As schools prepare to open for the 2012/2013 Academic Year, the Minister for Basic Education, Youssouf Hadidja Alim, has ordered about 800 “clandestine” schools to be shut down. This is not the first time such an order has been issued and the proprietors of many of these schools continue functioning as if nothing has been said and some have even overtly defied the order. Yet this is not just about running schools illegally, but more about safeguarding the future of Cameroon’s burgeoning leaders.
The uncontrolled opening of schools especially in the basic education sector has become a brisk business as there is a lot of money involved. Many with little or no knowledge about running schools, who have some structures to host the schools, money to line the pockets of poking but corrupt administrative officials and some well-connected people to run to for cover when things go wrong, have literally invaded the education sector and are hoodwinking or deceiving the government and have taken parents, guardians and pupils hostage.
There is absolutely no doubt that many, if not almost all of the clandestine schools that have been ordered to shut down, as has been the case in previous years, will not respect the ministerial order this academic year and so only encourage more clandestine schools to continue sprouting. The government cannot singlehandedly meet all of Cameroonians’ growing educational needs, but that is not an excuse to permit lawlessness in an area as important as education.
There are, however, some serious and law-abiding private school proprietors and when as many as 800 lawless competitors are allowed to operate with such impunity, the honest directly bear the brunt of the growing disorder in the education sector. Liberalisation is not synonymous with disorder. The opposite is true as it is supposed to sharpen competitors’ competitive edges, thus exposing the loopholes and throwing quacks and non professionals out of business.
But this is not the only ill plaguing the education sector in Cameroon. Riding in tandem are government’s indiscriminate creation of schools in flagrant violation of an established school-creation roadmap, the indiscriminate recruitment of Catholic teachers into government schools, the textbook and PTA mafia, and the reduction and inconsistent disbursement of subventions to lay private and confessional schools, to cite just these few. Education is first a state responsibility, but to accomplish this responsibility effectively, the government has been delegating, or better still, sharing this responsibility over the years with some reliable partners in the lay private and confessional sectors. But this should not be an excuse for throwing the classroom door open to just about anyone who thinks he/she can.
Education officials have also prohibited the selling of uniforms and other items that go with the creation of schools. If these items must be sold, the government thinks, then the activity should be carried out under well spelt out conditions. This prescription too is not being respected as parents are obliged to buy uniforms and sports gears, for example, only from these schools and so lucrative sideline businesses have sprung up from which no franc is paid to the state.
It is indisputable that most clandestine schools that have been ordered to shut down will go operational this academic year as enrolment has continued unperturbed in these schools even as the government was issuing its threats. It is ridiculous taking a decision that cannot be enforced but in Cameroon, it is more the absence of a political will and the overbearing weight of personal and some protected interests, than the State’s inability of ensuring the rule of law, that almost always prevails.
Righting the wrongs of Cameroon’s blighted educational sector will certainly involve more than shutting down clandestine schools. In fact, a more comprehensive toileting is needed as the growing clandestine-school-dilemma is just the tip of an iceberg in a turbulent educational sea. The State itself must be the first respecter of the law by working hard to enforce its own decisions as Justice Louis D. Brandeis once stated, “If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law, and invites everyman to become a law onto himself.”