Executive Chairman of SUBEB in Benue State, Dr. Phillip Tachin gives insight on the challenge of providing education for children affected by terrorist attack in Benue State, in an interview with Verbatim magazine Editors. Excerpts:
Verbatim: We want to capture vividly the leading achievements of SUBEB under your leadership. But firstly, what is your vision for SUBEB in Benue State?
Tachin: Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming. It is a great opportunity for me to inter-face with you, and try to give you a view of what is happening here in Benue State in the basic education sector. When I was appointed to this position, I actually prepared myself on what I was coming to do because, I already knew the condition of the primary education sector in the state; how depreciating it was, the level it went down, so low compared to the times I myself went to the primaries in the 70’s, and I saw a huge depreciation. So I thought that when I come to this position, I was going to make education at the basic level, be the strongest because if you look at what is happening even in the tertiary institution, our graduates cannot express themselves, both verbally and in written form.
I saw that the problem is at the root of it, not even there at the top. In order to make it right, we have to start at the foundation and it is the basic education that is the foundation. Once it is laid so well, and if you make it so strong or the strongest, it will make the secondary education stronger and then the tertiary education will be strong. So the foundation is most important. I thought that what I would do is to see that teachers are the focal point because they are the ones that impact on the children. If the teachers get it right, they will impact what is right on the children. So training of teachers was one of the things I had in mind, and which we have been doing. I appreciate the Federal Government for the funds for the training of teachers and we have been doing excellently well on that. The field reports that I’m getting shows that the teachers who have been trained, have shown good results in the classroom. This is because when observers go to observe them, they see that they have impacted well what they were taught. They are doing so well, especially in the area of geolophenics (that is, the teaching of mathematics and science education). That aspect is very good, and another critical aspect was the infrastructure of the schools because the schools were neglected and many school structures collapsed; totally collapsed. They were like traps, dead traps.
You know, when you understand the rudiments of education, you are not just thinking about the teaching, but you are also looking at the environment. When you make the environment to be learning friendly to the children, it will boost their morale, and they will have that confidence. When they have a very good classroom situation, they will do just that. This is one aspect that I also thought I will improve remarkably in order to achieve results. Provision of instructional materials is also very key to improvement, because you have to provide writing and teaching materials like chalk and other things – a lot of them, to the teachers so that they would get the teaching going. These are critical aspects that I had in mind that I would improve on the situation of basic education in Benue State.
Verbatim: Are there any data or statistics or information that could show whether we are getting positive results especially the results recorded by the children who are beneficiaries of Universal Basic Education?
Tachin: Of course! After the training in geolophonics, which you know is to help the children read and understand, those who went to supervise, and the teachers who came for training, interacted with the children and the children proved that this actually has achieved results, and this they reported to me. I have not forgotten statistics of the schools visited or the total number of children that they interacted with but I think the report was very positive.
Verbatim: Whenever you talk about SUBEB activities, one word that regularly comes to mind is projects. What is the situation like, in terms of projects being implemented or executed in Benue State?
Tachin: Projects are one of the critical aspects of basic education. Like I said before, you don’t allow your children to sit under the tree; it will be disturbing. You have to provide new shelter so that they will sit comfortably and their minds will be sober enough to take what the teacher is impacting in them. You know we have a total number of 2,753 schools across the state. In many of these schools, their structures were in dilapidated shapes, and sometimes when you go to some of these schools you will see cracks on the walls and their roofs open, because of the wind or something. This is because of many years of neglect and lack of maintenance which made the buildings become so terrible – some floors were very bad, and they operated without seats, the children sitting on the floor to learn.
These conditions have negative effects on the children. So the Federal Government and state governments have seen these situations and said, “Let’s address this situation aggressively”. So every year, Federal Government allocates funds to states to merge and use the funds to continue to invest in the infrastructure of the schools, and that is precisely what we are doing. It was an eye-sore to see a lot of schools in a very bad shape. This government, when it came to power in 2015, merged the grant, totaling 7.6 billion. There are percentages that go to reconstruction, new constructions, and then renovations, and then supplies of plastic chairs, supplies of computers and other things that are very critical to making the system work.
