Address By Hon. Oseloka H. Obaze, MD/CEO Selonnes Consult Ltd. and Immediate-Past Secretary to the Anambra State Government at the 2016 Annual Convention of the Queen of the Rosary College Onitsha Alumni Association in America (QRC-AAA) Atlanta, GA, 6th August 2016
I am glad, extremely honoured and grateful to have been asked to speak here today. I thank the Dr. Nwando Ozoh and Executives and members of Queen of the Rosary College Onitsha Alumni Association in America (QRC-AAA) Atlanta Chapter, the host of this year’s convention. I thank Dr. Ngozi Okose, the President-General of the QRC-AAA for her leadership. Our collaboration in support of our respective alma maters continues to resonate.
My relationship with QRC Onitsha, both personal and familial, is long standing. I’m privileged to have very dear friends who are QRC alumni; two of my sisters went to QRC and though my dear wife, Ofunne, who is here today, is not an alumnus of QRC, she is the daughter of a pioneer QRC student, the late Mrs Catharine Omo. But more importantly, as an Amaka Boy, my affinity to Umu Q. can be linked to the chumminess between CKC Onitsha and QRC Onitsha, which is historical, solid and enduring. Both schools take natural pride in sharing similar core values and the same founder, Most Rev. Charles Heerey, the Archbishop of Onitsha, of blessed memory.
I commend your collective commitment and tenacity in giving back to a school that played a critical role during formative years of your lives. I applaud your altruism. After all, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” We need not ask you question of you. We know what you are doing for others, which is why we are here today.
I am elated by your continued support for your alma mater; more so, because we are at the juncture where the Nigerian Diaspora has become a key player in Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings and thus in governance; having remitted home in the past year, some $21 billion. Every dollar you send home, every project you conceive and execute at QRC adds value to the development of our country and wellbeing and empowerment of our people, especially girl youths. Those who follow your path at QRC are indeed lucky and should be thankful for your collective dedication and resourcefulness.
Let me acknowledge the importance of your convention theme, “Improving Academia And Empowering Students with Special Needs”. Improving academia is a universal goal and will for long remain so. But empowering special needs students is a subject that those of us who are not physically challenged or have family members who are challenged, often take for granted. Accordingly, I have elected to speak this evening on the topic; “Imperatives of Supporting Special Needs Students.” Taken in tandem with your convention theme and overall mission objective, this focus is critical, since we have been told that “Nigeria cannot afford to leave the questions of education to the whims of individual choice.”
Indeed, education is too important to be left to government bureaucrats. We know that our education curriculum and structures are shadows of what they were when most of us were in high school. Today, we no longer teach history in our schools. We have by choice, elected to be a nation with irreversible amnesia. This development is simply, scary! It goes against the grain of improving education. The blight and attending decline in qualitative education explains in part, why C.K.C. Onitsha Alumni Association in America (CKC-AAA) joined in spearheading the campaign for the return of schools to the Catholic Mission.
On 1 January, 2009, former Governor Peter Obi, single-handedly and against all odds, took the courageous leap of faith by handing Anambra State schools back to the Missions. Both QRC and CKC were key beneficiaries of that hardheaded decision. The result has been nothing but near miraculous. Since that policy decision was put in effect, Anambra State has ranked tops in the sphere of education. Anambra schools continue to excel under Gov. Willie Obiano, affirming the solid foundation in place. Just three weeks ago, the Catholic Bishop of Kano, Most Rev. Dr. John Niyiring said while on a visit to Onitsha that the handing over of schools “was the most courageous thing a person in government had done in Nigeria”, adding “that since that exercise, the trajectory of education changed in the state.” Indeed, Bishop Niyiring went on to say that Catholic Bishops in Northern Nigeria continue to urge their State Governors to borrow a leaf from Anambra State and understudy State-Church collaboration in the field of education. I have made this recall, simply to underpin that promoting qualitative education and improving education is a shared responsibility, of which the alumni of any school have a critical role to play and the critical mass required to remain proactive. We can hardly be conscientious objectors to such a noble mission.
Let me now turn to our theme of the day. By definition, special needs students require special education, which is variously referred to as “special needs education, aided education, vocational education, and limb care authority education” (Wikipedia). Unlike mainstream education programmes where one size or platform fits all, meeting special education needs requires customization of teaching platforms and services, with a view to addressing the individual needs of the students.
Conventional wisdom instructs that students with special needs should be consigned to special needs schools. In Nigeria this is a fallacy. First, limited service infrastructure and space does not permit that luxury. Secondly, special needs cover a broad spectrum. This includes students with behavioral challenges, autism, Down syndrome, spectrum disorder, etc. Yes, these students may require special attention and special education programmes and school environment. But there are also students who have no mental issues, but are handicapped –perhaps, wheelchairs bound, vision impaired, deaf and dumb – who can still and indeed, do function optimally in mainstream schools like QRC Onitsha and CKC Onitsha. Yet, we are not well attuned to their needs, thus compounding their challenges. Our public policy approaches and responses suffer from obvious disconnect and are not sufficiently holistic, in order to address the prevailing challenges fully.
