When Nigeria attained Independence in 1960, the search for policies to bring the people together became even more necessary following mutual distrust and, possibly suspicion, rooted in the fact that its constituents – from the north east, west and south – did not know much about each other.
Part of the result of that search for unity and togetherness saw the establishment of the unity schools in 1966.
Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, then Nigeria’s Prime Minister, who established the schools, particularly noted that education was a tool for achieving peace, unity, and national coercion, adding that knowledge of each other would free the individual mind from harmful perception about others.
He opined that the problems in government and parliament at that time were due to mutual mistrust and ignorance of the backgrounds of the people saddled with ruling the nation at that time.
Analysts believe that the political crisis in the Western Region, after the 1964 elections, further strengthened government’s resolve to create the unity schools.
The first three unity schools, which were initially referred to as Inter-Regional Secondary Schools before they were changed to Federal Government Colleges, were cited in Okposi (East), Sokoto (North) and Warri (West).
The schools were expected t0 bring together young boys and girls from all regions of the country, irrespective of their social or economic background, to learn, play and live under a roof, to remove the mysteries surrounding the evolution of regional citizenry.
Unity schools were also created to breed detribalised citizens needed for the good management of resources at all levels of governance of the nation.
Over the years, many of such schools have been established with practically each of the 36 states and the FCT currently hosting at least two of them.
But, in spite of the lofty goals and the wide spread of the schools, analysts have continued to disagree over whether the major goal of the unity schools – uniting Nigeria and promoting one patriotic spirit – had been achieved.
Some have argued that the struggle toward a united Nigeria was still on, 54 years after the unity schools came in place, while others have also argued that their pride as centres of excellence has evaporated.
Dr Sylvestre Atu, a university teacher, does not believe that the unity schools have done much in the primary mandate of uniting the nation to pursue one destiny.
“The schools were supposed to remove mutual suspicion. That menace still stares us in the face.
“They were supposed to be centres of excellence in all areas – academic, values, discipline, patriotism. You and I know the truth today. Many parents prefer private secondary schools some of which have been confirmed to be better equipped and better managed than the unity schools.,” he said.
But Mr Nasiru Wasagu, Secretary General, Unity Schools Old Students Association (USOSA), believes that the schools have played the roles for which they were established, especially with regards to nation building.
“ The role of unity schools has been very crucial. They are supposed to breed stabilised Nigerians that are needed for good management of the resources at all levels of government.
“Disparity after Independence noticed by the then government, with regards to lack of trust and lack of hope among parliament members, led government to create the unity schools.
“The schools offered children from all over the country the opportunity to come together and learn to live together with the differences of one another, thereby entrenching tolerance toward a unified nation.
“ To a certain level, the role has been well played by the components and product of unity schools with regards to nation building,” he said.
On the persistent tribal and religious differences playing out in the country, Wasagu said that the unity schools had been a unifying factor as friendships had been established across tribal, regional and religious lines.
“The establishment of the unity schools has helped a lot to play down ethnic and tribal differences in our nation.
“Unity schools do not encourage tribalism because almost everyone I know that went to unity school can claim to actually have a friend in all the 36 states of the federation.
“This is because five children are taken from each state of the federation, and just a larger number from the host state. When those children enter the school as classmates, they learn together, they grow up together and eat together. I don’t see how that can be injurious to nation building or contribute to sectionalism or tribalism.
“I believe that if the unity schools have remained up to this time considering other factors in the society, especially insecurity, it is because their contribution to the Nigerian state has been invaluable.”
Mrs Ifeyinwa Omowole, an alumna of a unity school, said that unity schools have helped its products to see one another as members of the same country.
Omowole, a Deputy Editor-in-Chief in the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) and President, Nigeria Association of Women Journalists (NAWOJ), said that the ethnic, religious and cultural diversities that exists in Nigeria could be harnessed for the good of the society.
“ I met my husband in transit to unity school; he is Yoruba while I am Igbo. That is one of the beauties of attending unity schools.
“ I have friends all over Nigeria and most of my very good friends are from the north. I came all the way from Lagos to school in the north, precisely Funtua, in Kastina State.
“As far as I am concerned, we should continue to live that trend. Coming together afforded us the opportunities to bond together; we need to sustain it.
“We know that this insecurity in the country now is just a phase and it is not here to stay, so we need to revisit the old ways of sending children to unity schools. That is the beauty of Nigeria we need to sustain.
“ Whether we like it or not, this country is here to stay; we are not going to separate, so we should make sure those things that bind us together thrive,” she said.
Mr David Onuegbu, an alumnus of Federal Government Boys College, Apo, FCT, said that studying in unity school had helped him to adapt to life away from home which, according to him, prepares students for future challenges.
He called on the government to focus attention on unity schools through the provision of world class facilities as well as the training and retraining of teachers.
According to him, the schools usually help students to interact with people from other tribes thereby learning other languages and culture.
“ The establishment of the schools has helped us to communicate effectively with people from other tribes, home and languages.
“When you have been with a group of people, you will be able to know how they behave and the right way to approach them.
“ It has also helped to give the confidence needed to survive away from the comfort of your home and bond with other people from different parts of the country,’’ he added.
Meanwhile, as if reacting to criticisms against the state of the schools, the Federal Government has ordered a total overhaul of all unity schools across the country.
Tthe Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, Mr Sonny Echono, disclosed the development to newsmen recently.
Echono said that President Muhammadu Buhari gave the approval to the ministry of education to rehabilitate dilapidated structures and construct new classrooms in unity schools to accommodate more students.
“We are pleased that Mr President graciously approved that we should begin to rehabilitate many of these unity colleges,” he said.
According to him, there is a challenge of access to education in Nigeria. He said that the intervention is to bring more children into the school system.
“We are improving our libraries, the laboratory and other facilities.
“We are also recruiting additional teachers and regularising PTA teachers. New equipment are also being supplied.
“The ministries of power, works and housing have come to our aid in Abuja. They have approved some interventions to rehabilitate classrooms in Abuja unity schools.” he said.
But as government intensifies efforts toward improving the quality of the schools, Mr John Ogwuche, a teacher in Federal Government College, Odogbolu in Ogun, who has taught in many unity schools including Queens College, Lagos and Federal Technical College, Ilesha, has lamented the challenge of insecurity that was hindering parents from sending children to unity schools.
“`There has been a spate of violence that scares parents from sending children to far distances.
“Government must strive to effectively addresses this menace. The worst scenarios are the religious conflicts that could even spill into the schools and polarize the young students. It is a situation that scares everyone.
“When this matter is addressed, federalism will be the better for it and the unity schools will flourish bountifully,” Ogwuche said. (NAN)