The occasion of a retreat on education two days ago provided the platform for President Muhammadu Buhari to endorse a “surgical operation” Governor Nasir el-Rufai is embarking upon in Kaduna. While this presidential endorsement would doubtless encourage the Kaduna state government in its policy steps on the one hand, on the other hand it has unwittingly raised a spectre of humiliation of teachers on the national horizon.

The governor is determined to sack about 22, 000 teachers who have been adjudged as “incompetent” in the school system of the metropolitan state. The allegation of the state government is that the 22, 000 teachers to be fired sat for tests meant for primary four pupils and failed abysmally. To justify its position, the state government has made the very scandalous scripts of a few of the teachers public. Any one concerned about the future of the pupils being taught by those whose scripts were made public should feel dispirited. The President felt so and actually said the situation is a “tragic one.”

The system is odiously faulty, yet it is convenient for those in government to isolate one aspect of a huge problem and make a festival of it because some helpless fellows are involved. Yes, the it is a serious problem, but it would be more helpful if both Buhari and el-Rufai ponder the deeply structural aspects of the problem.

For clarity, no genuinely progressive person could object to the strategic focus of el-Rufai in Kaduna State: the quality of education should be raised so that good education could be made accessible to the children of the poor. This is central to any effective poverty alleviation strategy. You cannot dispute such a strategy if you wish the poor students in Kaduna State well; it is also hardly debatable that the quality of public education in Nigeria (not only Kaduna) is in sharp decline.

The problem with the el-Rufai surgical operation is with his tactics. So it is with his politics and many of his policy steps. As a convinced right-wing star, the governor may have no time for the philosophical issues of dialectics. Yet, he needs a better comprehension of the dialectic of strategy and tactic in his politics and policy formulation, articulation and indeed, implementation. As every good student of dialectics knows very well, an extremely erroneous tactical step in the short run could easily compromise the strategic end in the long run.

Mallam el-Rufai has declared 22, 000 teachers incompetent. Can we also pause and think about the competence of the assessors of these poor folks? Does propriety matter in this exercise at all? Both in law and in fact, the test itself was incompetently administered. While the objective may be valid, the procedure also matters a great deal. Pray, this civil order is expected to be run on the basis of the rule of law, as the enthusiasts of liberal democracy tell us. What is the methodology of this famous test of teachers? Are the scripts of ALL the 22,000 teachers as bad as the few made public? How statistically representative are those few atrocious scripts of the performance of ALL the 22, 000 teachers to be sacked? Clearly, these teachers are so incompetent that their performance does not require the opinion of other assessors, in the view of the Kaduna State government.

By the way, has anybody asked about the authoritative opinion of the Teachers Registration Council of Nigeria (TRCN) on this very important policy step? Established by law in 1993 as a regulatory body for the teaching profession, the TRCN is an agency of the federal ministry of education. Its mandate is to ensure that the “quality, discipline, professionalism, reward and dignity” of Nigerian teachers “match international standards.”

Enormous damage has been done at the subjective and moral level to the teaching profession by the sheer tactlessness of the Kaduna exercise. The procedure of the assessment does not seem to matter because teachers are involved. The humiliating consequences of the test- and –sack operation in Kaduna state would become manifest if you ponder the fact that the state government could hardly mete this sort of maltreatment to any other category of professionals in the state civil service. The name- and- shame campaign going on Kaduna state will diminish the esteem of teachers who may not be guilty of incompetence as alleged by the state government.

After sacking the teachers, Mallam el-Rufai may proceed to go the Mars to import geniuses in pedagogy to practise teaching in the state. But the moral damage done is that in the foreseeable future, hardly would you find a young man or woman proudly announcing in the public that he or she is a teacher from Kaduna State or anywhere in Nigeria for that matter. Can you imagine a governor organising some tests for doctors, lawyers, engineers or accountants and proceed to declare them incompetent without the verdict of the respective professional and regulatory bodies responsible for the quality and ethics of those professionals? Without the opinion of the regulatory and professional bodies, the tests administered in Kaduna state cannot be said to be thorough.

Yet thoroughness is important in these matters. You cannot pass a professional judgement without the due competence to do so. Given thoroughness it would be possible to detect if some cases could be subject to remediation while the irredeemable ones would have to leave the system. It is thoroughness that would eventually prove that some of them should not be addressed as teachers because they are not in the first place.

Some otherwise informed commentators have also questioned the mandate of the Nigeria Union of Teachers and the Nigeria Labour Congress in defending the hapless teachers. Some of them dismiss the issues raised by labour as defending “so-called rights” of the teachers. Now, in a law-governed society you can remove incompetent teachers from the education system without being indecently anti-labour. There is a subsisting contract if the incompetent teachers were actually issued with letters of appointment. It is, therefore, not a matter of “so-called rights” for labour to insist that the disengagement should be done decently and according to labour laws.

