Interview with Ibrahim Shekarau- By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde

On 17 April 2012, I was hosted by the former executive governor of Kano State, His Excellency, Malam Ibrahim Shekarau, the Sardaunan Kano, who spoke on the measures required to improve on the standard of education in our public schools. A digression led us to a discussion on President Jonathan’s almajiri schools project for which Shekarau foresees a woeful failure. Finally, he discussed the position of Northern Governors and the need for a central body to coordinate common development projects in the region. This is how the interview went after the exchange of pleasantries.

Me. Your Excellency, I know you have been a teacher and a civil servant all your working life before you were elected the governor of Kano State. You have spent eight years on that seat. You have seen it all. You felt the heat. You wore the shoe, so you know where it pinches. In the recent seminar on Muslims and Democracy in Nigeria, I heard you eloquently analyzed the endemic problems that have afflicted the education sector. I would like this interview to focus on the solutions for the benefit of all.

As a start, which areas, in a nutshell, constitute the silver bullet in improving the standard of education at the primary and secondary schools level in this country?

Shekarau: In a nutshell, three things must be provided to substantially improve on the standard of education. They are: infrastructure, teachers and instructional materials.

Let us start with infrastructure. This means the infrastructure of classrooms, laboratories, hostels, library, game facilities, etc. Most schools are currently overpopulated. Facilities, where they exist, are therefore overstretched. This has a bearing on learning due to its effect on the other two components – it overloads teachers in their duties and overstretches the use of the available instructional materials.

Over the years, there has been a deficit in infrastructure in virtually all public schools. It has not been commensurate with the increase in population. There is the need to catch up, which calls for every government to do a lot of sacrifices, in fact to spend even beyond the 26% of its budget as the minimum recommended by the UNESCO. For this, some people are even calling for declaration of state of emergency in the sector, whatever that means.

The difficulty here which all governments face is that of competing demands. Let us on the hypothetical plane say that the idea of state of emergency is accepted and all levels of governments allocate, say, 40%, of their resources to education, people will not stop to take government to task on other sectors: water supply in urban and rural areas, access roads, basic healthcare, etc. Here, the decision of the executive alone to allocate such resources would not be enough; the electorate and the legislature have to be sufficiently sensitized to accept that from now to about, say, ten years, we should forget any serious road construction, forget expansion of our hospitals, forget establishing new water treatment plants, forget..

Me: But that is impossible because people will face these politicians complaining about lack of attention to roads, hospitals, etc.

Shekarau: There you are. Unless that is done, you cannot catch up. Two things are involved in this infrastructure business: Expanding it to reduce the population of classes in existing schools, and opening new schools to accommodate many more new students. The two have to go hand in hand.

Me: Sir, with due respect, many of my readers will ask – just as some people did at the seminar – what did you do while you were there as the executive governor of your state?

Shekarau: We approached the problem from different perspectives. One, we said, since we cannot solve the problem at a go, we decided that between now and ten years we will annually take about five schools – three for boys and two for girls – and address every need of each of those schools. We built more classrooms to reduce students’ population to say 40 students per class; provide more teachers, staff room, toilets, sporting facilities, and staff quarters; furnish every classroom, laboratory, etc. Schools that enjoy this upgrading of their infrastructure should not complain for the next ten years. Then we instruct that no more overpopulation should be tolerated in such schools.

Then we said we will annually budget for building 1000 classrooms in our effort to build new schools and expanding existing ones which have not benefitted from the complete overhaul program I just mentioned. If we would be lucky to achieve continuity, we thought, my successor would continue along that path. This is the secret of the success of Lagos. I was at the 60th anniversary of Tinubu. All his commissioners, including the present Governor, were summoned to speak. All of them admitted that 90% of what Fashola is doing now was planned during Tinubu. Fashola was part of the government as chief of staff. Tinubu also retained 90% of his council members throughout his term and second term. So assuming that in Kano this program has continued for another eight years, one could see how far we have gone.

Me: How much of that target have you achieved, and what exactly were the constraints?

Shekarau: We have overhauled about ten schools and built between 5,000 and 6,000 classrooms during my tenure. We recruited 6,000 additional teachers to man them. Unfortunately, there is a limit, we clearly understood, to how far one could go along this path because while, on the one hand, every increase in classroom space will lead to the desired goal of decongesting existing ones, it will, on the other, demand for other things, like additional teachers and infrastructure. At the secondary school level, you will need at least three additional teachers per each additional classroom. That will in turn increase your recurrent expenditure. Therefore, unless you moderate your ambition, you will reach a point where other sectors become severely affected due to competing demands on the scarce resources of government. And people will start to blame you.

