Transparency and accountability in Education sector management in Nigeria –the role of the media

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Text of the Keynote Address delivered by Mr. Wole Olaoye, Chairman/CEO Diametrics Ltd, at the JDP Award 2013 held on Friday, 30th August 2013 at : WestpointHotels Ltd, Plot 2038 Masaka Close, Behind NAFDAC Office, Zone 7, Wuse, Abuja.

First, I want to thank Development Communications (DevComs) Network for inviting me to be part of this great evening. What clinched my acceptance was the explanation by the organisation that the JDP Award 2013 is an activity under the Journalism Development Programme whose aims and objectives I find absolutely relevant to our national quest for direction especially in the crucial education sector.

To be honest, in the midst of all the philistinism around us, to find an oasis of commitment to truly noble ideals is invigorating and somehow redemptively humbling. In being here therefore I am doing myself a favour; what better way to spend the evening than identifying with the kind of programmes that will help our society move towards achieving its potentials?

Now, what is the role of the media in ensuring transparency and accountability in education sector management in Nigeria?

The definition of the media of mass communication has not changed since I cut my teeth in journalism some four decades ago. Generally the media are communication channels through which news, entertainment, education, data, or promotional messages are disseminated (Business Dictionary). I am reminded by the same dictionary that “Media includes every broadcasting and narrowcasting medium such as newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, billboards, direct mail, telephone, fax, and internet. Media is the plural of medium and can take a plural or singular verb, depending on the sense intended”.

As professionals in this field we are saddled with the responsibility of informing, educating, entertaining and providing surveillance in the society. Our basic tool in this task is an old-fashioned word called TRUTH. We are only credible to the extent that we faithfully mirror events or inform, educate, entertain and highlight threats to our society.

There is so much talk about transparency and accountability today that the term has virtually become a cliché. But we must always remind ourselves that these concepts are at the very root of devising a road map to the greatness of our society and survival of our democracy. We are all familiar with how politicians, technocrats and other people in the public space dread the twin concepts even when they make a show of swearing to uphold them at every given opportunity. Transparency ensures the availability of information that can be used to measure the authorities' performance. If, for example, a campaign is mounted that all the Ministries of Education in the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory must publish their annual budgets and statement of expenditure on their respective websites (which of course means that they have to maintain web presence at the minimum), the goal may not just be to ensure transparency but also to achieve its other leg – accountability. We shall see how these twin concepts intertwine shortly.

In Nigeria where form is usually celebrated at the expense of content, every government from the local to the federal level wants to be seen as accountable but very few are prepared to do what it requires. Indeed, the situation is such that one of the fastest routes to an untimely grave could be a well-intentioned criticism of a government policy designed to swindle the people, as many so-called educational programmes and expenditures have proved to be over the years. Remember that Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala became an instant heroine in 2010 when, as finance minister, she insisted on publishing federal allocations to states and federal ministries? Have you asked yourself why that system is not working today as it did at that time? What has happened is that those in charge of affairs at the various levels of government have simply wrestled madam to the ground.

In politics one of the first lessons a newcomer learns is not to open too many war fronts at the same time. You win some, you lose some. A few states still attempt to show transparency by uploading what they adjudge as relevant data on their websites; some, like Kano State, go as far as regularly publishing weekly expenditures, especially regarding capital projects in paid adverts in newspapers. That kind of development must be commended and encouraged.

How does this play out in real life? With access to the right information, a citizen may be able to challenge a governor whose government furnished five primary schools with N5 billion. Questions such as – “Is the school furniture made of gold? Are the floors coated in manganotantalite or the walls laced with crystals?” etc. would be appropriate. Public office holders, elected or appointed, don’t like such uncomfortable questions. And the best way of not putting oneself in a position to find answers to such questions is to make the process and style of governance as opaque as possible.

A transparent system encourages accountability in that it helps us hold those in authority accountable for their actions. An accountable government encourages public participation in governance. When public officials are accountable, the system engenders trust. If there is no trust between the government and the governed, cynicism holds sway and words like patriotism and national regeneration become mere empty shells meaning nothing.

Many of us will by now have realised that power is the ultimate drug, the hardest of hard drugs. It used to be described as the ultimate aphrodisiac before the world invented cocaine and crack and found a similarity in the effect of power and hard drugs on the perceptive ability of their respective user! In the wrong hands, power is a weapon of mass destruction. In the right hands, it is a tool for radical social transformation.

