By Mustapha Sesay
Access to education remains a huge challenge for the African continent, more so within the Sub-Saharan Africaregion.
This, according to experts, has led to the persistent poverty and bad governance which have undersized development and growth.
The Africa America Institute (AAI) State of Education in Africa Report2015 states: “University enrollment rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are among the lowest in the world,” and that “globally 8 out 10 countries with the lowest pre-primary net enrollment rates are in sub-Saharan Africa.”
But despite this unpleasant report about the educational situation in the sub region, concerted effortsare being made both by individual nations and at regional level.
However, there are numerous obstacles which have hampered the full actualization of these efforts.
One of such obstacles is the slow pace of integration on the continent which, to a very large extent, has limited education opportunities among nations.
Thus identifying the strong connection between education and socio-economic and socio- political development occasioned the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to develop sound protocol on education in order to enhance access and equal opportunities among member States.
Article 7 of the protocol specifically called for open door opportunities for students within the regional bloc to benefit from unhindered access to education across countries that make up the bloc.
The article clearly points out that “Member States shall undertake to grant to students from other ECOWAS countries the same privileges as to their own students in terms of fees and accommodation, within a period of five years from the date of entry into force of this Protocol.”
But paradoxically, it is evident that this protocol is just one of the many neatly written aspirations of the bloc on paper which remain unimplemented and unpopular among both students and the university authorities in Sierra Leone, and it might also be the same for other member countries.
Sorie N Dubumya is the Registrar of the University of Sierra Leone (USL).
He expressed vague understanding of the protocol in an interview at his Tower Hill office in Freetown. He said students from other countries were recognized as foreign students, therefore they were mandated to pay $ 3,500 as fees while Sierra Leoneans Students were charged two time lesser depending on the curse of study.
This makes education outside the individual student’s country grossly expensive and sometimes unaffordable for the less privileged who travel out of their countries within the sub-region either due to economic or political reasons.
The USL registrar argued that the situation is so because there has been no information about the protocol and that such agreement would only be enforced by the Ministry of Education or by the Foreign Affairs Ministry, noting that the University has no control over such situation.
“We are not aware of the protocol officially and I cannot readily tell you that we have such understanding in term of fees regularization for foreign students even within ECOWAS,” the registrar said.
Dubumya however noted that there is an educational policy agreement between Nigeria and Sierra Leone that aim to encourage and facilitate Voluntary Corporation between the two nations for their students to pay equal fees in both countries. He added that this agreement was limited to only federal Universities in Nigeria.
Both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment on the subject.
“I am done with work for this year. Let’s say next year,” BrimaTuray, Public Relations Officer atthe Ministry of
Education, told me on the phone after several attempt to reach him.
Ife Ojo, a Nigerian student studying Medicine at the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences (COMAHS) in
Sierra Leone is one of the beneficiaries of the special educational policy agreement between her country and Sierra Leone.
But apart from the current educational relationship the two nations enjoy, she sadly knows little about ECOWAS and virtually nothing about the protocol on education.
“I am here because my dad works here, and so we took opportunity of the condition that exists between Nigeria and Sierra Leone in terms education for me to further my studies here,” she told me.
“It could have been difficult if there was no such opportunity,because I don’t know if there was any ECOWAS protocol on education that will have given me the same opportunity,” she added.
In an effort to know the perspective of other member countries on the protocol, I went out to reach to the embassies of ECOWAS countries here in Freetown.But while some were already on recess due to the Christmas holiday,others declined to grant me interview.
Officials at the Liberia embassy said they don’t talk to journalists. But in a brief chat with the Consul,he indicated lack of knowledge on the protocol.
“I definitely don’t know about that protocol you are talking about. You are the one educating me now,” Roland Johnson said with broad smile.
Francis Sowa is a PhD candidate in Media and Communications Studies andhe lectures at the department of Mass Communication at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.
He believes that lack of commitment, coordination and collaboration on key ECOWAS protocols, not only the one on education, is largely caused by acomplete variance between the laws of the countries that make upECOWASand the treaties and conventions they signed to.
He noted that there are no efforts to harmonize these treaties into the domestic laws.
For Sowa, research could have been the way out of the discrepancies and enhance awareness for the protocol.
But he noted that this has remained ineffective among government officials and those who are supposed to benefit from some of the outcomes of those very protocols.
“Youcannot claim your right if you don’t know them,” he said, adding: “the Foreign Ministry is supposed to be au-fait with those international treaties and conventions and sensitize the citizen about it.
But again government always pay lip serve when it comes to issues that are really beneficial to the ordinary man.”
Sowa pointed out that Sierra Leone’s pro-poor policy is captured in the Agenda for Prosperity which was drafted by the All People Congress-led government, but that it remains unfulfilled because only few people can access and digest its content because of the prevalence of illiteracy among the bulk of the population.
Africa can only get out of poverty when it inhabitants were able to educate themselves to the fullest of their potential in order to access employment and other benefits that come with it, the mass communication lecturer and social commentator said.
He reiterated that until ECOWAS make education a key ingredient in its quest of improving democracy and good governance, reducing inequality and fighting poverty in West Africa would remain fruitless.
Moving forward with the ECOWAS Vision 2020, which aims at transforming the bloc from an ‘ECOWAS of States’ to an ‘ECOWAS of the People,’ the region will need to move from a narrow and individualistic meaning to a more collective and substantial content in order to fulfill the role of creating a framework of equal access to education within the community adherent to regional identity.
This means that the protocol on education should not be underestimated. In fact it should be taken as the starting point to constructing a mechanism of inclusion and people oriented regional community
Furthermore, until more efforts are focused on expanding access and improving the quality of education to meet the needs of today’s workforce,the current situation would continue to escalate poverty and strangle good governance.