By Akinleye Sowunmi
On October 1 Nigeria celebrated her 55th independence anniversary. Though it is a thing of joy to recall that Nigeria survived a civil war and is now running a decent democratic system of government, it is also a period of reflection as I think back to my Alma Mater. Alma Mater literally translates to mean the mother that nourished you; such a mother should not be forgotten, especially as she celebrates her 25th anniversary.
The Federal Government Academy Suleja (FEDACAD), formerly known as Suleja Academy (SULACAD), was established in 1986 by the military government of Ibrahim Babangida. The first three sets of students were placed in gifted centres, and so the actual academy did not start until 1990. The academy started on the site of a former Federal School of Art and Sciences, and this is the site it occupies till date, although it may have been intended as a temporary site.
The then Minister of Education, Jubril Aminu, likely chose Niger State as location to capture the interest and support of Ibrahim Babangida. The siting and geographic location of the school were both unfortunate choices. Students of the former School of Art and Sciences vandalised the facility before leaving as an indication of protest for being relocated, not to mention the massive expanse of land on which the school sits, which remains unfenced up to the time of this writing. The location of the school has also been of negative impact. It has made the school invisible, and non-existent in some quarters. You will now meet staff members of the Federal Ministry of Education who think that FEDACAD is a school for the physically challenged; meanwhile, FEDACAD was intended to provide opportunities for exceptionally gifted children to develop at their own pace in the interest of the nation’s economic and technological development. This became of little surprise when it came to light that the Federal Ministry of Education (FME) did not have a functioning website for over a year. The URL for FME listed on the FG’s website at the time (http://fme.gov.ng/ and http://www.nigeria.gov.ng/ respectively) had been put up for sale, such that it became a topic of discussion on Nairaland website. A final challenge that the school’s location presents is the apprehension of parents to send their wards to Suleja, owing to the level of insecurity in the country.
The school started with good vision and great prospects but this was thwarted by the ‘Nigerian factor’. From the very beginning, there was bad blood acting against the school: why should some kids be considered “gifted”? Are they better than others? A combination of the Nigerian factor and the bad blood set the school up for what it is today. The first set of students who arrived in Suleja into JSS1, JSS2 and SS1 did not meet a school, but a piece of land with dilapidated buildings. They saw neither running water nor electricity for the first six months. The only thing the school had going for it was a cohort of very intelligent students and highly qualified teachers, nothing more.[pro_ad_display_adzone id=”70560″]
In the midst of overwhelming odds, the earlier set of students excelled beyond measure. Of note are students that graduated before 1999, particularly from 1996 to 1999, where students scored at levels that caused JAMB to withhold their results, with JAMB stating that it wasn’t possible for students to have scored as such unassisted. This was in the era of JAMB registrar, Bello Salim. There were also students as Deji Akere and Temitope Ajetunmobi who graduated in the same set but entered Obafemi Awolowo University in consecutive years. The former broke the existing university GPA record while the later broke the new record set by the former. Suffice it to say that FEDACAD should be administered with more seriousness so that such high level intelligence can be harnessed and converted to inventions and innovation.
Fast forward to my time in FEDACAD (1999 to 2005); students resumed in the middle of second term because the selection process took longer than usual. Students were received to dormitories which would constitute a sad story. The doors and windows were at best described as rusted metal hanging on a last breath. Using the bathroom was a difficult thought to conceive. Senior students (male) usually had their bath on the hostel courtyard, while junior students took their bath in the open, where trees provided enough early morning cold breezes to make one shiver all through the day, especially during the harmattan period. The story of the toilet will be too graphic for this write-up. Running water was a luxury to see and students depended on a manual borehole (one for male and female each) which would breakdown from time to time leaving students stranded. The water pumped out was usually brown with iron filings in it. Students would wait for the iron filings to settle before drinking. Electricity was ‘as usual’ and NEPA was back-up to candles. On some days, breakfast would not come, or would come late. In the sick bay, chloroquine was the drug administered for every illness that came in. Towards the end of 2004, my set was forced to stage a protest in order to get management to solve some of the mentioned problems. Another event that is quite difficult to forget happened early in 2005 where armed men carrying military grade ammunition were robbing in the area directly opposite the school. A depot was located there and must have been the target of these overly sophisticated robbers. For some reason, they crossed into FEDACAD premises through the games field which was behind the female hostel. It would make sense to rob a bank with such kind of ammunition, but not Suleja Academy. Access was easy because there was no fence, or a few meters of fence stretched out on either side of the gate. The female hostel was fenced, and good enough, the robbers didn’t go there. The male hostel was not fenced and somehow they didn’t go there either. Directly behind the male hostel was the home of the boarding house master, where they laid siege. The house was sprayed heavily for several minutes and till date, it remains a puzzle what they intended to find/take/steal from there. Eventually, the boarding house master was macheted. From there on, they proceeded to the staff quarters where they went from house to house till day break. Off course, the police arrived just in time – some hours after the robbers left. Following this event, the male hostel was fenced, but this was hardly a solution.
An outstanding teacher at the time was Ola Johnson (fondly called O.J.). He was the most popular teacher to every student that passed through the academy while he was there. He primarily taught further math, and also math, physics, geography and economics at other times. He was a character in many ways but was more importantly a man of sacrifice. He was willing to stay around till midnight to help students with academic requirements. Towards WAEC examination, he would organise extra lessons through and after night prep, and come with his generator set so that he could connect it to the class in case of power outage during the session. Indeed, he is a man to be remembered.
There are a number of gifted and talented programmes in the US and around the world. The California Academy of Mathematics and Science (CAMS) has similar enrollment with FEDACAD and was founded about the same time. In comparison, CAMS receives $5,500 per student annually, while it should be noted that CAMS is a non-residential academy. A reasonable suggestion to the Federal Government would be to relocate FEDACAD to the Federal Capital. This will give the academy more visibility, improve its brand, and more easily attract extra-brilliant folks from across the nation. The location will also make it easier for philanthropists to consider donating to the school. A second suggestion would be to place the budget of the academy on a first line charge from the Federal Ministry of Education. The government should also consider instituting an independent board of 15 to 20 members comprising proven leaders, seasoned academics and trusted statesmen who can have oversight function over the school. As FEDACAD turns 25, it is my earnest expectation that the government beams a light of hope on the academy. Nigeria is ripe enough to join the league of top innovative nations, and FEDACAD can contribute to achieving this.
*Akinleye Sowunmi writes from
Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates