ABUJA: She stared boldly at the congregation of over 200 delegates, a mismatch of skin tones reflecting their different races. Her voice rang so clearly in the auditorium, “…As a child, I will resist the temptation of peer pressure. I will learn how to say ‘no’ to wrongdoings. I will quickly exclude myself from groups planning or committing crime in my society…”
The end of her speech was met with thunderous applause, and she had a look of quiet pride on her face.
It was October 2019. 13-year-old Naomi Oloyede, a junior secondary school one (JSS 1) student at Battle Axe High School, an unpopular secondary school in Abuja, had just addressed delegates at the Education for Justice Conference organized by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria.
How did a young girl from an obscure school secure such a golden opportunity? Well, the beginning of the story is one woman’s frustration over the high corruption levels in Nigeria. That woman’s name is Onyinye Ough.
Corruption in Nigeria
Last year, Transparency International ranked Nigeria 149 out of 180 countries in perceived levels of public sector corruption. Similarly, the Global Corruption Index placed the country at high-risk exposure where corruption in both public and private sectors is concerned.
The waste of public resources on private interests, the weakening of the rule of law, the deterioration of public institutions and the reduction in foreign direct investments, are just a few effects of high corruption levels, according to accounting giant, KPMG. Ultimately, it results in poor quality of life for the majority of the Nigerian population, including for the 41% that is already living in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $1.9 daily.
With state-controlled anti-corruption agencies like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission sometimes seen as selective and ineffective in their fight against graft, civil society groups have sprung up over the years to create awareness about the impact of corruption and to promote public accountability.
Raising children as anti-corruption ambassadors
One of such nonprofits is Step Up for Social Development and Empowerment also called Step Up Nigeria. What sets it apart from other organisations is its unique approach: raising children to fight corruption.
Through its "Catch Them Young Initiative", Step Up Nigeria uses children’s storybooks and animated films to teach 6-15-year-old school kids how to become anti-corruption ambassadors.
The aim is to “vaccinate children against corruption, to build a future generation of citizens with high levels of integrity,” said Onyinye Ough, the group's founder.
Step Up Nigeria partners with select primary and secondary schools in Lagos, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Oyo states and the Federal Capital, Abuja, to educate kids on the dangers of corrupt practices like vote-buying, bribery, examination malpractice and others in the country.
During its visits to schools, with support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the MacArthur Foundation, the team distributes storybooks about corruption and its effects on the Nigerian society to school kids and teachers free of charge.
The books are written by 41-year-old Ough, an international development practitioner who specialises in anti-corruption and service delivery. Ough’s books are laden with simple and easy to understand language and illustrations that help the kids appreciate the subject.
One of the fiction books, Emeka’s Money, published in July 2018, is a parable targeting 6-10-year-olds. The 44-page book tells the story of a man, Emeka, who worked as a personal assistant to a state governor. At first, Emeka used his connections to help his friends get government contracts, including constructing roads and paying 50% kickbacks to the governor.
But their handling of the contracts was so bad that, for example, roads turned death traps just months after construction, with fatal accidents recorded regularly. Emeka soon realised he had been part of the problem. He resigned from his post and became an anti-corruption crusader.
Halima’s Vote, another book published in November 2018, talks about the dangers of vote-buying and selling during elections in a country where 32.5% of all public office holders bribe their way into office. In the book, the village of a hard-working young lady, Halima, had no access to clean water, health facilities, electricity and other social amenities.
Yet, at election times, politicians came to her village campaigning with gifts like tiny packets of raw rice and small wads of cash to buy the villagers' votes. When Halima discovered the politicians' deception, she rallied the villagers to stand against vote-buying. The result was a change in government that birthed the desired development in her village.
“Every school we go to, we drop [the] storybooks with the schools and teachers that are trained and also get/give the teachers lesson guides [a handbook prepared by Ough]. That way, schools take it upon themselves to extend this teaching to their senior secondary arm,” said the nonprofit’s Programmes Associate and Communications Lead, Feranmi Adeola.
The group trains the teachers through physical and virtual meetings on how to use the storybooks and lesson guide to teach the children to resist corrupt practices like examination malpractice.
Ministries approve the books
The books are already being used as part of the curricula of some select subjects across the country. Thanks to the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) that approved Halima’s Vote (in 2019) for primary 4-6 in the country.
Similarly, early this year, the Lagos State Ministry of Education approved the books as part of literature-in-English and civil education study texts.
“We have educated over 20,000 children in Lagos, Abuja and Kaduna, and trained 251 teachers [in 400 schools], about 100 of whom have started teaching anti-corruption education in their classrooms. Some schools have integrated them in existing subjects like Civic Education, Social Studies, Security Education or Moral Instruction and others are teaching them as standalone subjects,” Adenike Bamigbade, the organisation’s Lagos state Programmes Associate said.
From books to films
Last year and in July this year, Step Up Nigeria adapted Emeka’s Money and Halima’s Vote respectively into short animation films. It screens the movies for students during its visits to schools. Emeka’s Money, the film, has been selected for the Silicon Valley African Film Festival 2020 Award and the Africa Film for Impact Festival 2020.
The group says its internal impact evaluation shows that watching Emeka’s money brought down examination malpractice by 20% among students who saw the film compared to those who did not.
One of them is Naomi Oloyede, who was a student at Battle Axe High School, Abuja. After participating in a debate organized by Step Up Nigeria on how to combat corruption in Nigeria, she was selected to represent the country at the United Nations Education for Justice Conference in Vienna.
“I am ready to build on the foundation that I have and to integrate my fellow youths and colleagues to this noble idea”, she said.
And school administrators agree that the books and films are sparking critical thinking and behaviour change.
“Our pupils read these materials and started asking questions on why some of the roads they use are that bad, and [why] nobody is doing something about it,” said Jonathan Otene, head of BJ School in Karu, Abuja. “[And] the feedback we are getting from our parents is overwhelming. A child made his parents turn back while using one-way, saying that it is corruption and told his father not to do that again.”
But Step Up Nigeria’s effort to expand its reach to schools beyond the fours states and Abuja are sometimes met with discouraging bureaucracy at some states’ education ministries, Zainab Haruna, its Programmes Director, explained.
Yet, Ough is hopeful that, with time, the nonprofit will overcome these challenges. “We would like to see a Nigeria where integrity is celebrated and respected,” she said.