ColumnsCoronavirusNigeriaOpinionMay 27: How COVID-19 Exposed Nigeria’s Annual Children’s Day

“Till now, the disruption created by the pandemic has not been fully reverted.” ―Ebuka Onyekwelu

Today is Children’s day in Nigeria, as it has been every other year since the recognition of May 27 as Children’s day in 1964. But this time, something different is happening as the pandemic has defiantly canceled all celebrations connected to the fanfare that ordinarily characterize today’s commemoration of Nigerian kids. And just maybe, this time the new normal has exposed another hypocritical festivity of nothingness, which has become an integral part of our yearly celebrations. It is a hypocritical celebration of nothingness because, even though most Nigerian children suffer untold deprivation, victimization and with no one speaking for them, each year, people gather to celebrate children’s day as mere formality without any concrete effort to properly position the kids for a better future. Now without the usual gatherings and activities as mere ritual, what else does Nigeria has to offer to her kids?

Customarily, kids would have gathered at different venues in state capitals and Local Governments’ headquarter across the federation and be received by some political leaders. The kids will perform some dramatic displays, match past, play and have a lot of fun. Parents who are chanced to be with their kids will take them out to buy ice creams and all the things that kids love to eat, that they can afford or that they approve of, for the kids. All these activities are observed at different levels nationwide from morning till evening, with children looking all colourful in various uniforms and costumes. In fact, children’s day is much more colourful and has far more consideration in Nigeria than workers’ day. This is to the extent that eateries on children’s day often selloff, before evening especially in major cities. In fact, in many places, there is increased traffic on children’s day. Without doubt therefore, children’s day in Nigeria comes as a memorable day for kids, parents and indeed everybody. As a result of these festivities, we feel satisfied that the one day mapped out to celebrate children is all about the merriment it is marked with during pre-covid era. Perhaps we are justified that after spending much money and time on a single day for children, we have done enough. For the first time in 2020, children’s day could not hold as it used to. In 2021, it is still the same. No festivities to mark children’s day.

In 2021, it is still the same. No festivities to mark children’s day.

COVID-19 has now put Nigeria’s efforts at raising capable kids which is the bedrock for securing the future, to test. Efforts towards raising able Nigerian kids have been weighed on the scale by the pandemic and found wanting. Beyond the pandemic, Nigerian school children are now, as events suggest, under imminent threat of kidnap. Apart from the fanfare that is characteristic of children’s day in Nigeria before now, what else? Does Nigeria really think and plan for children, mindful of the fact that children are the exact reflection of the country’s future?

In the north, there is persistent problem of almajiri system, where thousands of children roam the streets and live off begging. This system has been sustained for many decades by northern elites and leaders. It took COVID-19 to get northern governors to oppose the almajiri system for the first time. At the pick of the pandemic, many of the kids were deported, purportedly, to their states of origin. It remains a puzzle how the state of origin of the kids were determined, given the nature of record-keeping compliance. In any case, what is the future of those thousands of almajiris of northern Nigeria? If it is not clear what future these almajiri kids have in Nigeria, up north, certainly, that is how unclear the future of northern Nigeria looks. In the south, there is the relentless problem of child labour in which children of school age engage in hawking all kinds of wares or edibles. Many of these children also engage in all kinds of menial jobs on building sites. Inside many markets, they work as load carries at a fee. With no education and no skill, what could possibly become of them in the near future? That is exactly how uncertain the future of Southern Nigeria looks. Thinking about it, despite the enormity of danger these kids face, it is incomparable to the menace they potentially pose to the sanity of the society and its social fabrics, in the near future.

Nigeria has over ten million children between the ages of five and fourteen years who are out of school

Notwithstanding, both government and civil societies are not giving it their best shots in a bid to arresting the already bad situation. Regardless of the desperate situation, this presents both for now and the future on one hand and for the kids and the rest of us on another, there is no coordinated action to shape the fortune of these children. No policy directive or decisive agenda to give all Nigerian kids a fair chance at life. Yet, every year we all troop out to celebrate children on children’s day. While at it, Nigeria has over ten million children between the ages of five and fourteen years who are out of school, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Nigeria. But Nigeria is not solving this problem just yet.

The country’s education system is one of the worst-hit by the novel coronavirus. School children from nursery to secondary education, and even tertiary education students, were on total lockdown for months, in 2020. During which time no much learning was taking place as all effort towards emergency transition to e-learning has proved to be very difficult and sometimes outrightly impossible, especially for children not in cities. And school children outside cities outnumber those in cities. Till now, the disruption created by the pandemic has not been fully reverted.

Effectively, the entire school calendar has been disrupted, and yet to recover. Again, children are paying for the inability of our education system to innovate. Even the West African Senior Certificate Exam was affected and that it later held was not because the government eventually figured out a creative way to allow school children to move on with their lives. Worst still, what the future holds is not certain particularly as there are no guarantees that Nigeria is immune, or in the least prepared for the kind of disruption occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic. So if we are to do categorization of those in the group of worst hit by COVID-19 pandemic, clearly children; both the out of school kids like almajiris and child hawkers, who are susceptible to contracting the virus and those who are in school but cannot learn because there is no efficient system to convey seamless e-learning, are some of the worst-hit by the pandemic. Today most kids are home and there is no activity as before, but all Nigerian governors and political leaders will send their “best wishes” or “goodwill messages” to the kids. Yet, they have taken no strong position in actually creating a better society and learning alternatives for these kids in order to secure their future and that of Nigeria.

Nigerian kids deserve better and more organized systems to thrive and excel, without prejudice to the circumstances of their birth. As COVID-19 has shown and bluntly reminded us that the kids deserve more than May 27 outing and festivities, it is now left for governments at all levels, civil societies, parents and all stakeholders to reassess these circumstances so as to resituate the position of Nigerian kids for much better, in line with the prevailing order. No better way to celebrate the Nigerian child than the opportunity for sound and uninterrupted education and a secure future, which is the only guarantee of a secured and prosperous country.

♦ Ebuka Onyekwelu, strategic governance exponent,  is a columnist with the WAP

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