Corruption Denies Millions Access To Quality Education In Nigeria

A student stands on a bench to write on the board at a floating school in the Makoko fishing community on the Lagos Lagoon, Nigeria February 29, 2016. In Makoko is a sprawling slum of Nigeria's megacity Lagos, and the school provides free educatio. Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters


Education in Nigeria is in dire straits, and many Nigerians are acutely aware and concerned. At present, Nigeria has the highest percentage in the world of children not enrolled in school, and it is much higher in the north of the country than in the south. Overall, the UN Human Development Index ranks Nigeria 152nd out of 188 countries. In the north, up to 12 million are enrolled in madrassas which do not prepare them to participate in a modern economy and are generally outside of government oversight.

Public education is chronically underfunded. For countries seeking to develop rapidly, a UN agency recommends countries spend 25 percent of their national budget on education, as they do in Ethiopia; for Nigeria, the 2018 figure is 7.1 percent. During his visit in March, Bill Gates chided officials for underinvestment in human capital. But, education expansion and reform is not easy. The education function is divided between federal, state, and local governments. As with other aspects of national life, corruption is said to be ubiquitous. Teachers often go for long periods without being paid, and strikes, especially at the university level, are frequent.

At independence and shortly thereafter, the Nigerian educational system was among the strongest in Africa. As with so many other elements of national life, the long period of military rule—from 1967 to 1998, with a brief civilian interregnum—blighted education. Military governments viewed educators, especially at universities, as potential opposition. As in other developing countries, the popular demand for education is strong. Accordingly, successive military governments expanded the number of universities while never providing sufficient funding. This process continued after the restoration of civilian government in 1999, where states established universities, usually with inadequate funding. At the primary and secondary level, education had largely been in the hands of missionaries. But, in the aftermath of the civil war, the military government closed church schools (and hospitals) and “nationalized” them, to the detriment of their quality.

The civilian government of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999 permitted the establishment of private universities under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. Since then, seventy-four have been established that were open as of 2017. Most have church affiliations of some sort, and most are in the southern part of the country. However, the American University of Nigeria is secular and is located in Adamawa state in the north. (I am on the board of the American University of Nigeria.) The quality of many of the private universities is high, but there are tuition charges, while the public universities are largely free. There are now many private primary and secondary schools, and they educate the majority of students in Lagos state.

As with other aspects of Nigerian life, traditional state functions, such as education, are becoming privatized. There is a clear hierarchy. Wealthy Nigerians send their children abroad to Ghana or elsewhere, less wealthy ones send them to private schools through the university level, while the poor—the overwhelming majority of the population—are dependent on state facilities.