Determined to keep her dream of becoming a lawyer alive, Mary Bassey, 17, treks for over two hours every day to get to school.
“We leave home by 6:00 a.m. and arrive at school by 8:30 a.m. and sometimes 9:00 am,” Mary says. “We miss the assembly, our first, and sometimes second periods,” she added.
Situated about 16 kilometres away, the school, Community Secondary School, Iko town in Eastern Obolo local government of Akwa Ibom State, is the closest to her community, Atabrikang, in Ibeno local government.
Over 25 pupils from Atabrikang set out for this journey every day. Amongst the party is a 12-year old, Jeremiah Akpan Jeremiah.
“I am tired, and my legs are hurting,” he told me, as he took off his sandals to wash his legs in clear stagnant water beside the school gate.
An option would be to commute to school on a motorcycle, but at N800 naira (N400 naira for each trip to school and back); the cost is a luxury his father, Akpan Jeremiah, says he cannot afford.
“I would have loved to pay so he wouldn’t have to trek, but I don’t have that kind of money. I am just a fisherman,” Mr Jeremiah said.
After school hours, pupils from the community still make the same distance back home in the afternoon, under the scorching sun and sometimes, drenched, when it rains. Sometimes, they are forced to stay back at home to rest due to physical and mental fatigue.
The long trek to school takes its toll on the pupils of the community.
A Study at the University of Liege, Belgium, showed that pupils suffer from fatigue and low morale that may lead to dropping out of school or poor concentration in class after spending long hours on the road to get to school and back.
Waking up early for school and returning home late, severely limits time for private studying, just as it has a profound effect on the sleep patterns of adolescent school pupils, the study revealed.
A teacher at the school, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to journalists, said the pupils don’t only come late to school but feel tired after trekking the long distance.
“Because we are aware of their situation, we usually consider the pupils and try to give them some special treatments,” he said. “Sometimes, I organise extra classes for them during the breaks and after school.”
While pupils from Atabrikang face the hardship of walking long distances for hours to access education, the multimillion naira model secondary school situated in their community rots away.
The school is one of the model secondary schools constructed by the administration of a former governor of the state, Victor Attah, between 2003 and 2007. The schools are located in: Aka Offot (Uyo), Okop Ndua Erong (Ibesikpo/Asutan), Ekparakwa (Oruk Anam) Ikot Akpaden (Mkpat Enin) Atabrikang (Ibeno) and Issiet Ekim (Uruan).
Abandoned to rot
Constructed as boarding schools by Mr Attah’s administration, the model schools were designed to improve education in the state. The schools were built to have administrative blocks, staff rooms, staff quarters, classrooms, workshops, laboratories, libraries, sickbays, football fields amongst other sporting facilities.
However, 13 years down the line, they have not been put to use. After the Attah administration in 2007, the schools were abandoned and left to waste away.
While some were neglected and never used after completion, others were abandoned at various stages of completion.
Despite the allocation of N1.89 billion between 2015 -2021 for the completion of the model school project by the state government, no appreciable work was done in the school within the period.
In 2021, the Akwa Ibom State government, through the Ministry of Education, allocated the sum of N13.7 million naira for the “Completion of project sites at Ekparakwa, Uyo, Ishiet Ekim and Ibesikpo Asutan”, in addition to the sum of 18.7 million naira that was allocated in 2020.
N400 million naira was budgeted for the project in 2019 and 2018 respectively, N60 million naira in 2017 and a total of 334.5 million in 2016.
From 2012 to 2015, the sum of N600 million naira, N800 million naira, N200 million naira and N400 million naira, were allocated to the project, respectively.
For the Completion of the Model Secondary School, Atabrikang, the sum of 100 million was allocated to the project in 2014 and 2015 respectively, followed by the sum of 165 million naira in 2016.
State of the Model Schools
At the Model School Atabrikang in Ibeno Local Government Area, shrubs and thick bushes have enveloped the buildings in the premises, many of which were in decrepit states.
Some of the roofing sheets have also been blown off. Residents in the community now use it as farmland and a spot to collect firewood.
Describing the state of the school as terrible, Emmanuel Peter Mkpoikunam, the village head of Atabrikang, called on the government to revive the school to alleviate the sufferings of the pupils who trek long distances.
“We will love to see the school revived so that our children can stop trekking very far to school. They trek about 10 to 12 miles to Iko every day and most of them are small children.
“When I am going out, sometimes I carry some of them to school with my motorcycle; and other times when I see them on my way back in the evening, I pick them too. As you can see our road is bad and has even gone worse with the oil activities of this Sterling Global company. Their trucks and tractors have destroyed the road. In the rainy season, it is nearly impassable,” he said.
“Because of this issue, some parents here have sent their children out to live in Uyo, Eket, Ukpenekang and Ibeno, to attend school there,” he added.
A resident, Matthew Friday, blamed the situation on the lack of continuity in government. “This is one of the problems we have in this country. When one administration takes over, they abandon the projects of the previous ones and this is not good at all,” he said.
In Issiet Ekim in Uruan Local Government Area, the evidence of neglect is no different. While the school buildings have been overtaken by tall grasses, which make it difficult to navigate through, some of the roofs have crumbled.
