Professor Ngozi Chuma-Udeh, former Head, Department of English and Literary Studies, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Igbariam, is a professor of English (African and comparative literature stress). Also a novelist, poet and gender and children activist, she has served as the University Orator at COO from 2012 to 2017, and is currently the Commissioner for Education, Anambra State. Henry Akubuiro interviewed the author of the bestseller, Teachers on Strike, in the state capital, Awka, recently, on the state of education, literacy and literature. She shared her views on why she stepped on many toes to lay a foundation for a progressive society and looked at the last two years in retrospect.

Congrats, prof. You have just completed two years in office in the Governor Chukwuma Soludo administration as the Anambra State Commissioner for Education, how did you overcome the teething problems you initially faced? In your early days, for instance, you were in the eye of the storm over the teachers’ recruitment exercise.

I must say it has been a real tough race towards achieving the education philosophy of the state governor, Prof. Charles Soludo, being a man with a passion for education. He is, first of all, an educationist. Therefore, his education commissioner is a herculean task, because he is always on the run when it comes to education; we have to pursue him. It’s been two years of running to keep pace with his mammoth plans for education.

He actually declared a state of emergency on education, just as he did on most sectors in Anambra State. But there was a strong emphasis on education, because we met a situation where there were some schools without teachers. It was a perennial problem. So he set out immediately to employ 5,000 teachers thereby ending the era of schools without teachers. For the recruitment exercise, we battled against all the existing odds. All the status quo that was erstwhile established for employment – you know how it is in Nigeria, where favouritism is the order of the day – the governor cancelled it, insisting on merit. It wasn’t easy achieving that. It was like battling against a raging storm trying to reorientate our people that it was not business as usual. Teaching is not a profession but a vocation; it’s a call to serve. It’s not something you say, ‘Manage this person for me.’ Whoever is coming to teach must be qualified to do so.

Were there unqualified teachers in the system?

There were the PTA teachers who were employed by parents. I am not saying they were not qualified, but they did not pass through the regular interviews. So, when this administration came on board, we asked them to queue to the new initiative to be examined and, thereafter, be employed. Some of them were very reluctant; some said they had been teachers for donkey years. So we battled against them on one side, those insisting that they would not go through the interviews; we battled against those who would want their slots and quotas to be automatically given to them.

At the end of the day, we succeeded in having hitch-free interview sessions, where the most qualified were employed as teachers in Anambra for the first time. It was strictly by merit. For the first time, teachers were employed without somebody asking them to pay for gratification. They were employed based on their academic prowess. For a community fashioned towards a kind of life, for you to try to impose on them that things should be done the right way was a difficult task. First, they would think you were a mad person. It was a battle we won eventually. We dismissed a lot of people and disgraced a lot of people for them to conform, because if you tell somebody this is not the right way and the person refuses to do so, when you are pushed against the wall, you will definitely react at least to put it across that this is a true thing you intend to establish, different from the past.

Are you done with teachers’ recruitment yet?

Governor Soludo declared an “actual free education” in Anambra. Though there was an existing free education in Anambra before, there was a retinue of fees to be paid by students, from PTA levy, orientation levy, graduation levy to others. At the end of it all, you discover that the free education was not actually free. But Governor Soludo emphasised that this free education he was declaring was not just free but compulsory. The free education was given to the core community schools. In Anambra, we have the core community schools, the mission public schools, erstwhile owned by the state government but handed over to the churches. During the time of Ukpabi Asika in the defunct Eastern Region, they had the great shift where the government took over all the public schools. The churches later agitated, and Peter Obi, who was the state governor in Anambra then, returned their schools to them.

Then, we have the core private schools, which the core mission schools also belong to. The free education in Anambra is for the core community schools. So, for every child in every community school in Anambra State, from ECCDC (nursery) to JSS 3, it’s free education in all ramifications. The child is not expected to pay a dime like a fine or anything. It’s just free. That necessitated the employment of 3,000 more teachers. We had a dearth of teachers in the riverine areas, because of their topography and tradition. You need qualified teachers who will agree to live and work there. This group of teachers were targeted among the last 3000 employed teachers in the state. The number also takes care of the special schools – schools for the deaf and dumb, and the technical colleges.

With the first 5000 employed teachers, the state had already matched the UNESCO stipulations for teacher-student ratio and student-pupil ratio. Then, with this 3000, the state has surpassed it.

