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October 21, 2023

The Milk Protest of 1980

Loud bangs on the tables and clanging utensils soon accompanied the cacophony of voices singing, "Give us more milk".

Master Sule was the instigator, and we loved milk enough to follow his lead.

Seated at another breakfast with less milk than we had used in our tea for years, he decided we had to do something apart from mumbling amongst ourselves.

The plan was simple, and we nodded our young heads in earnest as he explained what we needed to do.

The dining hall was the perfect location and the time, auspicious. We began in earnest.

Sule's voice raised the chorus, and we echoed in agreement, growing louder with every passing second.

A look of panic settled on the faces of the teachers as they watched the unexpected turn from the morning routine with bemusement.

Loud bangs on the tables and clanging utensils soon accompanied the cacophony of voices singing, "Give us more milk".

A few teachers tried to shout down the protest, but that only increased our gusto.

Our milk and egg ration had been halved for almost two weeks, and we did not want an explanation. We just wanted more milk!

In a few minutes, Sule directed that we march towards the store room.

Just then, Mr Garrod, our venerable principal walked into the hall. Perhaps, he was alerted by our chimes or a teacher had rushed to call him.

It was hard to ignore Mr Garrod's presence, and Sule's voice soon dialled down a few notches.

Soon, Mr Garrod's gentle voice captured the attention of every student as he asked to understand what the hullabaloo was about.

Sule explained.

The principal nodded, his face solemn.

"We have to look into this. No more disturbance or protests. You don't need to destroy anything. We will set up a committee immediately and do something about it"

A flutter of victory tickled our hearts and we dispersed, trusting Mr Garrod to do something about it.

Immediately, a committee was constituted and led by Dr Eni, the school physician.

The next morning, they returned with a report.

"Scientifically and medically, teenagers have no need for milk. Only younger children do. So, from today, milk will be scrapped from the meal plan"

The uproar was immediate. I can bet now that there was a small smile on Mr Garrod's face because instead of directing our angst at him and the faculty, we had all turned on Sule who instigated the protest.

Mumbling never killed anyone! We could have lived with our half ration of milk!

Whispers of "We warned you!" "We told you!" hit Sule with surprise. He was certain that no one had contested his brilliant idea!

Finally, Mr Garrod stepped up with a final decision. He agreed with the findings of the committee but decided to do us a favour.

The school would continue to give us a reduced ration of milk for our tea.

The relief was palpable and rapturous gratitude filled the hall.

Mr John Garrod, our distinguished Principal at Federal Government College, Maiduguri, was always a voice of reason.

This 50th anniversary of FGC, Maiduguri has come with great nostalgia as I reflect on my time at the school and the general state of the country at the time.

Recalling the milk protest made me laugh at our logic as children, but also deeply proud of the nurture we received at the Federal Government College. Perhaps, Sule was influenced by the exploits of University Students during the 'Ali Must Go' riots of 1978. Whatever it was, the awareness to challenge a perceived unfavourable policy and rally his mates to the cause at that age was laudable.

Mr Garrod was shrewd in the way he doused the tension we had raised. Perhaps, this was easier for him to do than explain to young teenagers that the Government's new austerity measures had affected the allocations to the school.

If he had taken that route, he may have had to explain that not only milk and eggs were affected. Our Sunday chicken ration would also be affected. And these were just the first casualties. In a few years, the quality of the faculty and infrastructure would also drop, leading to dire consequences in the quality of graduates our school system produced thereafter.

Prior to this, students in boarding schools across the country enjoyed the largese of the oil boom. But this was short-lived as it soon became clear that wealth without vision and adequate management was a mirage. 

Despite the austerity measures introduced by the Obasanjo-led military government to stem the rising inflation before overseeing a transition to democracy in October 1979, the economy continued on its slippery decline.

There are many things I could analyse from this story: the fact that the same set of leaders have been at the helm of affairs in the country for 40 years, the poverty of vision that has plagued our country in our years of wealth and even now, the greed and corruption through successive administrations, the quality of minds our schools have produced, and so on.

However, today, I want to highlight the knowledge and values gap that has been created through the years and thank you, our young people for your growing determination to learn our history, understand the challenges, and pursue a solution. I remain committed to sharing my knowledge to sustain your passion.

Keep learning. Keep speaking. Keep building.

When a new Nigeria happens like I believe that it still will, we need you to be ready to nurture and sustain her growth.

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