later become a Principal, before retiring from service.
SUPPORT OUR TEACHERS
Barrister Edo Ukpong, chairman of the Foundation’s 2016 awards ceremony reminded us of what we can do, when he said:
“Every human being likes to be appreciated. It does not always have to be in cash! At times, a simple handshake will do! We will all agree that we do not accord our teachers the regard and gratitude worthy of their positions. No matter the opinion we have of their standards or performance, they are who we have now and like it or not, their standards or performance are the making of the society. Treating them shabbily or without regard will only make matters worse. As a product of two teachers, I grew up being called fondly ‘Akpan Teacher’ (Teacher’s first son) by everybody around us and I was very proud of that fact. The same is not the case today where teachers are regularly bullied by parents and students and generally looked down upon by society.
“We must change this attitude and we can all play our roles as individuals in reversing this narrative. To get anything meaningful from our teachers, we simply must accord them the requisite respect and appreciation; …obtain the phone numbers of about three teachers in any school of your choice in your locality, call or send them goodwill messages from time to time and find out how they are doing. You will all be surprised at the positive impact this small gesture will have on their morale and self-esteem. A bag of rice or other items to be shared will show that we value their services. Invite the teachers in your chosen school to any private function you host and recognize their presence!”
Edo is right.
ADOPT A SCHOOL
When my sister, Eka Morgan, became the President of Ubium Development Association, USA in 2006, she reached out to me on what impactful project could be done back home. Naturally, I opted for something in the education sector, and recommended having running water in primary schools in Ubium Clan. I am glad she pursued this and delivered same in 19 schools. Has it ever occurred to you why some students still go to school late in the morning? Or what the sanitary conditions are in these schools? Are we conscious of the embarrassment faced by the girl-child during her monthly cycle in such an environment?
I am very happy that some mentors of the Foundation have utilized the platform of the alumni association to directly intervene in the provision of infrastructure support to their Alma Mata. You can do the same. As a group and as individuals, you can make a conscious effort to help improve boarding facilities, improve library infrastructure, help with access to good drinking water, and contribute to improvement of schools’ hygiene, curriculum development, and so on.
I am always grateful to my mother who endorsed my request to convert a section of my father’s house in the village into a library. That library, in a serene and safe environment, with electricity, now serves students of four communities. So, do you have a locked-up property back home that can be put to good use?
MENTOR A CHILD
Education has taken developed nations many years ahead of us. The challenge to help our children back home—to move up and match the level of young people elsewhere—is therefore a task not just for government, but for all of us. The place of mentoring cannot be over-emphasized. I always enjoy sharing the story of DianaAbasi E Etim, Emmanuel Ikpeme Inyang and Nkposeno Sabastian Effiong mentored by one of our board members, Mr. Usen Udoh. About 9 years ago, Usen adopted St. Mary’s Commercial Secondary school, Ikot Nseyen, Nkwot Ikono, and put in place a methodical approach to achieving his goal. Hear him:
“…footing all school bills, but most importantly constantly talking to them, encouraging them and monitoring them…I bought loads of novels and autobiography… and sent them across with assignments for them to read and write me reviews and interchange. This was to help their reading culture and stimulate their curiosity. They all knew they had ONLY one strike at JAMB. If you passed the JAMB, I sponsored you to write, that’s it! You automatically get a full scholarship throughout any university course in Nigeria. Full scholarship means tuition, books, monthly stipend, and accommodation throughout school. Only one chance. No excuses”.
Within a short period of interaction, his mentees had adjusted, with some emulating his mannerism. Today, several of them have graduated from the university and with the three I mentioned employed by Dangote Refinery. Their stories could have been different.
Fortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has further opened our eyes to the extensive role and impact of on-line interaction. Let the respected members of this organization take up the challenge of mentoring a few students back home; it can go a long way. You may use Facebook, YouTube, Zoom and others to interact with them; get to know what the problems are, proffer advice, and if possible, make direct positive interventions to help. It shouldn’t stop with the students. Even the teachers, the school administrators can be encouraged for better results.
As I bring my address to a close, let me thank His Excellency, Governor Udom Emmanuel, for the additional things he is planning to do in the state’s education sector. In 2019, the state hosted an Education Summit and I was invited to make some remarks. I had chronicled our observations over the decade and ready to lay them bare. But two things shocked me when I arrived. First, the Governor was not only there for the opening ceremonies but sat through the entire two-day sessions. Secondly, I couldn’t be prouder of the candour of the Hon. Commissioner for Education, Prof. Nse Essien (now Vice Chancellor, AKS University) who openly admitted that things were off-mark in the sector. That was a classic case of ‘taking the wind off the sail’ and all I could say was to thank him for being truthful instead of being politically correct.
The state government has followed through with the summit report and set up an Education Think Tank led by one of you, Professor Hilary Inyang. I understand they have marshalled out a roadmap for the state’s education sector which we are sure the Governor will gladly follow through.
I will be remiss not to acknowledge the recent initiative for teachers by the Federal Government of Nigeria which was unveiled on October 9, a day set aside to celebrate teachers world-wide. These includes a new special salary scale for teachers in basic and secondary schools; increase in retirement age from 60 to 65 years or from 35 to 40 years of service; newly introduced rural and peculiar allowances; increased science allowance; automatic admission and free tuition for kids of teachers at their places of work, automatic recruitment of Bachelor of Education graduates and bursary awards for Bachelor of Education students. This gesture by the Federal Government elicited a fine article in the Guardian Newspapers of October 13, 2020 by our very own Ray Ekpu, titled ‘An Ode To Teachers’. Please do read it.
Whatever we say about formal education is as good as it gets to enable our children have a level-playing field with their peers in other climes. This includes cultural identity, which I am sure you are familiar with, given its criticality in a diverse society like the US. Our children must be proud of their heritage and I know that Nto Annang — as a noticeable and respectable cultural entity — understands this very well and is doing the needful.
Nigeria is not lacking in talks. We have always been talking but it is now time to act. Please get involved and do something, no matter how little. Thank you and stay safe.
Mr. Udom Inoyo