With all due respect, this is the problem with the almajiri schools which the President recently opened in Sokoto. In the first place, it is wrong to call them almajiri schools. You can call them Qur’anic schools or tsangaya schools, but not almajiri schools. Two, the President has created a bad impression by giving them new uniforms and school bags, meaning they are automatically going to undergo the primary school system. It won’t succeed. Yes. That is the ultimate goal, where we will have all children going to Qur’anic schools or tsangaya are well dressed, etc. But where you have a system of six hundred years, you want to supplant it with another that is less than a hundred years, where you want to overnight change a population of students that is five to six times what we you are used to, you are bound to fail. First of all, when you bring them to the classroom, who is going to teach them? You are expecting their malams to adjust overnight to a new teaching method where you have a classroom with students taught in bulk instead of the individual-student approach that they are used to. As we are today in Kano, government is not able to solve the current problems of infrastructure for its existing schools. How do you take care of new the ‘almajiri’ schools?

Me: Sorry to cut in. You have delved into this tsangaya project during your tenure. Again, what then was your approach?

Shekarau: What we did was to keep their curriculum undisturbed; and without bringing in new teachers. What we did was to initiate confidence building measures by improving on the condition of learning of the schools and the welfare of the students and their teachers. We started providing for halls to accommodate the children when they learn or sleep; basic drugs and toilet soaps to improve on their health and hygiene; electricity to light the schools when they read at night, reducing the hours they waste in gathering firewood and exacerbating our desertification problem; etc. They started to trust us. Then we picked the young graduates among them that have memorized the Quran. You often find that they are don’t have a trade to live on. Some we taught them tailoring, some shoe making, some welding, etc. They were thus empowered to employ these skills in earning a living during non-school hours or school-free days.

For those that could justify that they had farms, we bought them ox-ploughs and the bulls to drive them; each year we distribute fertilizer to them, free, to encourage in feeding their families and their students. We picked about five of them from every local government and took them to Gambia for a week’s study of how schools like theirs are run without bara (child begging); they were also taken to Sudan, Saudi Arabia and so on – to five different countries – to enable them know that the transformation we were calling them to undertake was not a ploy but something that is undertaken by their Muslim colleagues in other countries. When they return, they share their experience with others.

Then in every quota, we pick a number of the allarammas (teachers of Quranic schools), under the sponsorship of their respective local governments, to attend a seminar where they will listen to great scholars and professors in Islam who, like them, have equally memorized the Quran.

So in the end, we did not introduce anything new into their curriculum…

Me: But you tried to build confidence first…

Shekarau: Exactly. This is the way. But if you jump overnight and bring in ABCD, 2 + 2, pencil and exercise books into a student population that is five to six times what you presently have, you will go nowhere. You will fail.

Me: Was it why in the recent BBC Hausa program, all the allarammas that were interviewed on the project expressed fear, saying, “Look! These people are coming to take over our schools…?

Shekarau: Exactly. That is the impression. It is not even the fear of losing the Qur’an, but also that of turning them unemployed because you are introducing a completely alien system. They would say, “Even the little that we get from the tsangaya through zakka, sadaka, etc., because of the presence of these students will stop once they are not there.” So you are indirectly denying them a source of income and they will be ready to fight you for that. Since they are a sort of a misfit into your new system without a role to play, they will hardly accept it.

Me: Okay. Let us return to the infrastructure issue in our conventional schools. I am sorry for digressing us into the tsangaya thing. I knew you did something about it and it would be good to share the experience, as you have ably done now, with my readers.

Shekarau: The only way out of the infrastructure problem is for governments to put in a lot of funds, if the public would permit that because the same people would not accede to lack of water, electricity, healthcare, etc., to dedicate 50% of the budget to education for ten years.

Me: And on teachers?

Shekarau: How do you produce the teachers? Per every classroom in junior secondary school, with the seemingly professionalized curriculum, you need a minimum of five teachers per class, even with the possibility of some teachers manning more than one subject. This will not be a small number. So even if you provide money for the infrastructure, what plan have you made to provide the required number of qualified teachers and sustain them on your payroll?

