Last Friday, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria, along with the Northern States Governors’ Forum (NSGF) signed an MoU with the ProFuturo Foundation for education of pupils in northern Nigeria. Bishop Matthew Kukah, founder of The Kukah Centre which facilitators of the programme shed light on the initiative.
Daily Trust: The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, along with the Northern States Governors Forum (NSGF) and The Kukah Centre recently signed an MoU along with the ProFuturo Foundation for the purpose of education in northern Nigeria. What kind of education is this?
Bishop Matthew Kukah: First, let me provide some context and background to the event. ProFuturo (For the Future) is a Spanish-based Foundation whose purpose is the pursuance of equality for all through education. It seeks to provide equal opportunities to all persons and it has decided to adopt technological innovation as a means of enhancing educational opportunities for all.
It does this through the provision of digital skills for children in poverty stricken environments, children who ordinarily would not have access to these opportunities. Presently, they work in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Perhaps I need to provide some background as to how they came to Nigeria.
Last year, leaders of world religions gathered in Assisi, Italy, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of what was then called, the ‘Assisi Gathering.’ The Assisi Declaration, which was framed in 1986, came about at the instance of the late Pope John Paul II, (now St. John Paul) when religious leaders from all over the world gathered to commit themselves to seeking peace through interreligious dialogue.
The Sultan of Sokoto and the Emir of Kano were both invited but at the last minute the Sultan could not make it. The Emir of Kano, however, attended and you may recall we all met the Holy Father.
A highlight of the meeting was the address by Mr. Cesar Alierta, the Chairman of Profuturo. None of us had ever heard of the organisation, but when I listened to him, I was so fascinated that I said I must meet this man. My interest was to see if I could explore the opportunities for my schools in Sokoto Diocese. But the crowd was so huge.
I struggled out of the door and behold, he walked right in front of me. I stepped forward and greeted him. He looked at me and said, ah, you are a bishop? I said yes from Nigeria and I want to speak to you. We chatted a bit and I told him I would like to speak to him a bit more. He and his senior staff gave me their cards.
I was so excited, but I realized that the story was more than Sokoto and therefore asked my friend, Professor Jan de Volder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, who was with us to please arrange a meeting so we that could speak to him about Nigeria.
The meeting was arranged with him, his staff, Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop Kaigama of Jos and the President of the Bishops’ Conference along with the Emir of Kano. We met in the hotel and that was how we decided collectively to invite him. By March this year, they came to Nigeria and we had a first meeting with the northern governors.
DT: Who are the stakeholders of the programme in Nigeria?
Kukah: The services target our children in primary schools. The idea is to equip them with scientific methods of learning at an early stage. Mr. Alierta reported visible and measurable changes that the programme has brought in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda where they currently are.
It was just the grace of God that we got in and in good time. I believe that this project is a bridge and opportunity builder, an opportunity for us to end prejudice against the poor, and a chance to lift up our children and offer opportunity to all.
Since majority of vulnerable children are in northern Nigeria, ProFuturo decided that the northern states would be the first place to roll out the programme in the first instance. When we met in March, this spirit of the organisation was explained to the governors who were led by Governor Shettima, the Chairman of the Northern States Governors’ Forum (NSGF). The first meeting was also attended by other governors, some of who sent their representatives and the idea was that in the end, they would table it at their meeting.
DT: What is the role of the Catholic Church in this and the NSGF?
Kukah: The event in Assisi was an interreligious event, drawing all religious leaders together. Mr. Alierta was Chairman of Telefonica, the equivalent of our MTN or Glo in Nigeria. He went to the Holy Father, Pope Francis and told him that he wanted to commit money to any charity of his choice. The Pope told him that his main cause of worry is children on the streets, poor children around the world. This is how Mr. Alierta decided to start funding this programme.
It was the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic movement involved in education, peace and interfaith dialogue, which invited both the Sultan and the Emir of Kano. But our vision as a Church is always universal. We are not a closed community thinking only of ourselves. We believed that this programme was a good opportunity to reward the spirit of Assisi and the spirit of dialogue.
DT: Who are the beneficiaries?
Kukah: The beneficiaries are our children, first the vulnerable ones in northern Nigeria and we hope that as time goes on, and if the governors, parents and all stakeholders co-operate, this programme could cover the whole country.
Mr. Alierta says that they are really excited and committed to Nigeria especially in using this to improve relations and the welfare of our children.
The hope is that it will go to everyone, but it will take time even in northern Nigeria because there are thresholds that the schools must meet. So, a good part of the success depends on the governors and the school management boards.
DT: Some reports have said The Kukah Centre will be training Almajiri on vocational skills. Is this the programme you were referring to?
Kukah: I have heard this but I did not read the story. It was a total misrepresentation of what I said at a meeting we had after the training of Christian and Muslim religious leaders in Minna by The Kukah Centre and DIWA, a Muslim organisation run by Sheikh Nurudeen Lemu. We never said we would train almajiri children because the Centre does not undertake such projects.
There has been a bit of confusion over the issue of street children. Well, in our case in Nigeria, our minds go immediately to almajiris, but they are not the only children on the streets of Nigeria. So, contrary to what some people have mistakenly insinuated, this programme is not meant to train almajiris.
It sets out to train children who are in schools. ProFoturo said it has recorded a huge turn out and interest among both children and parents once they saw the learning tools for the children. So, yes, it will target almajiri children, only to the extent that we hope the children themselves and their parents will see the need to go to school.
DT: How did The Kukah Centre get into this?
Kukah: After the meeting, ProFuturo wrote, inviting The Kukah Centre to provide secretariat services because they had no office and no intention of setting up an office in Nigeria as such.
Secondly, the Catholic Church also has schools across the country. They said that they would like the Centre to help negotiate between the Catholic Church and the NSGF. It was not our idea but theirs.
A staff will be set up by The Kukah Centre together with the NSGF who will second three staff, two females and one male – as decided by the Chairman of the NGF. Staff members will receive some training on the operations of the programme. They will meet the desk officer who will monitor the Nigerian programme and then take off from there.
DT: When does the programme begin and where will it begin from?
Kukah: We still have a long way to go. But, we hope that by September when schools resume, we would have identified at least 100 schools across the north for a pilot programme.
We still have to deal with the issues of reviewing the contents of the learning tools and ensuring that everyone is happy with them. We will approach the different regulatory bodies concerned with education in Nigeria and ensure that we comply with our relevant laws. We hope to liaise with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Customs and other agencies of government so that everyone knows what is going on.
We will identify knowledgeable members of the Muslim community and the Catholic Church to ensure that the contents are in keeping and complying with our religious sensitivities. You know this is Nigeria where often, there are conspiracy theories lurking around. This is a chance for our children and we are intent on being as transparent as possible.
For example, the Draft MoU was circulated to all the parties, the NSGF, the Catholic Church, Emir Sanusi, and The Kukah Centre. The Attorney General of Borno State was with us and made some salient observations. The Emir of Keffi who is an Associate Professor of Law also went over the document. He was with us to ensure that the traditional class is represented. He made some very useful comments and all these observations were looked into before the signing of the MoU. We are open to scrutiny because in truth, for me, this is what religion means.