In Equatorial Guinea, Covid rules are a blessing to crowded classes

Published November 6, 2020, 4:39 PM

by Agence-France-Presse

The economics teacher has to shout above the noise from a scene of educational chaos — no fewer than 70 students are jammed into the classroom, asking questions, chatting to each other or moving around.

A general view of a classroom packed with about 70 students of the Aneja Luther King High School, in the Oficar neighborhood of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on October 29, 2020. (Photo by Samuel OBIANG / AFP)

Yet, it could be argued, these are relatively better times for state educators in the impoverished central west African state of Equatorial Guinea. 

In Malabo, the capital, public high schools typically have between 80 and as many as 105 students per class.

If the number today is a mere 70, it’s because of government instructions to reduce class sizes to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The official order is to cut classes by half.

But it seems to have been only partially implemented by school chiefs, who know that to do so would deprive children from desperately poor families the chance of education, however meagre it is.

“We are a state school — we cannot refuse students,” the headmaster of a school close to New Bili, the city’s biggest slum, told AFP, asking not to be identified.

His school has 2,000 students, which he said he had limited to 1,600, although he admitted he had not formally closed the door to further enrolment.

– Deep poverty  –

Despite their many woes, state schools remain the only source of education for many in a country where more than half of the population live below the threshold of poverty, and the minimum salary is set at a meagre 117,300 CFA francs ($209 / 178 euros) a month.

Poverty remains entrenched in Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony whose iron-fisted president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, has ruled since 1979, deposing his own uncle.

The country’s income from oil, which accounts for 90 percent of revenue, has shrunk in response to the plummeting price for crude, depressed by the coronavirus pandemic. But even at its most abundant, the river of wealth rarely trickled down to the poor.

The outcome has been a boom for the private sector — in 2018, one student in three attended a private school, according to the country’s national statistics agency.

For many families, private-school fees require huge sacrifices, but for most, they are simply beyond reach.

Annual fees for enrolment in a state school cost on average 7,500 francs ($13 / 11 euros), compared to between 100,000 and a million francs ($180 /150 euros to $1,800 / 1,500 euros) in the private sector.

“I have five children and they all go to state schools. I don’t have the money to enrol them in private schools,” said Mba Ela, a woman in her forties, who had come to pick up her child at the Siale Bileka pre-school.

– No new schools –

People working in state education point the finger at chronic lack of investment.

“We can’t do anything — we teach in the midst of (classroom) chaos,” said one educator, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not the students’ or the parents’ fault, but the president’s — he hasn’t built a single school since he came to power.”

In a country where 37 percent of the population of 1.4 million is aged under 14, education was allotted just 59 billion CFA francs ($110 million / 90 million euros) in the 2020 budget, compared to 95 billion francs for defence.

“The lack of educational establishments is a result of the zero interest in education in the Obiang regime,” said Andres Esono Ondo, secretary of the Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS) party.

His is one of a tiny number of opposition parties that have the right to speak out, although its leaders are frequently jailed.

In Obiang’s defence, Juan Ondo, a member of the ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea, pointed to the president’s record on higher education.

“The president built the National University of Equatorial Guinea… and the Afro-American University,” Ondo said, referring to establishments built respectively in Malabo, on the island of Bioko, and Djibloho, on the mainland.

“It’s true, there are more and more students in schools, but we can’t do everything,” said a PDGE legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A leading rights activist, Joaquin Elo Ayeto, who spent a year in jail before being freed this year, said lack of education was a means of control.

“The regime doesn’t want educated citizens,” he said. “It would be harder to manipulate them and stay in power.”