Having declared free education, you may ask what the impact is. Within one month of this declaration, the community schools were overpopulated. Children began to sit under trees. In a school where we had about 500 pupils before, you might have over 3000 pupils, so the community schools became overpopulated. Apart from that, Anambra became a kind of pilgrim ground. All the neighbouring states  started sending their children to Anambra for free education. In 2021, out-of-school-children in Anambra State were 32.4 percent. In 2022, they were 15.2 percent (with the employment of 5000 teachers), and, in 2023, the number dropped to 2.9 percent, thanks to the governor’s declaration of free education. You can see the difference.

This sounds fantastic, but it seems the secondary schools are left out.

Not exactly. The senior secondary schools enjoy some kind of free education, too, in Anambra. The state governor mandated that the students should be paying 5000 naira and nothing more. This 5000 is again reintegrated into the school, because the principal keeps the money for the day-to-day running of the school. The governor considers education as the responsibility of the state.

Why is it necessary to make education a leveler when there are other things competing for funding?

It is because education is the foundation of every progressive society, and, if you don’t bring this equilibrium in training the children, you will create two kinds of citizens: the rich and the poor. If education is not placed at the doorstep of every citizen, the poor will become poorer in their circle of poverty and the rich will become richer. To bridge that gap, you have to bring education to the doorstep of the poor. It must be a leveler for the society to move progressively.

How have you encouraged private-public partnership?

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The governor extended a warm handshake to the core mission schools, as well as the mission public schools in the state. One, the teachers are still civil servants, so Mr. Governor still pays the teachers. Two, he gives them incentives, like paying almost 2 billion naira last year to the private sector in education. He also gave incentives to the higher level of education, with institutions like Peter’s University and Paul’s University receiving sponsorships. The state government has also been trying to bridge the gap between the government and the governed; democracy and the people – whereby public spirited individuals come in, whether to adopt the school  or, in one way or the other, contribute to the smooth running of the school or making the school conducive for learning either by rebuilding or equipping the schools. It’s called PPCP (Public Private Community Partnership). We have over thirty of such new developments by private individuals. We have attended at least thirty commissionings.

The governor was the first to take this initiative by adopting Amaoji Primary School in Isuofia, his hometown. He provides everything, from school uniforms, textbooks, pencils and whatever the students need. Since he came on board, the school population has grown by more than ninety percent compared to what it was before. Other philanthropists took after him. The town unions also contribute to the state. If you don’t bring in the town unions, they may still believe the school belongs to the government. But once they are on it, they know that the school belongs to them. So many people are queueing into the PPCP.

Above all, the governor has chosen sixty schools to raise to smart schools – core technological schools – in Anambra, spread across the education zones in the state, where children are raised from the cradle in technology, exposed to smart equipment, for example, AI, robotics, etc.

How are you addressing corruption in your schools, for extortion of students has reached a disturbing level in Nigerian schools these days?

Corruption is a cankerworm. It corrupts the very fabric of society.

We have been battling it, especially the Waec aspect. We have put a stop to external candidates in the state. Over 100 schools were flagged by Waec when we came in, but, in 2023, the number became zero. We put machineries in place and our exams became hitch-free. So far so good; we are making progress in that regard. I can say we have achieved about 85 percent success regarding this.

Let’s talk about literature. You are a professor of comparative literature and a prolific writer of over a dozen books. Do you still have time to write?

I must be sincere, this hot seat is an obituary on my creativity. I don’t even have time to sleep and eat, needless to say, write creatively. A novel I started years ago is still at its formation stage. The commissioner’s table is too self-consuming for me to do any other thing. But we pray that, in less than no time, we will fulfill our objectives to the state and go back to writing.

Feminist critics are no longer vocal in  Nigeria as they used to be. What’s happening to the feminist movement?

It’s because so many people misunderstood what feminism is all about. Some thought feminism was a struggle for supremacy against the males in the society. So it’s a misguided concept. Feminism is simply a plea for the girl child to be given equal opportunities with his male counterpart so that they will move the society progressively. It’s not striving to make the man serve the woman, and all that. In this part of the country, actually, we are no longer talking about feminism, because the education space has been taken over by women. If I call a meeting of the headmasters in the state, the women will constitute about eighty-five percent. In secondary schools, the male principals account for only twenty percent. In the core ministries, the females are about seventy percent. Males are no longer there as they used to be. So, how do you preach feminism in such a scenario?

What do you consider the best book you have written?

(Laughs) It should be Teachers on Strike.


I don’t know (laughs). The book looks at a society where teachers are neglected and the consequences of that neglect.

Now that you have found yourself in a good position to remedy the fortunes of the  teachers, what are you doing to remedy that?

At least, I have ensured the meager salaries paid to the teachers are not being owed. On the 24th of April, the state governor pays all the teachers. The salary may not be so big, but it’s available.