Nigeria: Voter drive shuts schools, angers parents

Simple spelling lessons and multiplication tables still appear on the chalkboards in empty classrooms across Africa's most populous nation as officials take over the country's schools to conduct voter registration drives ahead of the April elections.

Tens of millions of children are missing class this month in Nigeria because of the upcoming vote, leaving their parents scrambling to keep them busy. But the rules apparently aren't applying to rich families, whose children still dress in uniforms and attend school behind curtained windows.

Tunji Folami, whose 5-year-old and 7-year-old sons are now sitting at home, shook his head as he looked at a compound in Lagos that houses a half-dozen shuttered schools. Election officials processing eligible voters took up only a little corner under a coconut tree.

"It doesn't make sense closing the schools. With the little space they're using, the children would not know an effect," Folami said. "The government made a mistake."

Nearby, students dressed in green school uniforms played ping pong at an outdoor table, passing time in front of the empty cement building where teachers hold classes. Another group stands by a woman selling local stew, a young girl break dancing away to the tinny hip-hop coming out of her cheap mobile phone.

"It's so boring staying at home," said Ibikunle Favour, an 11-year-old in the seventh grade. "I think the government should allow us back in school because the registration is not affecting us."

Nigeria's Independent National Electoral Commission has spent more than $230 million to purchase laptop computers, digital cameras and fingerprint scanners to register an estimated 70 million eligible voters during the two-week registration drive.

Of the roughly 120,000 voter registration sites, more than 20,000 correspond with properties occupied by schools.

The federal government ordered all schools closed without warning beginning Jan. 10 through the end of the month. Ministry spokesman Peter Obidiegwu said the closure allowed election officials to carry out their work without interference and protected the children from the violence that often accompanies elections in Nigeria.

Asked about the challenges parents now face, Obidiegwu told The Associated Press: "I don't have anything to say on that."

If caught holding classes, schools face the possibility of being closed permanently by government regulators.

However, children of the country's political and economic elite are apparently flouting those rules. An international school apparently attended by the president's two children in Abuja also remained open until drawing criticism from newspapers.

"So, finally, the president's children are at home, like all other children. That is the proper thing," a recent editorial in Lagos' NEXT newspaper read. "If government officials insist on permitting mindless decisions then they should not be allowed to exempt their kin. Hopefully in future we will find a way to prevent our leaders from sending their children to school abroad while our universities languish beneath the burden of strikes and empty laboratories."

Meanwhile, other students continue to miss out on valuable lessons that likely won't be able to be made up in the shortened term.

"We're going to be missing three weeks; three weeks of math, geography, science, English and all the subjects," said Hannah Obalade, director of a private academy in Lagos called the OakBridge Montessori School. "Definitely, the children are going to lose."

Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria remains strangled by endemic poverty, with more than 80 percent of people earning less than $2 a day. That already makes it difficult for families to send their children to government schools, where tuition runs into the hundreds of dollars.

Poverty alone means school is already out of reach for many. While government statistics are not available on how many children do not attend school in Nigeria, youth can be seen standing on their toes to beg through the nation. Others hustle beer, gum, cigarettes and other goods in shops.

Parents in the country's Muslim north often send their children to Islamic schools, where many spend their days begging alongside roadways with plastic bowls.

Education remains critical in Africa's most populous nation, where U.N. statistics suggest only 60 percent of adults can read. Nigeria's population is also growing rapidly: Nearly half of Nigerians are already under the age of 15 and a September report by the British Council predicts Nigeria will become the fifth most populous country in the world by 2050.

As the end of the month draws closer, Nigerian parents hope the schools will reopen. However, continuing problems with the ongoing voter registration push have led the country's National Assembly to vote to extend the drive. Whether the schools will remain closed for that period as well remains unclear.

But in the Makoko slum, where houses accessible only by canoe sit on stilts above the still and polluted waters of the Lagos lagoon, several schools for the poor remained open.

At one, teacher Friday Gezo, 25, said the government had no desire to come into a poor and dangerous neighborhood to enforce the closure order.

"This place is the Lagoon," he said, as the sound of children signing a lesson carried over the warped wooden boards and murky water. "That's why."



Independent National Electoral Commission: