Prof Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is a household name, not only in the world of human rights activism, being the immediate past chairman of National Human Rights commission, NHRC, having served in many capacities on the African continent and worldwide and presently the senior legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative, but he is also a writer, and an alumnus of Federal Government College, Okigwe, which makes him a bona fide member of Unity Schools Old Students’ Association, USOSA. It is also not news that he wants to be the President General of USOSA and so we took him up on the issue of human rights in the current Unity Schools and more.
As an alumnus of a unity school, what will be your honest assessment of the state of the schools nationwide?
We’re in a bad place. The Unity Schools used to be the cream of all round excellence in our public school system in terms of character, academics, sports, leisure, comportment, and curriculum. Now, they are poor shadows of what they used to be. This last year, four unity schools could not produce 5 credits among their students entered for the WASC. That would have been unheard of 20 years ago. That’s sad because, notwithstanding our fiscal challenges, education inputs are at our finger tips these days with new developments in ICTs. The curriculums are out of date; standards are non-existent and the diversity that was at the heart of the mission of the schools is no longer there. Most of the Unity Schools are now worse than community secondary schools.
Is there any one at all doing well? Or even about average?
Some of the Unity Schools continue to do well. FGGC Bakori made 98% in the WASC. My own school, FGC Okigwe made over 90% with five or more credits. This said, the grades even among these schools could still improve.
Can you place your finger on where exactly it went wrong?
The schools exist in a country. Our public schools went wrong because our country went wrong. First the soldiers and then the politicians discovered education stood in the way of bad government. So they de-prioritized education. Meanwhile, many of our political leaders have become the biggest investors and proprietors in private schools, turning the destruction of our public education system into a private revenue stream.
Your tenure at NHRC ended in December 2015, what were your high moments?
I am not sure I am one of those who pick and choose high moments in public service. I begin from the premise that public service is a privilege. Those of us called upon to do it should be grateful for the privilege. Every day in public service is a high moment when you can deploy it to affect the lives of other people. So I remember the widows were able to help access benefits; the people rendered homeless whom we enabled to get back their houses. The investigation into Apo Killings tested our mettle. The investigation into Baga massacre was also a test of character. In all, I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve.
Were there cases at the NHRC you couldn’t mediate or investigate?
Quite often, many people don’t really come with expecting you to work magic. The biggest thing complainants wanted was a sense of affirmation. Someone to talk to who would be approachable and who would listen to them. That was what I found. Even in those cases where solutions were not rough and ready, my view and practice is to leave the complainant feeling much better when they leave than they felt when they arrived.
Do you now have the mandate to prosecute them?
Prosecute who? I am no longer at the Commission, of course. I finished my term on 7 December. But I remain a worker in human rights. I will until I die.
As human rights fighter, give us an update on the Queen’s College molestation saga and how much faith parents should have in unity schools.
The allegations out of QC on child molestation and sex abuse of learners are frightening. Some of the quotes coming out of the school administration were disturbing. Also, the organized picket by students supposedly protesting in favour of an alleged child molester was an eyesore. That should not be heard of at all. Whoever advised that did huge discredit to the school administration. It is good that the Minister has stepped in with an inquiry. It would be better if we could have a system-wide inquiry into sex abuse in our school system to foreground a policy on the issue.
Is there a future plan on how human rights issues will be addressed in our Unity Schools because there are a lot of them?
There is a national action plan on human rights but it now subject to review. Also the National Human Rights Commission Act offers a framework for human rights protection in Nigeria. With respect to education, we have the Universal Basic Education Act also which creates effectively a human right to compulsory basic education but it has been poorly implemented. USOSA can help with getting it right.
The government once tried to privatize Unity Schools. That was the episode that led to the creation of USOSA. We successfully resisted that. The idea that our country can be developed without public education by sending every kid to a private school is pure fantasy.
You recently said “We have a crisis of enlightenment which has become a crisis of national coexistence and national security.” Let’s hear you talk more about that.
Look at all the major trouble spots in Nigeria from the North-East to the South-South, they all have problems with education in some form. In the north-east in particular, net secondary school enrolment is less than 5%. Access to education is poor. Radicalisation is easy when there is little education and considerable hardship. At the Unity Schools, we developed awareness about value of our diversity. Now, the Unity Schools are no longer invested in diversity or indeed in anything. That is deepening mutual suspicion among out various internal nationalities. Boko Haram is an attack on enlightenment; political violence is too. Indigene-settler conflicts are the same. All these drive a wedge between us leading to multiple crises of coexistence.
You graduated from Okigwe in 1983 and currently lead the Trustees of the FGC Okigwe Endowment and also serve as the Secretary of the FGC Okigwe Old Students Association (FEGOCOOKOSA)…that is a handful already, but put your vocation as the senior lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative and how you will steer the ship of USOSA?
We always find time for what we believe in or have a passion for. Education for me is a passion. It is a duty to ourselves and to our children. When you take it on, you have also work with real people: families, mums, dads, parents, uncles, aunties, grand-parents, communities, community leaders, etc. These are the people on whom our country depends for good values and survival. We owe it to ourselves to make sure we don’t fail them or ourselves.
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