When we got these, we advertised and contractors bided and we awarded the contracts and we have been monitoring the projects. That is the aspects that we set eyes on, very seriously because some of the projects are in the hinterlands, so that even to access these projects is a big challenge. If you don’t go, something else may happen and they may not attend to those projects and you will not know. So we have to set our eyes on the contractors to ensure that they have done their jobs well. Many contractors have performed excellently well, and I really appreciate that. Out of the 710 schools which we gave out, over 300 were completed. There are about 290 ongoing projects and we terminated about 97 or there about, because those ones took money and abandoned the projects. These projects are supposed to be completed in 12 weeks. Anything outside 12 weekes is a violation, and the contract is supposed to even be terminated. But when you are dealing with people locally, you don’t go too hard on them with the law; you will have to go on with them, dialogue with them, encourage them to work. They give so many excuses which are not tenable anyway, because once a contract has been given to you, it is your obligation to do it. A real contractor will not complain about the terrain, will not complain about anything, except if it is insecurity. If it is insecurity and you write formally to explain that there is insecurity in a particular place, then we can look at it, review and may be relocate the project to another place where it is safer. But if it is not insecurity, we will not accept any excuses at all.
Yes there are communities that are hard to reach, but we cannot abandon them. Usually contracts in those places are given a higher variation than contracts in places where it is easier to access, to take care of the cost of moving materials. Some people will still complain, almost 2 years. Projects that are supposed to be done in 12 weeks are still there. Even the ones that are almost completed now, it’s just a matter of grace, otherwise as a legal document, if you have 12 weeks, its 12 weeks. If you don’t do it, it will be terminated, if you go to court you cannot win because it is a violation, but we are trying to understand with them. Those that had been terminated have some of them still at the foundation level, and some at the window seal for 2 years.
Verbatim: And they have collected money?
Tachin: Sometimes, you know am dealing with hundreds of files, it is usually very difficult for me to even know exactly the true position of things. I depend entirely on what my staff minute on the files. They may choose to tell me what is not true, because you know there are some cunny contractors that may want to do some funny things with them. I’m not accusing anybody but I’m just trying to tell you possibilities.
When that kind of situation arises, in fact I terminated those contracts because EFCC wrote here and demanded to know what we have done with the money, and I properly gave an account. We gave the list to them, the ones that have been terminated we gave this list to them. After termination, it was not possible to re-award the same contract on the same amount that was left on each of the contract because we didn’t even have money to do variation so that they will complete those projects and so for the money to be also dormant in the account, I suggested to His Excellency that we should convert the money to better use because our children are sitting on the floor. His Excellency gave me the approval and said, “Go ahead”. I wrote to UBEB for approval, which UBEB did. I also communicated to BPP, and so we have gone ahead to go for our plastic chairs so that they will be given to our children to make a better use of.
The situation have been, sometimes I receive threats – people who think they are powerful people in the society, whatever they do you cannot challenge them. I also have responsibility and I have a name to protect, I am also accountable to higher authorities so if I fail to do the right thing then I’m also staking my integrity.
Verbatim: You have raised some issues of challenges, like the issue of access, even if you have the funds you cannot have access to particular places. In what way has the state government supported particularly the areas where you are not directly responsible?
Tachin: The issue of accessibility is actually a major challenge. By the time we awarded these contracts it was during the rainy season, the contractors complained that some of those places were inaccessible during the rainy season because some places were riverine and so they couldn’t access and they should be given enough time till the dry season; I said ok. Those cases are understood. During the dry season those places will dry up so that vehicles, – trucks, can pass with materials. During the dry season, some people did their job and some didn’t do and rainy season came and they started complaining about the rainy season again. I said well, I am a listening person; let me listen to you again and I gave them. One year pass, then dry season came again, and then that is when I said No! I can’t take it again.
It is difficult for the government because government is experiencing paucity of funds nationwide as we all know. The priority of the government here is to pay salaries, which is a big challenge. Now to think of opening access road to these communities; and we are talking about hundreds of communities, it is not just possible. In fact, sometimes I would go out to supervise jobs myself and saw that it was difficult. I thank God we bought these Hilux vehicles for monitoring, and we are also able to access these places; otherwise it would have been just impossible. I think the governor had that in mind but it is only when funds are available and the state is stable financially that they can think about opening up feeder roads to these communities. It is a major challenge.
