For two months on, foremost secondary institution for Girls in Lagos, Nigeria, Queens College has been in the news. Between January 31 and February 24, a total of 1,222 children in School’s hostel were affected by outbreak of water borne diseases, three of them-Vivian Osuiyi, Bithia Itulua and Praise Sodipo lost their lives.
Now, some of those who hitherto recovered from the infections are falling sick all over again. The School remains shut until lasting solution is found to the water and sanitation issues that bedevilled the prestigious institution founded by British Colonialists in October 1927.
Federal Government has been indicted as culpable for the years of neglecting most of the Schools under its purview.
Director, Basic and Secondary Education, Federal Ministry of Education, Jonathan Mbaka spoke during the week on some of the issues that have agitated the minds of parents and stakholders and said more importantly, the ministry will not overlook the role of Dr Lami Amodu, former Principal in the saga. Excerpt:
Why has it taken the Federal Ministry of Education this long to have a public show of interest in the challenging issues concerning Queens College?
Yes, as you are aware the issue came to limelight on the 23rd February and to be honest, when the issue first came to limelight, the Principal who was on ground then was in denial, trying to say that nothing is really wrong and around that time, we had a change of guard and a new Principal came in and looked at the situation and saw that really there was a problem.
But you see we cannot just come out to talk without having facts at hand. While this was on, the Federal Ministry of Health came into the College through the Chief Medical Director of Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, and the State Ministry of Health as well as the Local Government sent in their health people. Now, since it was a health issue, we had to first of all hear from the Health people what really is the problem? Because we couldn’t just go ahead to start saying what it is until we get their facts.
The challenge we have had is that the facts had not really been forthcoming to us. I as Director of Basic Education have come to Lagos on this issue more than three time now. I went to the College myself when the new Principal came on board to see the situation but at that time, the students were already on break. But we looked round saw the situation and decided the situation is not one to rush to resume. So we postponed the resumption for two weeks and then started trying to put things in place.
It’s not as if the Ministry has not been involved in the issue at every step. The issue is that we could not just come to the Press until we have the facts of the matter of what really is the situation on ground.
Prior to the outbreak that claimed lives, I am aware a monitoring team visited the School and they did a report which was filed indicating that the School in actual fact had some issues, challenges and problems particularly in the areas of the dining hall, the sewage and water; and in any case, the monitoring team scored the School ‘fair’ in its report. So for the ministry to say they were waiting for the report of the Health Monitoring Team set up after the outbreak of the water disease was indeed not a fair reaction. What do you have to say?
Well, for that issue, I must confess there were little lapses in the system in the ministry. The people that came for the monitoring you are talking about are from the department that is into quality assurance; Federal Education Quality Assurance Service. Now, the report of the team that came was prepared and submitted to the Director of that Department.
Now, the Director did not pass the information onto other departments for action. He just kept it. Before now, we had held meetings severally and we had raised the issues that there is a need for such reports when they come to be disseminated round the ministry especially to the department that is in charge of these Schools. We have agreed on that. Unfortunately, it’s just this week that I was able to get access to that report. It’s a little lapse on our part. But it’s a procedural thing you know and sometimes when procedures had been on for a long time, to change them takes a bit of time. So I cannot because of that say I am exonerating us. But then, you see, these are issues, these are things that have been on ground and nobody expected such a thing to happen. Other reports have been kept like that and nothing happened.
Now, we are aware that there are other Schools in the Unity Schools Family that are suffering similar fates whereby water and sanitation situations are very poor and unimaginable. These might not have been opened up to the public for the same reasons there are lapses in the system. The Federal Ministry of Education has been accused of neglecting most of the Unity Schools. It would seem the older these School become the more “endangered species” they become, what do you have to say?
Well, on the issue of neglect, I must say that government has not really neglected the schools. The problem and I mean very frankly, is in the Nigerian factor. Yes, every year government budgets money for the Schools and every year money gets sent to these Schools and government Sends Principals to Schools and one of the reasons government sends Principals to schools is that government cannot run the Schools from the headquarters; that is why there are people on ground to deal with the running of the schools.
We have now discovered that there is a bit of failure along the line in the system and this has opened our eyes to a lot of things. We have now agreed in the Ministry that by the time we settle this now, we are going to go round the Schools one by one and take a look at what is on ground vis a vis what has happened here so that we would not get a repeat of such. I am very sure or rather let me say, I won’t be surprised to go to other Schools and find similar situations where they have challenges with water and other issues.
I will give you an example, at Federal Government College Enugu, they have problem of water because government has made efforts to sink a borehole in that School severally but that area of Enugu does not have water. So they have to rely on water tankers to supply them water. So what do you do about that? Each time Government tries to sink a borehole, they get coal instead. But we still need to look into the issue of hygiene of the School.
Now, what is government’s plan on the issue of de-congesting the boarding house at Queen College which has been indicated also as one area of spread of infections?
On the issue of congested hostel, for now we have started working on it. We have begun to take steps on the issue of overcrowding in the hostels especially at Queens College and one of the things we have done is that we have decided to reduce the carrying capacity-that is, the number of students that will get admitted into JS1; we are reducing that number from next academic session.
For those who are already in the hostel, if you say you will send some students out of the hostel, the parents could say they are being punished. So we have to look at it from a balanced perspective. Luckily for us now, the SS3 and JS3 are writing exams and will soon leave. That would create some room and so when we are taking in new students, we’ll take in less students.
Another thing which we need to do and which we are working on is to build more hostels. But you know, hostels are not what you build within two to three months; its something that takes time to build. There are also budgeting issues. In this 2017 budget, they might not have made provisions for extra hostel in the College so it is from 2018 that budgetary provisions will be made for hostels.
Now, some parents are calling for the prosecution of the former Principal, Dr Lami Amodu and perhaps a panel of enquiry into activities of some past Principals in their deals in the College. What is the Ministry thinking on this demand?
Our people say, you chase the fox away first before telling the hen not to go and play. The issue of the former Principal (Lami Amodu), is being looked into because she is got to answer for some of the things that have taken place in the College, I assure you of that. She will not just be covered like that.
But in the meantime she has been posted to another School; or has she been redeployed to the Ministry?
Well, as at the time she was posted to another School, she was posted in a routine posting exercise and she was posted out. But now with what has happened, we are now going to carry out investigations into her role in whatever happens and when that is concluded, whatever appropriate measures needed will be taken.
Is the Ministry thinking of compensating the parents of those who lost their children and those who took ill?
How do you compensate a life? You cannot compensate a life lost definitely. However, we will look into that case and possibility.