As a nation and people we tend to be near indifferent to the challenges faced by special needs students. This is so even as we are reminded that it is “important that students, parents, schools, communities, and government’s agencies remain accountable in advancing the humanity of Nigerians.” This is so, even as we seek to educate these students along with other regular students in our schools; and subscribe to the doctrine that no child should be left behind.
Our indifference, which often starts at homes, is compounded by societal perceptions and disposition, cultural beliefs, poor advocacy; poor or dismal policy articulation and legislation and consequently, dismal or nonexistent service delivery. In any of these areas, our indifference or what we may consider a small slip may lead to disastrous consequences for the special needs students in question. Often this happens when we unwittingly deploy untrained educators to handle special needs students in a non-adaptive environment. Undoubtedly, as evidence shows, “professionally qualified teachers tend to have more favourable attitude towards the inclusion of special need students than their non-professionally qualified teachers.”
For our purpose today, I will concentrate on what we need to do to support special needs and handicap students, who go to mainstream schools as opposed to those who must be placed in special education programmes. Most secondary schools in Nigeria today have their fair share of ambulatory students, blind students and deaf students. Hence the burden of adding developmentally challenged students in mainstream schools becomes arduous. For those students who are mobility-challenged and therefore, wheelchair bound the issue accessibility to buildings and classrooms arise instantly. For students who are blind, the issue of availability of computers, audio equipment and braille machines also arise. Incidentally, at the policy level, where decisions on funding and infrastructure are made, the awareness and commitment is limited. Hence it’s been observed that there are “constant unending debates and policy maneuvering among education policymakers that end up defeating any funding appropriated for special education”.
Persisting Lacuna in Policy
As a policymaker privileged to have served within Federal and State government structures, I am mindful that our utmost challenge in empowering our students with special needs starts fundamentally with dissonance in extant policies. Since dissonance in policy impacts on funding, there is an increasing dearth of available spaces in special needs schools, which has translated to more special needs students being placed in mainstream schools. Because such lapses exist, it has fallen on charitable organizations, NGOs, and CSOs to fill the yawning gap. Good as this is, it translates to the absence of standardization, lack of uniformity and consistency in service delivery.
Indeed, care or access to special needs facilities becomes a factor of resource mobilization. In some instances, societal response to special needs students, is the abdication of such role to Governors’ wives and other political wives who take them up as pet projects. Regrettably, while most of these political wives are committed, there is no continuity when the founders leave office. The down side is that even when funds are raised, they are not always properly utilized. Some institutions that cater for special needs students also become self-administering, so much so that about sixty to seventy percent of every dollar or naira raised goes to administering the institutions and their personnel, while forty percent or less goes to the programmes and welfare of special needs children. This narrative certainly has to change.
Role of Nigerian Diaspora in Transferring Best Practices
In Anambra State, the Mission Schools as well as Mission Hospitals are doing their utmost to address the challenge of special needs students. But they do need help.
So what is it that we can do as alumni of legacy schools? We certainly don’t want to meddle; we don’t want to be interlopers either. But given the advantage of being able to raise funds here and the favourable exchange rate, we can helps schools and institutions that cater for special needs. Secondly, we can help promote awareness. The basic information is already out there on the Internet and social media, but what is lacking is the sustained advocacy which drives the required public policy.
As members of Nigerian Diaspora, we can play a catalytic role in transferring the global best practices on the need to assist special needs students. Today, you have gathered your schoolmates, friends, family and supporters here and made this topic your convention theme. No one will leave here and still be unaware of the need to give a helping hand. We must also appreciate the need for empathy for the families with special needs students, where at times and unwittingly so, every effort and even resources are devoted to a special needs child. The flip side is the neglect normal siblings. Back in Nigeria, some special needs children are hidden and barred from schools and public glare. This encourages stigmatization. With advocacy, this should not be. These challenges make our collective and individual support for students with special needs all the more imperative. It must be so for every individual and for the society at large.
Let me end these remarks by noting that the birth of special needs child is not a matter of choice – not theirs; and certainly not those of their parents. And who among us knows what fate has in stock for us?
It ought to be clear to us therefore, that most students with special needs can, with adequate care and the correct environment function with a certain degree of normality. But it is hard work for their families; their schools and the caregivers. Indeed, it is expensive work too. Hence, our collective role is to support such personnel and institutions through funding that provide expert teachers, equipment and indeed, the proper enabling environment.
Think how blessed you are not to have been challenged by fate to cater for a special needs child. With that thought, I urge you to please consider giving generously and not just once, but as long as you can, but within your means. May God bless us all and affords us the resources and ability to assist those less fortunate than us.
Thank you and good evening.
Mr. Obaze is the former Secretary to the State Government of Anambra State, Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 - MD & CEO, Oseloka H. Obaze. Mr. Obaze also served as a former United Nations official, from 1991-2012, and as a former member of the Nigerian Diplomatic Service, from 1982-1991.
Selonnes Consult Ltd. is a Strategic Policy, Good Governance and Management Consulting Firm, founded by Mr. Oseloka H. Obaze who served as Secretary to Anambra State Government from 2012-2015; a United Nations official from 1991-2012 and a Nigerian Foreign Service Officer from 1982-1991.