BY ADEMOLA YAYA
AHEAD of Independence in 1960, there was widespread pessimism about Nigeria’s survival as similar formations and packages elsewhere had disintegrated. For instance, on 1st August, 1953, British Colonialism created Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland by amalgamating Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland with Huggins but it eventually disintegrated on the 31st December, 1963. Britain, therefore, formulated for Nigeria a Federation system.
At the end of the 1962-63 controversial census, ethnic competitiveness, educational inequality and economic imbalance between the Southern and the Northern Nigeria had come to the fore. The division along ethno-religious-cultural cleavages culminated into the Civil War between 1967 and 1970, where an estimated 3 million people were killed; fuelling more agitation for self-determination as the initial October 1963 proclamation of Federal Republic of Nigeria had given way to unitary system under military rule, giving further credence to pre-Independence pessimism.
Quota system was then introduced into the Nigeria system in 1958 to suppress agitation by some sections of Nigeria who felt threatened that they could be sidelined and overwhelmed by certain sections on allocation and distribution of “national cake”. It is a system of allocation of certain percentage of employment opportunities and admission places into Nigerian universities, among others, based on ethnicity and state of origin considerations. Hence, 50% quota was given the North who felt threatened while 25% each was awarded East and West. The system was so designed at easing equal representation of various ethnic groups in the public service as there were uneven developments in Western education, exposure, infrastructure, etc, which brew suspicion and fear of domination of one region or ethnic group against the other.
It could, therefore, be safe to state that the intention of the forebears in introducing the system was to ensure fair play and equity among the nationalities that make up Nigeria. They didn’t want a section of the country to be alienated from public sector and employment because of its disadvantaged position. Unlike its identical twin that came into existence before Independence, Federal Character (FC) was officially smuggled into the 1979 Constitution. FC is simply lowering of qualifications/requirements of the candidates seeking admission to educational institutions and employments from a region/state considered to be disadvantaged. Just like the quota system (QS), it is targeted at giving opportunities to the disadvantaged section to enable them compete and eventually catch up over a period of time. Fundamentally, there is no difference between Quota System (QS) and Federal Character (FC) as both are technically two sides of the same coin as instruments designed to make up for inadequacy of the Northern Nigeria to meet up with the South.
Since that period till now, it can be argued that QS and FC have brought about unity and encouragement to the pursuit of Western education by regions or states that didn’t have flair for it; suspicion and tension have been addressed; interest of the minority has been protected; and imbalances have been leveraged. However, event has overtaken the system. As at the period of QS and FC introduction, there were only about six universities which could genuinely alienate candidates from educationally disadvantaged region: University of Ibadan in 1948; University of Nigeria, Nsukka in 1960; University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in 1961; University of Lagos in 1962; Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in 1962 and University of Benin in 1970. Now, there are 43 federal universities spread across all geo-political zones. There are 48 state universities and 79 private universities across the country (as of 2020); making 170 in all. Therefore, fear of alienation of educationally disadvantaged region does not exist anymore as there are state and private varsities in all the regions which could take care of the earlier challenges.
Again, the principle is detrimental to the interest of the educationally advantaged regions, as merit is put at the background against other considerations. For instance, a candidate from the South-West who scores 250 in Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board’s (JAMB) Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME) for a particular course may be denied an admission in a South-West university; while his/her counterpart from educationally disadvantaged region who scores 210 for same particular course may be offered admission by same university based on QS. How will a better candidate who is denied admission feel about the other who didn’t do well but was offered admission? It is not only a case of cheating to the better candidate; it is a technical bleeding of the society of its best hands in various fields from emerging ultimately. Moreover, the arrangement stifles creativity, as brilliant young men and women are frustrated from the system for the average to emerge. It is not sustainable to continually put sentiments and other considerations over and above merit and competence. Such a lopsided arrangement in an ivory tower is a big question mark to rating internationally. For how long can this obnoxious arrangement – merit 40%, state quota 30%, catchment zone 20% and discretion 10% at the point of entry – be defended? Despite the long years of QS and FC, the North still lags behind the South educationally, while our system pays dearly for denial of merit for other considerations. For instance, the North still has the highest number of out-of-school children, which has hugely contributed to the army of crimes and criminality in Nigeria. Continual use of QS and FC looks like conspiracy against development, as it leads to production of very low quality graduates which has done irreparable damage to the education sector and genuine development in Nigeria.
The system makes admission into university lopsided and allows unethical practices and abuses within the university system. It casts aspersion on the integrity of our universities. Hence, the National Assembly should, as a matter of necessity, amend that aspect of arrangement in the constitution as any country that runs its system not on the basis of merit and competence but on ethnic and other sentimental considerations can never attain its peak. Moreover, the level of devastation done by Boko Haram insurgency in the North in the last one decade has shredded whatever remarkable development attained in the region over the last 7 decades such that even if the South should be sleeping for the next 50 years, it (the North) can hardly meet up if it does not do things differently. This should not be seen as casting aspersions to one section of the country against the other but as a genuine review of our old ways towards charting a new course to our developmental agenda.