During my tenure, I have employed additional 6,000 teachers, as I said previously. But because of political mischief, people think that by doing so you are bloating the pay roll and increasing the wage bill, forgetting that it is not wise to be building classrooms without employing more teachers. In some states, teachers are even retrenched. In fact, in 2001, Kwankwaso’s government then retrenched over 1000 teachers in the name of non-indigenes while there were no indigenes to replace them. One school alone lost about 32 teachers in that exercise alone.

My thinking as a solution to this is two or three things. There should be an automatic scholarship for all students in our colleges and faculties of education. This will attract qualified students to participate. But what is happening now, only the leftovers go for education courses, generally speaking.

Secondly, instead of the prevalent belief that products of our science schools should read courses like medicine and engineering, a certain percentage of them could be granted a package of sponsorship and incentives to read science education such that they can come back and impact on these children. We started it towards the end of my tenure. This is what led me into teaching. As a product of Aminu Kano Commercial College, our vision was to become accountants, etc. But I was good in arithmetic, and then mathematics. My result got missing in my form and my uncle was contacted by the university. When I went to the Academic Office at Ahmadu Bello University, one of the staff, having seen my excellent performance in mathematics and other science subjects said, “What the hell are you going to do with accounting. Come and read mathematics. That will make you great, renowned.” Then I went for that. Then at departmental registration, another counselor said, “Why don’t you go for B. Ed (Maths) such that you can go back and impact this talent on others. That is how I got to read Maths (education).
Then, thirdly, comes the issue of teacher retention because it is one thing to recruit teachers, it is another thing to retain them. That is why we introduced different incentives during my tenure: science teachers allowance, rural teaching allowance, games master’s allowance, house master’s allowance, etc.

Me: Okay. We have heard you on infrastructure and teachers, what remains is the aspect on instructional materials…

Shekarau: Lack of instructional materials is also part of the reason behind this massive failure in examinations. Before, when we were students, if you take English for example, you are given assignments in composition, essay writing, etc. The teacher will collect it, at least once or twice a week, and mark it for you, indicating your errors and correcting them accordingly. This is practically absent in public schools now. No books to refer students to. Even teacher’s materials like protractor, campus, etc. are absent. The child doesn’t have a math set, and the teacher doesn’t have a blackboard set. There is no way learning would take place. It is imperative, therefore, to provide instructional materials.

Me: So what did you do here?

Shekarau: As a policy, we said during my administration that provision of English and Maths textbooks for every child are compulsory on government and we started it. A bank offered to build classrooms. We told them to instead buy Maths and English books from publishers, and they did. The same thing with old boy’s associations. We gave them the statistics of our students at the secondary school level and they also assisted.

If you speak about laboratories, there aren’t sufficient labs. Where they are available, they are at most designed to accommodate forty students only. What do you do where you have more than five times that number of students? Five students would gather on an apparatus. Some of them may not touch it throughout the period. It may take even more than a year before someone would have the turn to run a single test.

The whole thing became a vicious circle. These half-baked students are admitted into colleges of education and universities. At the tertiary level too, such problems obtain – no enough infrastructure, no equipped laboratories, etc. These products are those that return to teach at the secondary school level. That is why, as we were just discussing before the interview, you can find a mathematics graduate who cannot pass a common entrance examination in mathematics! So it is like garbage in, garbage out.

My idea on all these, is that these facts have to be brought to the attention of the President, legislators, governors, etc. And the general public needs to appreciate the degree of the problem. A consensus must be reached regarding the enormity of the problem and the attention it deserves. I raised this issue thrice in the Governors’ Forum. I did not want to enumerate the problems myself but advised that we needed to assign a group of professionals who will study this problem and report back to us. But most governors are only interested in their re-election, so they go for things that the ordinary brain will appreciate quickly – physical projects, like construction of buildings and roads, electricity, hand pumps, etc. The public accepts that you are not performing until they see your grader on the road, regardless of whether you stealing their wealth or not.

So from the President down to legislators and the public, an appreciation of the problem is needed. If that appreciation is acquired, an agreement on reducing physical development projects must be reached at such that less boreholes are drilled, less roads are built. More money can be saved for education and human development. This is only possible, despite the intention of the executive, with the understanding and approval of the legislature who, traditionally, will veto it because they want physical projects to be carried out in their constituencies to justify their elections.

Now, in case such funds are available, they must be spent on all the three aspects we mentioned earlier – infrastructure, teacher training and provision of instructional material. Increasing classrooms without increasing teachers and improving their welfare will take us anywhere. When I was first employed as a teacher, I had a furnished house, a car and a rural teaching allowance such that once I shop for the month, I didn’t need to return to Kano until another month. In the morning I would be in the class, in the evening on the games field, in the night at prep and so on.

