Free and compulsory basic education will become one of the fundamental constitutional rights due to every Nigerian if a bill now in the House of Representatives becomes law.

The bill seeks to alter Chapter IV of the 1999 Constitution – the chapter that addresses fundamental rights such as right to life and freedom of expression. It seeks to include right to free basic education as one of those constitutional rights.

The bill, sponsored by the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, scaled second reading on Thursday.

If passed, every Nigerian child would be entitled to free education in all government-owned primary schools, and whoever is denied this right can sue the defaulting school.

Mr Gbajabiamila explained that he chose to sponsor the bill to ensure the term “illiterate” ceases to be ascribed to Nigerian children.

In Nigeria, about 10.5 million children from 5–14 years are out of school, the highest in any country.

Mr Gbajabiamila hopes to cut this number because “education is not a privilege but a right. If made a fundamental human right, the government (at all levels) would be mandated to make it a national policy.

“We believe no child must be left behind. We must obliterate completely the word illiterate.”

Mohammed Monguno, the House Chief Whip, who read the bill on behalf of the Speaker, acknowledged the existence of the Universal Basic Education Act 2004, which provides uninterrupted access to 9-year free and compulsory formal education for every child of school-going age. However, basic education is not a fundamental right under that Act, he explained.

He noted that a Federal High Court in 2017 presided by Justice John Tosho, in a suit filed by Legal Defence and Assistance Projects against the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and the Ministry of Education, held that: “By the combined effect of section 18(3)(a) of the 1999 Constitution and section 2(1) of the compulsory, free Universal Basic Education Act, 2004, the right to free and compulsory primary education and free junior secondary education for all qualified Nigerian citizens are enforceable rights in Nigeria.”

Mr Monguno fears that the judgment might be overturned anytime. He, therefore, said as legislators, they have to take steps to give the judgement constitutional backing.

He added that the constitution alteration bill, if passed, “can only be enforced perhaps with damages in case of a breach, the 2004 Act criminalises violation of certain provisions of the Act with prescribed punishment.”

Supporting the bill, Toby Okechukwu (PDP, Enugu) said not only should education be free, but it should also be of quality and relevant to current world trends.

He also advocated for infrastructural revamp in schools in the country.

“What stands us out is our (level of) education. The difference between a Fulani that is working in the bush, selling cow and one in Aso Rock is education.

“We must ensure that the quality of it is not compromised. I’ve gone round and seen that some of our schools don’t have seats. It is critical.”

Olajide Olatubosun (APC, Oyo) said when education is available to all, people make the right choices when they go to the polls.

On his part, Buba Yakubu (APC, Adamawa) said delivering basic education to Nigerians at a young age is one big step the country needs to address insecurity which has been fueled by extremism.

Also contributing, Taiwo Oluga (APC, Osun) said: “Our tomorrow starts now. Passing the bill is to reduce all social crisis in the country.”

Following the deliberations, members of the House unanimously voted in favour. The bill is now to be read for the third time on another legislative day.

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