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COVID-19 and the Safe Schools Declaration in Nigeria (2), By Isaac N. Obasi 

Workshop Participants at the Safe School Declaration Sub-Committee of the Education in Emergencies Working Group in Nigeria held in Abuja on May 2-3, 2018. Courtesy of SSD Newsletter, No. 3, GCPEA, June 1, 2018

In this second and last installment, we shall continue our discussion focusing on Nigeria’s efforts at implementing the Safe Schools Declaration (SSD) prior and during the period of coronavirus (COVID-19 pandemic. As we all know, COVID-19 itself is a war against lives and livelihood disrupting schooling at almost all levels since March 2020, in the wake of its ravaging effects.

On March 20, 2020 Nigeria became the 37th country to endorse (i.e. ratify) the Safe Schools Declaration. So far, 105 countries have endorsed the SSD. By this endorsement, Nigeria, like the others, commit herself to undertake to protect students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack and military use, by taking the following steps:

(a) Implement the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, and bring them into domestic policy and operational frameworks as far as possible and appropriate;

(b) Collect reliable data on attacks and military use of schools and universities, including through existing monitoring and reporting mechanisms;

(c) Provide assistance to victims of attacks, in a non-discriminatory manner;

(d) Investigate allegations of violations of national and international law and prosecute perpetrators where appropriate;

(e) Develop and promote “conflict-sensitive” approaches to education;

(f) Seek to continue safe education during armed conflict and restore access to safe education after attacks;

(g) Support the UN’s work on the children and armed conflict agenda; and lastly,

(h) Meet on a regular basis, inviting relevant international organizations and civil society, to review implementation of the Declaration and use of the Guidelines (https://ssd.protectingeducation.org/).

The issue before us now is to examine Nigeria’s efforts at implementing the various steps it committed herself in the preceding paragraph. As we pointed out in the first part of this article, the SSD is co-championed by the Governments of Norway and Argentina. However, the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) coordinates advocacy for endorsement, and monitors implementation, of the SSD. The GCPEA publishes Newsletters that provide updates on implementation (among other things) of the SSD in the endorsing countries around the world.

With respect to Nigeria, the GCPEA reports that the ‘process of domestic ratification was led by the Education in Emergencies Working Group in Nigeria, which is co-led by the Federal Ministry of Education, UNICEF and Save the Children and consists of over 50 active local and international NGOs, government agencies and departments’ (GCPEA Newsletter Nos. 1, 2017, & 5, 2019, via https://protectingeducation.org/news/…). Our discussion here, will draw from the GCPEA reports on Nigeria over the last three years with respect to its declared commitment to the SSD.

In the first edition of its Safe Schools Declaration Newsletter in 2017, the GCPEA revealed that Nigeria announced, at the Buenos Aires Conference on Safe Schools, its plans to formulate a national policy on Safe Schools to bring all stakeholders on board to implement the SSD Guidelines. The policy, the report said, would outline the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, including the Ministry of Defence, Federal Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in protecting education from attack. Nigeria also announced that plans were underway by the Ministry of Defence and state governments to revise the decision to use or occupy schools as military or operational bases with a view to finding available alternatives.

This GCPEA report shows that Nigeria demonstrated an early commitment (i.e. 2017) even before endorsing the Declaration in 2019. In actual fact, by attending the Buenos Aires Conference, and making a commitment to formulate a national policy on Safe Schools, Nigeria had started implementing steps (a) and (h) of the eight steps listed above. This was very encouraging given the fact that Nigeria had experienced painful disruption of the education of many school children following the abduction of secondary schoolgirls by Boko Haram terrorists in Chibok, Borno State, in 2014 and at the Government Girls’ Science and Technical College, Dapchi in Yobe State in 2018, among other disruptive activities. For example, as the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, revealed in 2018, the “Boko Haram and other insurgents in the northeast have killed 2,295 teachers since 2009, with approximately 1,500 schools destroyed since 2014”. This shows that Nigeria needs to double her efforts at implementing the Safe Schools Declaration to reverse the destructive tide of this menace.

But it does appear that the gains of this early declaration of initiative of rolling out a policy by Nigeria has not been matched effectively by concrete actions at least at the sub-national levels of government. This is against the background that the news all over the place last week (September 9 & 10, 2020) was that the United Nations (UN) has asked Nigerian states to domesticate policy on Safe Schools. In an interview with the News Agency of Nigeria (NANS) on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, Dr. Judith Giwa-Amu, (UNICEF Education Officer) called on “Nigerian states to fast-track the domestication of the policies on Safe Schools in line with the Safe Schools Declaration which Nigeria endorsed”. It is important to point out also that Dr. Giwa-Amu commended Nigeria for showing commitment towards ensuring that schools were kept safe and protected for children to learn in them. She specifically commended the military for showing understanding of children-related issues and without whose efforts no learning would have taken place in some parts of the North-east.