No human being is so good as to deserve being trusted with limitless, non-transparent, non-accountable power. The various instruments civilised society employs to ensure that those in power at every level stay true to their commitments and discharge their responsibilities adequately are the only means by which we can hold them on a civilised leash. The alternative is anarchy.

Now let’s talk briefly about the media as educators bearing in mind Clive Lewis’ contention that “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” Education is one of the primary responsibilities of the media. Besides information and entertainment, the media is saddled with the responsibility to bring enlightenment and awareness to the people – usually referred to as the audience, listeners or readers. Education in this sense should be understood as a generic term that comprises everything to do with knowledge management and acquisition. Thus it goes beyond the confined space of the brick and mortar classroom or a school.

Accountability must also pertain to the content of the education that the educational system is imparting in our children. How relevant to our circumstances are the courses being taught? Shouldn’t we be asking why many of our children are no longer familiar with Mansa Musa, Idris Kanemi, Idris Katakamabi, and the Zulu, Oyo and Benin Empires? Indeed shouldn’t we summon the immortal words of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti here? – “Teacher, don’t teach me nonsense!”

Media contents are tailored to educate and inform the public on events and developments in the society and the world at large. Thus, a close observation can reveal to even a passive observer that basic media contents contain all subjects under the sun ranging from government, economics, sociology, psychology, health education, civics, science and technology, auto mechanics, language and linguistics, to astrology, religion, arts/culture and even metaphysics. One may become enlightened/educated through reading, watching or listening to a treatise or documentary on a subject to which he or she may have been totally ignorant of merely partially exposed to.

In specifying the above, however, one must not forget that books are part of the mass media along with radio, television newspapers and magazines and today, the internet. Books are usually isolated or left out of print media classifications, largely because unlike newspapers and magazines, their subject matter lacks currency and in the main, they are not concerned with news and information as a primary purpose. No doubt the role of the media as educators is important for, as Nelson Mandela says, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.

This is just a digression, however, as books have become so feared in our society that many of our decision-makers can’t remember when last they read a book!

Let’s now return to the earlier question of the role of the media in ensuring transparency and accountability in education sector management. We have acknowledged the socio-political milieu in which the Nigerian journalist has to operate. It is bad enough to be a journalist of any description in a society where corruption sits astride virtually every sector of national life. We all know that corruption and transparency are eternally sworn enemies. The suzerainty of one denotes the subjugation of the other.

In recent years in our beloved country, impunity has made a grand entry as a worthy handmaiden of the monster of corruption. Bad behaviour goes unpunished; convicts are routinely rehabilitated and unleashed on the society as if in reward for their earlier crimes; the sprawling cemetery of retired swindlers is routinely excavated in a ritual of recycling old wine in new skin and calling it by a new name; evil has become temptingly profitable. It is in such a clime as I have described that many of you in this hall have opted to work as journalists in one of the most important sectors of our national life, and one with serious implications for the future of our country -- the education sector.

I don’t know whether to sympathise with you or congratulate you. But I admire your courage and patriotic fervour for undertaking what we all know is a thankless job, but which is also one of the most fulfilling endeavours to which one could commit one’s talents and life.

In an environment where unearned wealth and inexcusable poverty elbow each other side by side, there must be some people whose business it is to relentlessly nudge us to find answers to important questions. Who does our educational planning? Is the education sector budget adequate and is its implementation transparent? How many children do we have in primary schools? Is the school environment conducive to teaching and learning? How many of them will be qualified for secondary school at the end of this year? Will the existing schools be able to absorb them? Are the schools adequately staffed with qualified teachers? Do government incentives for primary schools get to the intended destination? Do physically verifiable realities tally with government’s claims or is somebody high up being creative with the truth? Are local communities encouraged to make inputs into policy formulation or transparent deployment of resources? Are the education tax funds collected from companies transparently administered? What are the man-made glitches in the operation of the Universal Basic Education programme and how can they be removed? Indeed, how true is the allegation that the implementation of the UBE has become one of the filthiest theatres of corruption in Nigeria?

Transparency ought to start from the raw data available for planning. If there are no data, or if the data available are dated and unreliable for planning purposes it is impossible to hold those administering the education sector to account.

