The State Government and the Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT), in the state have been engaged in a deadlocked dispute over teachers’ salaries since the implementation of the national minimum wage.
Channels Television was in Makurdi, the Benue State capital to examine the situation and the consequences of the strike for the pupils, the teachers and primary education in Benue State.
Life appeared normal on the streets of Makurdi, until visits to the public primary schools, where the classrooms were completely empty, with school grounds deserted and some overgrown with weeds showed the real situation.
In some cases, the buildings were already falling into ruin and the situation was the same all over the state as the prolonged strike by public school teachers had taken a heavy toll.
According to the Benue State NUT Chairman, Godwin Anyam, the problem started with the implementation of a minimum wage for public servants in the state, including schoolteachers.
“When the minimum wage was approved in the state and before its approval, I was part of the negotiation on behalf of the teachers. So when this was approved, that means the teachers also must also be part of the wage.
“What we were collecting before the coming of the minimum wage was what other workers were collecting. The only difference we had was the 27.5% enhanced allowances with the teachers, which we also fought for and was also approved by the Governor’s Forum.”
However, the State Governor, Gabriel Suswam, explained that what he decided to do was to appeal to the core civil servants whose salaries were mistakenly increased out of proportion to at least let the Government “take a small percentage” of what they had increased for them so that they would be able to accommodate teachers.
“There’s no way, even if the teachers are on strike for 20 years, I can’t raise 4billion (Naira) to pay all these salaries; that is practically out of place”, he said.
While the private schools have been cashing in on the situation and children of the privileged are receiving standard education; other children have been on the receiving end of the crisis as some have been in the streets, struggling to make ends meet.
A parent, John Awuru, expressed worries over the future of the children whose parents could not afford the cost of private schools and challenged the Government to find a lasting solution to the situation rather than condemn the pupils to a life in which they would not be able to fulfill their potentials.
All hope is not lost for those who cannot afford the cost of attending private schools, however, as few makeshift education centres had sprung up to keep the children busy for fees as low as 500 Naira per child.
As the battle over the implementation of wages continues to rage between the State Government and the Teachers’ Union, both sides appeared unwilling to concede,
The Chair, Benue NGO Network, Justin Gbagir, spoke to Channels TV, he said, “If we know the importance of education, particularly primary education which is the foundation of education, then we feel that the relevant stakeholders would have done all that is needful to ensure that the primary school teachers did not go on strike in the first instance. If at all they went on strike, they would have done everything to ensure that the strike is not prolonged.”
The Benue State Head of Service, Terna Ahua, however, explained that the State Government was approaching the problem in two directions; to cut down on the cost of governance and to increase the components of the state’s internally generated revenue.
Many public primary school children and perhaps teachers in Benue State continue to suffer the endless holiday and their deserted schools have become accommodation for the internally displaced persons fleeing herdsmen’s attacks in neighbouring Nasarawa and Taraba states.
One lesson the out-of-school children may have learnt is the meaning of the adage, “when two elephants clash, it is the grass that suffers”.