Some other areas where Nigeria has done well which the GCPEA Newsletter No. 1 (2017) reported include (a) the collaboration among the Federal Ministries of Education and Finance, the National Emergency Management Agency, and state-level authorities to “relocate students and teachers from high-risk zones in the Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe States to secondary schools in safe zones. According to the Ministry of Defence, the pilot phase of the program saw 2,400 students (800 from each state) transferred to 43 Federal Unity Colleges across the north of the country”.

For us here, this was a very successful and commendable initiative. (b) The implementation of “several measures to enhance school security to facilitate the continued provision of education, such as: constructing ditches around school perimeter fences; installing security lighting throughout school compounds; using sand bags to deter intruders; deploying armed military personnel to carry out vehicular and foot patrols; stationing security personnel at school gates; and setting up roadblocks on access roads”.

University of Abuja gate

Funds need to be provided at the sub-national levels to carry out more works in this area. Many of our schools and tertiary institutions, are in serious need of protection from attacks by terrorists, bandits, kidnappers, and herdsmen. It is gratifying to note that the Federal Government recently approved N400m for the building of the perimeter fence around the University of Abuja which has in recent times been attacked a number of times by bandits and kidnappers (See for example: https://tribuneonlineng.com/fg-approves-n400-million-to-fence-university-of-abuja/). It would be recalled that the Vice Chancellor of the University of Abuja, Prof. Abdul- Rasheed Na’Allah, had lamented over the menace posed by bandits who have been encroaching on the university land due to its unprotected nature.

Furthermore, the GCPEA Newsletter No. 3 (2018) reports that the Safe School Declaration Sub-Committee of the Education in Emergencies Working Group in Nigeria hosted a multi-stakeholder workshop in Abuja, to launch a review of the legal framework on the protection of education in Nigeria. Participants included the Federal Ministries of Defence and Education, members of the armed forces, the Presidential Committee on the Northeast Initiative, and a wide range of protection, education, legal, and policy experts. For us, this activity demonstrates further the commitment of Nigeria in deepening its activities as required in the eight earlier listed commitments.

Lastly, the GCPEA Newsletter No. 5, (2019) reports that as part of implementing the Declaration, Nigeria’s armed forces have ordered military teachers to stop carrying openly weapons in schools. Again, it reports that “the Education in Emergencies Working Group is finalising a draft National School Safety and Security Policy) and is advocating for an amendment to the Armed Forces Act which would legally ban the military use of schools by the armed forces. Such a ban would help to prevent attacks on education by opposing armed groups, and limit disruptions to students’ learning”. For us here also, the stoppage of open carrying of weapons by military teachers as well as the finalisation of a draft National School Safety and Security Policy is a welcome development.

In the same manner, this column commends the advocacy efforts of the Education in Emergencies Working Group Nigeria (EiEWGN) – “a coordination structure that serves as a pressure group to facilitate the provision of quality education that meet the physical protection, psychosocial, developmental and cognitive needs of people affected by emergencies. The aim is to enable structured learning to continue in times of acute crisis or long-term instability” (See https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/25062018_nga_eiewg_ssd_advocacy_brief.pdf).

The principal drivers of EiEWGN which are the Federal Ministry of Education (lead), UNICEF (co-lead), Save the Children (Co-lead), Riplington Education Initiative (Sub-Committee Chair), Ministry of Defence (Education Corps), Plan International Nigeria, Talents in Children Promotions, and United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), have demonstrated commendable commitment that needs the support of the sub-national levels of government (i.e. States & Local Governments) in whose domains many of the schools are located. EiEWGN needs the support of all in its efforts to keep our schools protected and safe.

Finally, from all that we have said so far on SSD, it is clear that stopping schooling for too long under COVID-19 pandemic is inadvisable, as it disrupts the education of generations of our children. As Prof. Tijjani Muhammad Bande, President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), revealed, 463 million school children, mostly from developing countries lack access to remote learning. This figure from a UN report, represents nearly a third of the world’s 1.5 billion school children forced to stay at home following the closure of their schools due to COVID-19 (See https://www.vanguardngr.com/2020/09/what-covid-19-has-taught-us-unga-president-reveals/). The lesson is that, learning should not stop because schools are closed.

COVID-19 pandemic is like a war emergency and requires that leaders devise smart ways of not disrupting schooling for so long. Call it virtual classroom & learning, e-schooling, or simply e-learning etc, our public institutions at all levels should see it as the new normal, with blended e-learning. As it is now in Nigeria, all schools as a matter of imperative necessity should be re-opened with strict adherence to the non-pharmaceutical COVID-19 protocols.

We should remember that if not for the courage shown by WAEC authorities and other stakeholders, it’s just completed examinations would not have taken place. Here lies the challenge and at the same time the wisdom which the SSD offers in this period of COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert, is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: [email protected]

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