Okoyo Asuquo Okoyo, the Village Head of Issiet Ekim, decried the years of neglect by the government. He said the inability of the government to complete the school is a source of hardship to pupils in the community.
“Many pupils from our communities go to Ekpene Ukim, Ibiaku Essiet and Adadia to attend school. Those who cannot afford to pay motorcycle riders have no choice but to trek,” he said.
He said that some of the school’s properties had been lost to vandals. “In 2018, we arrested four boys for stealing the engine and roof and some windows, and they were sent to prison for two years.”
He added that the village had reached out to the state government for intervention on the school, but got no response.
Asuquo Nyong Essien, the former House of Assembly member who attracted this project, wrote letters and spoke with the government, all to no avail.
The closest alternative and only government secondary school within the area – Secondary School Adadia Ukpum, is in a sorry state. All except one of the classroom blocks are in ruins.
Of all the five model schools, only the Community Secondary School Aka Offot in Uyo took off for academic activities after construction. The school admitted pupils into its day and boarding programmes, and is often regarded as “one of the choice public secondary schools in the state,” Mrs Albert, a parent, told this reporter.
The school was brimming with activities when this reporter visited in May 2021.
After its completion, the model technical school in Ekparakwa, just like others, was also abandoned to waste for years by the Akpabio-led state government and was only handed over to the Nigerian Navy in 2017 by Governor Udom Emmanuel, for the establishment of the Nigerian Navy Military School (NNMS), Ikot Ntuen.
The school was handed over to the Navy with “infrastructural amenities at various levels of completion and degradation,” the school said on its website. Consequently, extensive renovation and upgrading of the school’s facilities were carried out by the Nigerian Navy and the Akwa Ibom State Government, after which the school was commissioned in May 2018 by the governor, Mr Emmanuel.
Residents of the community have, however, accused the military of denying their children access to attend the school.
“No single indigene of this community has been admitted into the navy school since they commenced four years ago,” one of the community leaders tells this reporter
“Every year, our children purchase the forms, write the exams and pass, but they are never selected. Instead, they admit people from outside this community and state,” he added.
Efforts to get the authorities of the navy school and the navy directorate for education to comment prove unsuccessful. This reporter was prevented from gaining access to the school and attempts to reach the naval authorities were unsuccessful.
The only school in the area is the Community High School, Ekparakwa, which is located about 40, 50 minutes on foot, or N100 on a motorcycle”.
Other residents alleged the naval authorities plan to forcefully take over lands from in the community.
“The navy said people are not supposed to build houses close to the navy school, so they are taking over peoples lands by force,” Monday Hanson said. “For example, there is land opposite the school gate, they have stopped the owner from completing his building and that is family land. Is it fair?”
It is another sad tale of neglect at Asutan Ekpe Comprehensive Secondary School, the model school in Okop Ndua Erong, Ibesikpo Asutan Local Government.
About six buildings that would have served as classroom blocks have been left uncompleted and abandoned to deteriorate for years. The walls of most of the buildings were cracked, with algae growing all over them.
The railings at some of the classrooms in use were missing, posing a death trap for pupils, just like the roof of the library that has caved in and is ready to crumble. The hostels that were built are now wasting away.
A teacher who spoke to this reporter said the school, pupils and teachers had been abandoned to fate.
Also speaking to the press, the village head of Ikot Akpa Ndua, Sunday Peter Udoh, revealed that the school was fully built by the community in 1974, including a fully-equipped library, laboratories and other facilities; but it was taken over by the Nigerian Airforce in 1999 and converted to the Airforce Comprehensive School.
“The Airforce took over all the facilities at the community school in commando style,” recalls the Octogenarian. “We were not allowed to pick even a pin”.
He said the government promised to build us a replacement at the current site, but up till today, the building has remained abandoned.
Government fails to respond
It is unclear how much was released for the implementation of these projects within that timeframe. Attempts to know how much money was released in these years were futile, as letters of request to the Ministries of Education and Finance were acknowledged but not responded to.
Efforts to get the initial contractual details of the project including the exact amount originally budgeted and released for the project, as well as contractors and status of projects, were not successful.
The member representing Uruan State Constituency in the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Aniekan Bassey, said he had been liaising with the state government to ensure that the abandoned multimillion naira model secondary school was revived and put to use.
“During my constituency briefing three months ago, I made a single request to the governor. The request was that the issue of the school should be looked into.
“I strongly believe that the school will be taken care of this year by the government,” Mr Bassey, who is now the Speaker of the House of Assembly, told this paper in 2018.
However, three years after this commitment, the people are yet to see signs of any revival.
Civil Society speaks
Ann Udonte, a community development professional, said it is imperative for the government to prioritise education in its development policies, budgeting and programming.
“It is important for the government to give priority to quality education for children and youths, as this is key to the inclusive society that we all seek,” she said.
“Because if they do not have access to education, how then would they have access to be part of the development process? If as youths and children they are denied education, what kind of future are they being prepared for and how will they contribute to decisions in a society that will affect them.
“We have also seen the high risk that these children take just to go to school, we must urge the government to expedite action to ensure that these children have unfettered access to quality education, improve the learning conditions by actually implementing the budgetary provisions for these model schools.”