Me: Sir, is there anything you would like to put across to my readers?

Shekarau: Yes. I would like people to appreciate the nature of government and how its present structure particularly in the North hinders our regional development. In the North, we always talk with nostalgia about the era of Sardauna, forgetting the structure of government then. There was only one Premier for the entire Northern Region, one government. Policies of that government in almost all the sectors are uniformly applied in all the provinces from Adamawa to Sokoto to Kwara to Benue to Kano, etc. There were all over the place same marketing boards, same agricultural policies, and so on. Groundnut from Bauchi and other provinces is brought to Kano, piled up and loaded to wherever. That was how the pyramids were produced. Today, there are nineteen independent Sardauna, each heading in a different direction.

We need experts to study the benefits of our commonality and political leaders to believe in their proposals and implement them. If I were to bring an investor to Kano today and I could produce only a thousand tonnes of raw material, it will be of little benefit him. But if we will bring the same material from all nooks and corners of the North, it will be a big market.
Unfortunately, many people ask of what benefit is the Northern Governor’s Forum. If you ask me, I will say, “Nothing.” Meetings are held to discuss Bank of the North, NNDC, etc., while the same governors killed these things. There was a time when Joseph Sanusi, the former CBN governor, gathered us, the Northern governors. He was a southerner, a Christian. He challenged the nineteen of us to retain our accounts with Bank of the North. By that time, only four of us retained those accounts, all the rest have transferred their monies to other banks, largely for selfish interest. Sanusi continued to appeal to us. There and then one of us told him that he will not return his money to the Bank, saying, “After all, it is a bank of Kano.” Sanusi said what are you talking about?” Wallahi, it was something so trivial, unexpected of a person at the level of a governor. He was aggrieved that when the banks were reorganized, the management was changed and Abdulkadir Yakasai was brought in as MD, and, by some coincidence, Sadauki Kura, was appointed to head the supervisory team. Sanusi swore to us by God that the two appointments were made by two separate bodies without any consideration to places of origin but the records of performance in the banking industry. Most of these governors collected the loans of the bank and abandoned it without paying them.

Again, with all due respect to all of us as the governors, each of us sees himself as the chief executive of his state so why would he learn from another or collaborate with him? So we tried to sell our experience of tsangaya but some people, from side talks, were saying, “Are we so bereft that it is ANPP governors that will tell us how to handle our cases?” So the absence of a body that will coordinate things makes it difficult for any progress to be made. If Bauchi would solve its almajiri problem today, for example, it will experience an inflow of almajirai from Kano. But if these things are coordinated, a fairly common treatment will go a long way in resolving many of the issues. The same thing applies to desert encroachment. Tree planting was common during Sardauna, from Borno up to Sokoto. But today, what Jigawa plants will not be known to Kano.

This made me in 2006 to suggest an idea to General Gowon. I said, “Sir, why don’t you constitute a committee of reputable people to make twenty of you, who will summon us to a meeting. Each governor will keep aside his cap as a governor at the gate of the meeting. Challenge us with guidelines on our common problems – desert, agriculture, almajirai, etc. – to adopt common policies.” Though each governor is doing his best – especially if you listen to him – but there is no synergy in spite of the common environment within which we operate.
It is I mentioned to Justice Mamman Nasir at the recently concluded Elders Forum meeting that was summoned by Maitama Sule: “So long as we do not carry the Governors Forum along, we will only be wasting our time. Whether we like it or not, they control the resources and, by extension, the people; it is they that cause the money to circulate.” That was also my argument with my friend Nasiru (El-rufai) in an initiative that we started initially. He said that the problem is the governors, ‘yan iska, that we must fight them, etc. I said, “If they gang up, they can frustrate you. You can only abuse them. But kyan dara kasawa (of what benefit would it be?). So instead of abusing, call them and give them their due respect. Let our elders and get them to agree on some things such that anyone amongst them who reneges on his promise would be held accountable by the public. A blanket treatment will not take us anywhere. People will just say, ‘When you were there what did you do, without coming and listening to your explanations?”

So these are some of the things I wanted to highlight at the seminar though I was not the speaker at the occasion.

Me: Thank you, Your Excellency, for hosting me and sharing with us from the wealth of your experience. I believe it will be of immense use to my readers. Ma’assalam.

3 June 2012