Nigerians Are ‘Normal’ – A Cool Story

A few days ago, the Nigerian section of the internet lit up with stories about the cut off marks for the common entrance exams into Nigeria’s Unity Schools.

The figures for the some of the northern states were particularly grim with a cut off of just 2 marks required for boys from Yobe presumably for the same exam where boys from Anambra need to score 139. It’s hard to figure which is more unfair – setting such a low bar for Yobe boys or setting such a high bar for Anambra boys. There was also the issue of girls in some northern states being required to score a lot more than boys to get in. In the same Yobe, a girl would need to score 27 marks to get into a Unity School. Is this to discourage girls from going to school or to encourage boys?

But all that is besides the point of this quick blog post. Often we read of these things in the abstract and don’t quite connect how bad government policy cascades down to the people and then manifests itself in downright devious or crazy behaviour.

I was chatting to a friend this morning and a story came about how this cut off mark system worked many years ago in reality. Said friend’s sister went to one of the popular girls only Unity Schools in the South West. She recalled a classmate of hers who was Yoruba and Muslim with a Yoruba surname let’s say something like Fawehinmi. As it turned out, the girl’s father had a Muslim name that easily passed for a Hausa name let’s say something like Mustapha. The girl also had a Muslim name as her first name let’s say something like Fatima.

In true carpe diem fashion, the girl’s parents – who of course wanted her to get into a prestigious Unity School which she couldn’t have qualified for based on the cut off mark for her actual state of origin – came up with the genius idea of changing the girl’s name to Fatima Mustapha. The rest was easy; they simply claimed she was from some appropriately low-cut off mark northern state and voila, the girl got into the school, probably on ‘merit’.

The girl went on to ‘carry last’ in most tests and exams according to the narrator of the story but who cares?

Often when you see this kind of devious behaviour by people, it almost always starts with a law or policy by some authority that artificially favours one group over another. Some months ago I was discussing with an Igbo friend about the whole Osu caste system and he ran me through an interesting version of history. Apparently it used to be the case that Osu were privileged people dedicated to the gods. This dedicated life typically came with plenty of benefits perhaps to ‘compensate’ for their sacrifice. So if an Osu entered your farm for instance and took anything to eat from there, they couldn’t be punished for it. In essence, they were above the law and could even take property for themselves.

Up stepped some chancers spotting a gap in the market. Since this Osu business came with such benefits, why not find a way to declare yourself an Osu? So typically chancer would then go to a shrine (or maybe not even go at all) and come out claiming that he had sworn some oaths and was now an Osu. He could then go about taking people’s wives and property. Eventually of course, the people got tired of the chancers who had ruined everything and turned on the whole Osu idea – which is the current form we have today where Osu are now ‘outcasts’ (which is partly why we have plenty of people bearing the name Nwosu without being outcasts).

The ‘good news’ is that this behaviour is not unique to Nigerians. Observe the current Democratic Senator from the US State of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren. Some years ago while applying for a job at Harvard University, she suddenly discovered that she had Native American heritage. It was also a mere ‘coincidence’ at the time that Harvard was looking to increase its diversity by hiring people from minority backgrounds i.e. people from such backgrounds would stand a far better chance of getting hired. In the end, Harvard probably would publish a stat showing it had hired say 30% in one year from minority backgrounds and no one would really probe the numbers.

What is always amusing about all these schemes that try to favour one person over another (the Malaysian example is perhaps one of the worst in the world in that it favours ethnic Malays over Chinese Malays very heavily for everything despite the fact that Chinese Malays have never ruled the country. It is so bad that the loudest calls for abolishing the system is actually coming from Ethnic Malays these days) is that the people who are meant to benefit from it almost never do. It’s usually some chancer who spots an arbitrage opportunity and games it.

There surely must be plenty more of such stories in Nigeria where people changed their state of origin to a more favourable to get a job or get into a school. Who’s fooling who?

I am not in favour of scrapping Federal Character totally purely because I think that being an artificial country, you need some kind of glue to hold Nigeria together. So it’s one of those things where you hold your nose and live with the smell while looking for ways to improve it if possible (Do you think the ’66 coup and subsequent civil war would have happened if we had Federal Character back then? Think about this deeply).

But in the case of education, there is a serious problem here. The north obviously suffers from a legacy attitude towards education that the south does not have. But this does not mean there are no people there who can distinguish themselves. I recall when I was in secondary school, a couple of sets before me, Air Vice Marshall Nura Imam’s son, Farouk, was an academic legend in his set. I think he came tops across the board with straight As in the SSCE exams then.

So the question to ask is what exactly is the basis of such terribly low expectations from the north when it comes to the common entrance? What would happen if cut off marks were equalized across the board? If it solves nothing, surely we will at least know that everyone who entered a Unity School claiming to be from Yobe state was actually from Yobe? I’ll let you tell it.

End of cool story