Mr. Charles Eguridu was appointed Head of National Office (HNO) of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) in October 2012 – a trying period, when the council was bogged down by several challenges. Angry candidates complained about seized or cancelled results; litigations were many; the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast threatened the council’s personnel and determined fraudsters also kept creating problems. But Eguridu rallied his colleagues behind him and took the challenges head-on.
Three years down the line, and precisely on December 9, he stepped down, having clocked the mandatory retirement age of 60 years. In an exclusive interview with ROTIMI LAWRENCE OYEKANMI, Eguridu reviews his tenure and hits the nail on the head with regard to the recurring high failure rate in the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). He also warns the government not to toy with the children’s future. Excerpts:
How hot is the HNO’s seat?
It is as hot as you want it to be. It’s hot, but you can cool it by doing your work well.
When you resumed as HNO, you must have noticed certain challenges. How did you tackle them?
Yes, there were challenges in relation to the threat of examination malpractice to the integrity of our examinations; in-house challenges as a result of what I would call management of the examination process. We had a situation where a number of candidates who had issues with their results or certificates, wanted amendments either with their dates of birth or photographs embossed on their certificates, or the spelling of their names. The whole house was overwhelmed by these requests but the office was unable to timely respond to them.
There was also the challenge of candidates who were involved in examination malpractice, whose results were cancelled after they had been erroneously released. This led to a lot of litigations and we were bogged down by these litigations. I also looked at the infrastructure in terms of the nature of our offices. A number of facilities were dilapidated and the cost of the examination process was a bit on the high side. I felt these were not acceptable standards. My colleagues and I sat down to put a marshal plan in place to address these problems and as I speak, we have been able to address the issues relating to the release and cancellation of results. We no longer have this situation, as it were, and never will this happen again. When results are released, they stay released and when they are cancelled, due process will be followed.
The corrections in the names and dates of birth have all been taken care of and when fresh ones come, we deal them as quickly as possible.
We had a bad image, but we have tried to reach out to the public to explain and demystify WAEC, and we have the WAEC information box with major networks in Nigeria telling the public how we operate.
The other area we have been able to address is the integrity of our examinations. We have put major security features in place on our certificates to make them fool proof. Fraudsters cannot falsify our certificates in any form. We have introduced what we call the quick response groups that have the facility of encrypting the biometric features of the candidates and the actual grades, with the index number of the candidate and his or her age on the certificate, even when they are photocopied.
We are the only examining board on the continent, perhaps in the whole world that has taken the pains to do this on its certificate. I don’t even know of any Nigerian University doing that.
We have also automated the examination process and we use what is similar to the INEC (Independent National Electoral Commission) card reader for the verification of candidates, to make sure that it is only the candidate that registered for the examination that writes it, to eliminate the incidence of impersonation.
On the state of our facilities, we have really migrated from where we were. We’ve built new offices in Umuahia, Jos, Lokoja. We are commissioning a new office in Lafia. We have renovated a number of offices across the country in Abuja, Kaduna, Minna, Benin, Ibadan, Asaba, Owerri, Enugu, Awka, Uyo, Calabar. We are renovating the complex here at Yaba to give the place a new look. We’ve built customer service centres. We’ve started in Yaba, so that the stakeholders can reach us in real time.
For some years now, the success rate in the Council’s examinations has been under 40 percent. Some stakeholders think something is wrong with the process. Students say they want to pass, but many of them aren’t. What, in WAEC’s opinion, are the reasons why students fail on such a large scale and how can this be corrected?
It’s like when you have a structure erected and you find that the house is not standing well. The problem is likely to be at the foundation. The issues that we need to address to get it right are many.
One, the value system of the society needs to be looked into. What do we, as a people cherish? The craving for material wealth has made the craving for knowledge insignificant, because those that are recognized as achievers are those that have cash. So, you have non-performers being applauded in our society.
The second problem is that the foundation is faulty. Look at the primary and junior secondary school levels. How are they managed? At the end of the Junior Secondary level, every state Ministry of Education organizes a final exit examination and it is done as they like. It’s now a money making process and there’s no national standard. So, you cannot say the JSS exit examination grade in Lagos is equivalent in terms of performance to another grade obtained in Taraba state.
In other English speaking West African countries, they have what is called the Basic Education Certificate examination, being managed by an examining board. I am not asking WAEC to manage it, but let that uniformity be achieved, so that when students don’t do well in Junior Secondary School, they can seek solutions to their problems at that level, because the national policy did not envisage that every child that enters the primary school would end up in the University.
