One of the major highlights of the manifesto that the ruling NRM issued in the run up to the 2011 General Election was a promise to continue with the rehabilitation of areas that had suffered the brunt of civil war and conflicts by, among other things, implementing a policy of affirmative action in the area of education.
Listing some of the achievements registered in the area of education in especially the districts where the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP) was being implemented in northern Uganda, the party boasted that 722 classrooms and 275 teachers’ houses had been constructed.
It then issued a list of 13 action points that were to be followed up in the period between 2011 and 2015 as a way of consolidating earlier gains. Among the action points was a promise to provide scholarships to students from war ravaged areas.
“The NRM government shall continue affirmative action in education, with the provision of scholarships in tertiary institutions, in the formerly war-ravaged and conflict areas,” the manifesto read in parts.
The 2011-2015 manifesto was the first that the NRM had released since the peace talks between the government and the Lords’ Resistance Army (LRA) had collapsed and government subsequently launched Operation Lightening Thunder which subsequently forced the LRA to retreat first to the DR Congo and later the Central African Republic.
A substantial part of what came to be known as the “Peace, Unity and Transformation for Prosperity” manifesto focused on some of the initiatives that had been undertaken between the end of 2008 and when the manifesto was released as a way of spurring the rebuilding of the region where an estimated 12,000 people died and 1.5 million others were forced into internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps during the LRA insurgency.
While Universal Primary Education (UPE) and Universal Secondary Education (USE), which were first introduced in Uganda in 1997 and 2007 respectively, increased primary school enrolment from 2.8 million children in 1996 to about 8,485,005 two decades later, and secondary education enrolment from 123,479 to 697,507 students, the war ravaged Acholi sub-region has been left behind in many ways.
Whereas both UPE and USE have been bedeviled with challenges, including among others, teacher absenteeism, abnormally high teacher to pupil/student ratios, pupil/student and teacher absenteeism, all of which have translated into declining performance in national exams, the situation in northern Ugandan had always been very alarming.
Most of the school facilities in northern Ugandan were abandoned as children opted not to go to school for fear of abduction by LRA rebels.
In 2003, Human Rights Watch put the number of children who were abducted by the rebels for use as either soldiers or sex slaves at 20,000.
Teachers too absconded for fear of either being killed or abducted. Schools’ structures suffered extensive damage.
As a result it was estimated that at least 30 per cent of school-age children in Acholi Sub-region were believed to have missed on out on UPE and many more on USE.
Even when the guns fell silent, challenges such as shortage of accommodation for teachers, encroachment on schools’ land and teacher absenteeism continue to affect performance in test scores and national examinations.
In the circumstances, it was believed that the promise to provide scholarships in tertiary and other institutions of higher learning for students coming from the region would help bridge the higher education inequality gap. However, eight years since the promise was made, it has not come to pass.
The promise to apply affirmative action in the provision of scholarships in tertiary institutions for students from war-ravaged and conflict ravage areas was aimed at addressing the imbalance in the number of admissions to institutions of higher learning. At the time the promise was made, government had not yet introduced the quota system.
Admission to public universities on government sponsorship was at the time purely based on academic merit. This drew criticism as it was deemed to be favouring the rich who could afford to enroll their children in elite schools which were charging an arm and a leg for education in their facilities, thus leaving out the children of the poor who could not afford to meet the costs of education in those schools.
But while the merit based system was the subject of complaints from the underprivileged from areas which had not been hit by war, the situation was even worse in the war and conflict-ravaged areas. Normal education could not take place amidst the sound of guns, extreme household poverty and the inability of most families to provide basic needs such as food for their children.
The initiative was, therefore, meant to help boost the number of people making their way into institutions of higher learning, especially given the rather unique situation in which they found themselves, but this has never been realised as the government never put in place a mechanism for making the promise come into fruition.
A look at the list of people admitted to public universities under the quota system in the year 2017/208 shows that only 53 students from the districts of Agago, Amuru, Gulu, Kitgum, Lamwo, Omoro and Pader were admitted on government sponsorship.
The highest numbers were contributed by Agago and Kitgum districts which had nine slots each while Omoro and Gulu had the least number with six slots each.
The Spokesperson of the Ministry of Education and Sports, Mr Aggrey Kibenge, told Daily Monitor on Monday that the ministry has not put in place any mechanism to establish a scholarship system for war and conflict-ravaged areas.
“What I know is that there is affirmative action in the form of the district quota system and that is not specific to the war-ravaged areas,” he said.
The district quota system under which government reserves 75 per cent of the 4,000 government scholarships, about 3,000 slots for programmes critical to national development and offers the rest, 25 per cent or 1,000 slots for allocation to the districts, talented sports personalities and students with special needs, commenced in the higher institutions’ academic year for 2005/2006. It was introduced to address inequity in access to government sponsorship for university education.
While it might be coming to a decade since the guns fell silent in northern Uganda, the effects of two decades of war can still be felt as it can be seen from the imbalance in academic performance seen whenever the Uganda National Examinations Board (Uneb) releases results of Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE), Uganda Secondary Education (USE) and Uganda Advanced Certificate of Education (UACE) examinations’ results.
This calls for affirmative action to help the Acholi Sub-region compete favourably with the rest of the country.
At the same time, government should be considering the provision of catch-up education for those who could have missed out on education during the years of insurgency.
This can be done either through the provision of adult literacy education classes or opening of community polytechnics to provide those who missed out with vocational skills.