The subjective aspect of this problem is worth pondering by all those genuinely promoting access to quality education in Nigeria. From primary school to the university level, the official attitude also corroborated by the elite is to humiliate teachers. It is a deep irony of the Nigerian society. Every professional, technocrat or politician knows that he is a product of the cumulative efforts of his teachers at all levels, yet it is no more a national culture to accord our teachers with the due respect and proclaim their dignity.

The first class graduates used to dream of becoming professors. That was when a university professor earned more than a minister. The Kaduna drama should be situated squarely within a national culture of disrespect to teachers. You cannot advance the quality of education by humiliating teachers simply because they are teachers. As a subjective factor, the dignity of teachers is central to any progress you want to make in the education sector.

Although in a markedly different historical context and scale, what is happening in Kaduna state is reminiscent of the purge of the civil service by the Murtala/ Obasanjo military regime in the mid- 1970s. In the name of fighting corruption and indiscipline, the career of many innocent civil servants were unjustly truncated in the rashness that was the order of the day. In retrospect, many reviewers of what happened still insist that the Murtala/Obasanjo “surgical operation” killed the soul of the civil service. The civil service has hardly recovered from the operation more than 40 years after because since then permanence has ceased to be a feature of the service. This happened with the consequences for loyalty, dedication and security of tenure.

The lack of thoroughness of the quality check is partly due to the fact that the Kaduna state government does not seem to have sufficiently taken a systemic view of the problem. For instance, if you sack the incompetent teachers, are you going to sack the officials in the ministry of education and the teaching board who issued the teachers letters of appointment in the first place? Or will the ministry too have to be reconstituted with entirely new staff? What is the condition of the teachers’ training institutions in the sate? How central is training to the current reform process? There is a definite context to the productivity of teachers like any other category of workers. The factors of training, equipment and reward are applicable as any other labour situation. These are all important elements of reform.

Beyond humiliating incompetent teachers, any honest reform in the education sector is more crucially about the priority accorded to public education in social expenditure. On this score, no government in Nigeria has acted competently. Recently, our neo-liberal ideologues (whose views dominate policy conception in Abuja and the state capitals) have been making a distinction between ‘’funding education” and “investing in education.” It is part of the almost inexorable trend of making education a commodity and the education sector a booming market in which only the rich can buy quality education for their children. When a government adequately funds public education, the social objective is to produce quality manpower for the society and economy.

The private school owners are education investors with profit motives, which, by the way, is legitimate in a capitalist system. In fact, a state government in the southwest has contemplated privatising primary schools as a solution to funding problem! Now you cannot solve the burgeoning crisis in the education with this bourgeois societal orientation. The children of the poor would simply be left behind in the race for quality education. This is the hidden ideological war in the social sector.

So talking about competence the question may be posed: has the government discharged its responsibility in funding public education competently? In the retreat in which the President said the situation in the education is “serious”, the introductory speech of the Education Minister Adamu Adamu touched on insufficient funding of the education sector. In a breach of the international standards, Buhari has not budgeted up to 10% for education at the federal level. Former Goodluck Jonathan budgeted 10% in 2014. There are countries budgeting over 20% for education. This is also a “serious” issue for the education sector. A radical reform should also include a leap taken in this direction.

Doubtless, el-Rufai should be supported in his drive to raise the quality of teachers in Kaduna without humiliating the good professionals in the crowd. Rebuke could be done decently and in many ways. For instance, in an exceptional show of goodwill, el-Rufai has over the years supported the efforts of a non-governmental organisation in Akwa Ibom state, the Inoyo Toro Foundation, working assiduously for quality of teachers in the state. In fact, he is graciously sponsoring a yearly prize for the Best History Teacher.

At the 10th anniversary of the foundation two weeks ago, no teacher was adjudged qualified for the prize in Mathematics by the board of assessors headed by a university teacher working all the year round interviewing the teachers and monitoring their performance. Members of the audience, of course, found this worrisome for the quality of public education in the state. Now, that was a subtle rebuke about standard without humiliating any teacher.

Reading the situation in Kaduna state, it may not be possible to take the surgical knife away from el-Rufai as he is bent on performing the operation. But the governor should note that a good surgeon would only open up the patient based on a thorough diagnosis of the disease and sufficient clinical assessment of the patient. Otherwise the surgeon would be acting like a butcher!

The Horizon By KAYODE KOMOLAFE, Email: kayode.komolafe@thisdaylive.com.