Verbatim: UBEC regularly releases statements stating that some states funds are still lying at Abuja. Does Benue fall into this category? What is the situation like?
Tachin: Benue has fallen into this category but not as bad as other states. It was bad before because the state couldn’t access its fund from the first quarter of 2011 to 2015. It was when this governor came into power that in his magnanimity went out of his way to look for ways to get funds to go and merge the grants. So we merged all those years and that is why we were able to have a whole bulk of 7.6 billion. Otherwise you can’t find that kind of money in one year’s grant. The ones that are still pending are 2016 and 2017 and we are working towards merging those, which I think very soon we will get some money to go and merge and we have already compiled our selection of schools that will also be renovated and the ones that will be newly constructed which we will take to UBEC for approval.
Verbatim: Security of Benue State now is a national problem. Can you tell us how the problem of security in Benue is affecting the activities of SUBEB?
Tachin: Well, in the year 2016 and the early part of 2017, we didn’t have so much of insecurity affecting our activities in various communities. We started having some issues in the axis of Zone A with some of the criminals operating there. It was just restricted there, only few people complained about insecurity there. In fact we relocated 102 projects from there. Generally there was no serious insecurity impeding the development of these jobs until this year. I think it is this year that the situation escalated. In fact some of the schools that we renovated or constructed had been destroyed by the armed Herdsmen so we can’t even access those places again -like Guma L.G.A, part of Logo L.G.A, part of Makurdi L.G.A. Gwer West, and even part of Agatu. These places are highly unsecured now.
As for these new projects that we are going to award; if we discover that they fall within those places that are risky, we will change, or relocate them. Right now, schools in those places had been shut down and ten IDP camps spread around the state. The total number of school age children that have been affected is 80,000. In fact, we are going to flag off the distribution of IDP camps for school children. Here at Agatu alone, we have a total number of 16, 000 children. That is why the UN built a refugee camp for them. We have a major crisis situation. When this happened, I sat with the management and decided to set up an emergency education committee for children in IDP camps because we don’t want a situation where these children’s future will be totally affected and they won’t have anything to do. We also saw that it is an opportunity for other children who hitherto, were not going to school. We could take the schools to them in the camps; compel their parents to have them register, for after all they are not paying school fees. Actually the population is staggering, it is so overwhelming. When I went to the camp there and decided that we’ll set up a temporary school structure so that the children will be going there. I asked a SEMA staff that are working in that camp the number of children that are there, they said 16,000 thousand, and I said what! 16, 000 in one camp? Now how we are going to set up classroom structures, if you want to say each class should take 50 children which is of course too high for any standard and reasonable classroom system. Now, if you have 50 in each class, a block of 4 classrooms you’ll have 200 children, so how many blocks of classrooms are you going to build for 16, 000 of them if you want to address the situation of the children here?
I have been trying to get International donor agencies to help because the state is overwhelmed, and it is our responsibility to give these children the opportunity for education. We can’t abandon them; we can’t let them go through this kind of traumatic experience. Some of them could be great citizens of this country, which is why we refused to give up. We have decided that no matter what it takes, even the little we have we must invest and so we bought uniforms for them at least for 5, 000 of children we bought over 40,000 exercise books, we bought chalks and all kinds of instructional materials that we are going to donate to all these IDP camps so that these children will have opportunity for learning.
Verbatim: Sir, what you are telling us today is that the situation in Benue has reached an alarming situation and even going beyond what UBEC and the nation can handle and there’s need for International community to come to the assistance of the situation in Benue.
Tachin: Exactly so. I think that we need more collaborative efforts. We have a role to play and the Federal government also has a role to play through UBEC but then, we also need efforts from International agencies like the World Bank, Bill Gates Foundation and all other foundations that will see our situation as a critical situation. Let them come in and help to intervene so that these children will also have a better future because our concern is not just a general humanitarian crisis but we are looking at these children, we should not let them suffer. It is a monumental challenge that we are facing at this moment.