In my younger days, primary schools were firmly under the control of the local governments or Native Authorities. Secondary schools were owned by communities, regional governments or voluntary agencies. The education inspector at the local government level was an important government functionary respected and dreaded by teachers and headmasters. He had a checklist of what to look out for, questions to ask and impromptu quizzes for the pupils randomly selected. He was a solid professional who took pride in his job, realising the truism in Victor Hugo’s timeless statement on the importance of education. Said Hugo: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison”.

I stand before you today as a proud product of that system of public education which prepared many of us who never attended private schools to number among the best in our various callings today. Now we are so civilised that we have blurred the boundaries, made the inspectorate system opaque and generally bastardised the system so much so that the other day a primary school teacher could not read a few sentences requested of her by her visiting state governor!

Many of you are more conversant with the situation than I could ever pretend to be. I am informed that the participants in the JDP Award 2013 have been immersed in the education sector much like journalists embedded with troops at the war front. As you will testify what confronts you out there is nothing short of a war front – from the elected governor who counts his chicks even before the eggs are laid through the civil servant who administers schools by telepathy instead of physically verifying the situation to the political fixer whose job is to professionally give a black eye to an identified irritant like a nosey journalist.

In terms of strategy, nothing succeeds like the partnership of like minds working towards the same purpose. There are now many non-governmental, citizen-led and multi-stakeholder organisations and fora which focus on the education sector and would be willing allies of the media in getting the best out of the sector, especially in the areas of transparency and accountability. Also, within the system there may be whistle blowers who can be partnered to unearth scams perpetrated in the sector over the years but which have never been addressed because they are designed to operate under the radar.

It is also strategically wise to find creative ways of making the audience of mass communication receptive to development communication by convincing them of their ownership of the concept. This can be done through inter-lacing our reports, articles, documentaries, etc, with agelong virtues from our local cultures. Probity, transparency, accountability, honesty etc are not alien concepts in our various communities. The erosion of ‘old school’ values is at the root of our descent into the current morass. Didn’t the Irish essayist, Clive Lewis, aforementioned, famously declare that “education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil”?

Whatever we do, we must always remember one of the cardinal principles of journalism – balance. We owe it a duty to highlight successes and positive developments and recommend them to those lagging behind.

I am reliably informed that the JDP Award 2013, for which we are gathered here, is an activity under the Journalism Development Programme, which is aimed at supporting the development of the media at state and national level in addressing the need for a comprehensive and analytical approach to reporting the education sector, including covering governance in education management, expenditure/budget tracking, whole school development and community involvement.

I am hopeful that having benefitted from this development programme, your perspectives and skills have been sharpened much like those of surefooted combatants. To successfully carry out the tasks at hand, journalists in the critical development sectors should be regularly exposed to capacity building programmes such as the one for which Awards are being given today. That is the only way they can keep one step ahead of the challenges in the field. Linkages should also be arranged on a regular basis between working journalists and non-governmental organisations in the education sector to harmonise strategies and device more creative ways to collaborate and tackle emerging challenges,  for example under the framework of the Civil Society Action Coalition on Education For All (CSACEFA).

I cannot overstress that persistence is key. The media cannot but deploy talent and resources in the service of education. The task is at the very root of the raison d’être of our profession. What else is a goat expected to do if not bleat? Or would the honey accept a bribe not to make honey? Throughout this discussion, I have never stated that we were ever in need of some extra-terrestrial magician wielding a pen or microphone or some other gadget. The task will continue to be done by ordinary men and women carrying out ordinary assignments in the education sector in an extraordinary manner. If I were to invite the blogger Heath Buckmaster who is variously described as an author, producer, PBS'er, Intel Alumni, and recovering sarcasm addict - he would express these same sentiments in his own unique way: “Often, it’s not about becoming a new person, but becoming the person you were meant to be, and already are, but don’t know how to be.”

We cannot change the world or our society in one fell swoop as they do in the magical realm. But we can do the bit we can in our own little corner of planet Earth, in our tiny field of journalism, in the tiny sector of education sector management, in one tiny state or local government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The ripples of that little bit will reverberate round the world as the little kids who are the eventual beneficiaries of your exertions gear up to attain their highest potentials, dragging Nigeria with them in their meteoric ascendancy to world-acclaimed greatness. That is the big picture for which you are to be envied and for which you will be perpetually celebrated.

Thank you for listening.

Wole Olaoye

August 2013.
Oyewole Olaoye is a Journalist, Public Relations practitioner, Media Consultant and Administrator. He is currently the Chairman/CEO, Diametrics Ltd, Abuja.