Sierra Leone’s Free Education: Investing in People.

                          Abdulai Mansaray, author

One of President Maada Bio’s signature policies, before, during and after the general elections has been the promise and delivery of the free education for all. Many people believe that education is a right and not a privilege. Many believe that education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world. For the New Direction to signpost “education as its flagship policy” can be suggestive of its sense of priority. For far too long, successive governments, especially in Africa have paid lip service to education. On paper, governments have ranked education as major policy drives in their respective countries. But in practice, little has been done to promote education. Most government s have done their best to suppress enlightenment, knowing full well that Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. (Martin Luther King, Jr.). Like religion, education or the lack of it has been used as the opium of the masses.

To all intents and purposes, it is this collective ignorance that politicians bank on, and take for granted to hoodwink the masses. That is exactly one of the the reasons the APC party lost the last general elections. The APC believed that irrespective of how well or badly it had performed for the last 5 year political cycle, all the party had to do was bear gifts to the electorate, and the elections was theirs to win. This has always been the traditional practice of all political parties in the country. For far too long, politicians have learnt to ignore the electorate immediately after elections, only to turn up on the eve of elections with lots of promises.

They had always banked on the knowledge that a bag of rice here, cash there or T-shirts were all it took to gain the support of the average ignorant and gullible voter. During the last elections, we all saw how the APC party sprayed the cash among the disaffected. Cash and T-shirts were distributed freely to the electorate. There was rumour that every rally attendee was given Le 30, 00.00 (thirty thousand Leones) and a T-Shirt for their support. If the last election taught us anything, and especially the APC, it was that “you can fool some people some time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time”; thanks largely in part, to social media.

Let us picture this for a moment. A country is ravaged by corruption. Everybody in that society is affected one way or the other by this scourge. A new government comes in and promises to go after those it believes presided over that reign of corruption. Those that are considered responsible for presiding over that period cry foul. They look for shields and insulations against the allegations. But in order to get such support, they appeal to the basest of the worst of human instincts and play the tribal card.  But above all, they bank on the ignorance and gullibility of a plebeian mentality. In turn, the same people who have suffered most, as victims of such corruption are led to believe that the fight against such corruption is targeted against those who do not belong to a particular tribe or political party. This is swallowed hook, line and sinker. The same people you believe you are fighting for are asked to mobilise against you; for fighting for them? If there is any higher price to pay for ignorance, show me and I will pay cash. This just goes to show that “when plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorises it and a moral code that glorifies it”.

In the meantime, many people including myself had expressed doubts about the authenticity of the government to honour its pledge for free education. With a broken economy, it was difficult to see how the new government will ensure that it fulfils this pledge. Cynics and detractors of the New Direction may have seen this pledge as a political gimmick. We all know that during elections, politicians promise to even build bridges where there are no rivers. In their bid to secure the votes, they are adept at promising anything and everything under the sun. So it was not surprising that cynics of the New Direction had a field day in ridiculing the promise of free education. But what does the new education mean for our country.

If any group of people should benefit from the free education, there is no group more deserving than our fairer sex. Like many other African countries, our women folk have always been marginalised in terms of education. We do have certain aspects of our culture, or certain tribes in our community who do not believe that women need education. To many, the woman’s place in the community is the home. Sadly, Women are sometimes regarded as the production line of society; and that the role of women is to bear children, cook and clean. Men are seen as bread winners. It is this erroneous mentality that has partly contributed to the slow evolution of our communities. The discrimination against women in our societies has gone on for so long and too far.

It is an open secret that many families struggle to educate their children. The number of school drop outs has always been a perennial disease. The advent of the Okada has generated a whole generation of untapped potential. Who can blame them? Where there is limited amount of money to spare for education, it is always the women folk who have to drop out of education. Some of our women folk are hastily betrothed into early marriage, and most times child marriages because families cannot afford to educate them. Some are given into early marriage out of fear of teenage pregnancy. Some do so because they believe that no matter how educated or wealthy a woman is, marriage is the ultimate outcome; so why wait? In cases where there is evidence of early or teenage pregnancy, it marks the beginning of the end of their education. How many girls get a second chance to continue their education, after suffering from the mishap of teenage or unplanned pregnancy? Just to emphasize the discrimination against women, the male culprit in a pregnancy situation gets the chance to continue his education, while the female in the equation is left to stare at the lost chance to be educated; just because they made one bad decision.

If you visit Sani Abacha Street in Freetown today, you will find it teeming with teenage girls hawking their wares. It is really sad to see these school going age children languishing in the doldrums of society. Many are forced to do so because an early pregnancy has come to pass as qualification for failure in society. There are those who could not continue their education because their families are cash strapped, and many families are not keen to take a punt on the education of a woman. Our society does not believe in second chances; especially for women. But what our society fails to acknowledge is that investment in knowledge and people pays the best interest. That “When we invest in women and girls, we are investing in people who invest in everyone else.

Free education in a country that is struggling to pay its civil servants in a timely fashion is a tough ask. Free education in a country that has been ravaged by corruption will be a serious battle. There is no doubt that President Bio’s leadership credentials would be tested along the yard sticks of this education drive. The Minister of Finance Jacob Jusu Saffa recently remarked that the government has not benefitted from any foreign help to date. Much of what is being done is generated internally.  But the need for Bio’s government to succeed here cannot be overemphasised. The free education drive should be seen as an opportunity for all and especially our long suffering and marginalised female folk. If I were close to Maada Bio, “Free Education: No child should be left behind: Investing in people” will be the new political sermon.

Education makes it easy to lead and govern a people. When people are educated, it makes it difficult to enslave them. With the free education poised to kick off next month, we should as a community embrace this and remember that wisdom is like a baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it. As a nation, we should all aspire to embrace this new free education. The government can offer the education, but it is up to every citizen to contribute to make it work for the benefit of our country. Like a garden, we need to cultivate the knowledge to harvest it. The hope is that more attention would be given to our disadvantaged women folk in this drive; because when you educate a man, you educate an individual, but when you educate a woman, you educate a generation. Malcolm X once said that “education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today”. Let us prepare for it today.

There is no doubt that this project will face its own battles. Firstly, it will face a cultural resistance. It will face financial huddles. Our institutions would require institutionalised evolution of the mind-set. Parents and families will need to buy into this project. The project will have to fight off its detractors and those who sadly, will like to see it fail for obvious reasons. The roots of this free education will be bitter at times, but we should all aspire to enjoy the sweet fruits in the end. So President Bio, as you embark on this seemingly near impossible dream, please don’t trade your authenticity for approval; because by opening a school door, we’ll close a lot of prisons.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter (M. L. King).


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