At the end of the Junior Secondary level, we should be able to look at a child and say, this child is not having the aptitude to go to the Senior Secondary level, rather, he should go to a Technical College. But we are not doing that. Those who go to the Technical Colleges are, perhaps, those whose parents don’t have the money to sponsor them to the university. They end up going to Technical Schools, but there a quite a number of them who don’t have the aptitude for technical education.
So, we should get it right. Forget the notion that all states are equal. All states are equal on paper, but the facilities available to the states are not equal. So, when the super structure is faulty, we check the foundation.
Thirdly, a number of these states just give approval to anybody who wants to open a school. It’s now business, so people struggle to build schools but they don’t have the skills to manage them. They don’t have qualified teachers. They get anybody to teach, circumvent the process and get registered. When a mediocre trains a mediocre, he (product) will also end up as a mediocre.
People recruit unqualified teachers. You saw the incident in Edo state, where the governor was trying to get a teacher to read something and she (the teacher) couldn’t do it. So, what type of students would such a teacher produce?
Then of course, there is another societal problem. Parents have abandoned their roles. Everybody is chasing after money. They leave home at 5am, come back at 8pm or 9pm. The children are not monitored. They end up watching the European league, African Magic; they don’t attend to their homework, nobody to supervise them. Most of the schools don’t have boarding houses. So, what type of products are you expecting a society that is fashioned along these models to come up with?
Do we reward achievements? No! So, nobody is motivated to become a professor or read well. But if you can play for the national team or a club side, the money you would make all your life as a Professor, you can make it in six months. So, why would you go and read for so long?
But there is also the argument that the subjects are too many and the syllabuses too wide
Those ones are small problems. I don’t think that is the issue. Even if you give a bad student one subject to read for a whole year, he will still fail.
What about what WAEC’s Chief Examiner’s Report says?
Those are problems that are incidental to the examination process, because normally, when the Chief Examiners mark the papers, they will tell you that, ooh, the candidates didn’t cover the syllabus, they didn’t understand the rubrics of the questions and all that. But a good student, even if the teacher does not cover the syllabus, he would read on his own and cover it.
Of course, I agree quite honestly, that if you look at the school calendar, they come in in September, finish in May/June every year, but between September and December, nothing happens. Then, they go on holidays. Then the examination (WASSCE) starts between March and April. You find that the students end up spending just two and a half years, so the process needs to be thoroughly re-examined.
What then will WAEC suggest to the government on how to effectively address these problems?
If the government is serious about addressing the problem, they know what to do. Let’s not pretend that the government doesn’t know what to do. I think the politicization of education is part of our problem.
We should not play politics with the career and future of our children. The National Assembly should be able to sit down and look at the issues. I don’t think it is an issue for the Executive, because what can Mr. President do when education is not on the exclusive list? He cannot legislate for everybody. Even though the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme is there, the states are supposed to partner with the federal government to access the funds being made available.
But go and look at the scorecard. How many states have accessed the funds? Even the few that accessed it, what did they do with it? They campaigned with the money!
And the painful thing is that the elite don’t leave their children here. They send them abroad. A nation, any nation deserves the type of leadership it gets. Forget about belonging to a political party, we are talking about best practices. It’s one thing to have a conference, it’s another thing to make recommendations and it is yet another thing for those recommendations to be implemented.
Even when the implementation process is on, it’s another thing whether people stick to the rules in implementing the process. The problem with Nigeria is not with the constitution. It’s with the people.
There are assumptions that private schools perform better than public schools in WASSCE
That is not correct. Few private schools perform well, not all of them.
What about the 104 Unity Colleges?
Some of the Unity Colleges don’t perform as well as some of the public schools.
What steps has WAEC taken now to ensure that examination questions don’t leak anymore?
Of course we’ve taken various steps. We have not had any leakage for the past seven years.
What challenge was it that you couldn’t deal with from the time you were appointed up till now, no matter how hard you tried?
That will be the total elimination of examination malpractice.
I have been able to, by the grace of God, considerably reduce the level of examination malpractice, or where they occur, we have been able to detect them. If people want to cheat, you can’t stop them from cheating, but when they do, you detect them and ensure they don’t gain undue advantage. But I have not been able to totally eliminate it.
To what extent has the Boko Haram insurgency affected your operations?
We lost three of our staff to the insurgency and it is not easy to conduct examination where there is less security.
Any regrets? What are you going to do next?
I have no regrets. I will be going away with the conviction that I have done my best for my country and with the conviction that I am leaving the organization in safe hands because I have confidence in my colleagues that they will carry on from where I left off.
But will you go into politics?
No. It depends on what God proposes for me. I don’t think I will fit into Nigeria’s mode of politics. I’ll be involved in some large-scale farming and a bit of consultancy and I’ll be travelling around the world.