TOBI AWORINDE went undercover to sit for the 2015 Senior Secondary Certificate Exams conducted by the National Examination Council at a private secondary school in Lagos.
Earlier this year, I bought the form for the Secondary School Certificate Examination and registered for the examination with a fake name, Oluwatosin Joseph Adedayo. The home address, and all other information that I supplied to the National Examination Council were doctored.
In the photo that I submitted, my beard was shaven and I looked several years younger than I looked in 2004 when I had written the same examination in secondary school as an authentic candidate.
This time, I took the examination as part of a SUNDAY PUNCH investigation into reported mass cheating at special examinations centres in Nigeria.
In search of miracles
A few weeks before I registered for the examination, I had contacted an unofficial ‘exams liaison officer’, Mr. Emmanuel, and told him about my need for a special centre.
Special centres are schools that guarantee candidates good exam results through the connivance of rogue invigilators and corrupt school officials that provide answers to examinations questions to students for a bribe. Over time, these centres have come to be known as ‘miracle centres’ among students.
Emmanuel told me the registration fee was N30,000 ($150), though the official exam fee was N20,000 ($100). I tried to haggle and offered N25,000. But he was adamant. I had missed the registration deadline, he said. I couldn’t pay any less than N30,000.
According to him, the online registration portal had been closed and it would require more money to get to reopen it for my registration. I knew when to back down.
He then asked me to meet him at Ultimate Tutors, a small business café, in the Ojo area of Lagos to make the cash payment in person.
Emmanuel introduced me to Kodi, a man with a large scar on one side of his face, the coordinator of the centre, which was a small room of about 10 by six feet in a shoddily built mini-shopping complex.
A young lady in the room gave me a form to fill before asking for the N30,000 fee.
I filled the form with my alias, Oluwatosin Joseph Adedayo, and a false age of 22. I also filled Osun State as my state of origin. I indicated that I was an Arts student which meant that for the exams, I would write eight pre-selected secondary school subjects—English Language, Mathematics, Economics, Biology, Christian Religious Studies, Literature-in-English, Civic Education and Government.
After filling the form, Emmanuel led me to a photo studio which was about five minutes from Ultimate Tutors. Emmanuel explained to the photographer that I needed passport photographs for the examination at Nodos International Secondary School, located at No 1, Tedi Road, opposite Ojo Barracks, Lagos. To my amazement, the photographer reached for a rack holding different school uniforms. The uniforms, I quickly realised, belong to different schools in the neighbourhood. She selected one, a blue shirt that had Nodos International School emblazoned all over.
I put on the shirt and had my photograph taken. After printing the requisite eight passport photographs, she asked for N400 ($2) which I again paid. Emmanuel and I returned to the café to submit four of the photographs.
After the 45-minute-long registration process, Emmanuel told me that to complete the registration, I would need a biometric capture and yet another payment for the uniform and identity card, which I would use for the exams. He added that for all these, I needed to pay an additional sum of N4,000 ($20) to his personal bank account.
When I informed him that I needed a receipt for all the payments, he gave me a knowing smile and said, “You should understand. We don’t give receipts.” Later on, over the telephone, he informed me of the need to get an ash-coloured pair of trousers which would serve as part of my uniform for the exams. He explained that the school would only provide the uniform shirt I would wear.
On May 13, I made the N4,000 payment for the uniform and exam ID card into Emmanuel’s Union Bank account.
On May 25, I received a text message saying I should visit Great Heritage College, Isashi the following day at 9:30 am for my biodata registration. When I got there, I met about 50 pupils.
When it came to my turn, the man in charge, sitting behind a dated computer and a fingerprint scanner, asked if I was a pupil of the school. I answered in the negative and he told me to step aside and carried on registering and taking the biodata of others who apparently attended the school.
When he finished, he asked 10 of us where our registration centre was. When he heard that some of us where from Ultimate Tutors, he compelled us to pay N500 each before attending to us. After paying the mandatory N500 fee, he took scans of the thumb and index finger of each hand. With this stage completed, I was eligible to take part in the exams and Emmanuel’s role in the illegal activity came to an end.
Demand and supply
Across Nigeria, ‘exam liaison officers’ like Emmanuel are the middlemen between desperate examination candidates who want to pass exams and the special centres. This desperation is often driven by the need of the candidates to get good SSCE grades for university admission.
Olayiwola Olurode, a Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Lagos, explained that there is a demand and supply paradigm to the growing menace.
“It is like a tripartite kind of cartel— you have the school authorities colluding; you have the parents on one side also colluding; and you have the examination body. In most schools, especially the so-called private ones, that is what goes on. The general belief is that every stakeholder in the school establishment has a price,” he said.
The professor added that mass cheating at examination centres is responsible for the poor quality of students admitted into universities and also responsible for the rot in the country’s education sector. He illustrated this point with what he described as ‘a nasty experience’ he had about a decade ago.
“I travelled to the village one weekend and met somebody back home. He showed me his results and they were full of distinctions; he had only one credit. I decided to take him with me to Lagos. We (UNILAG) admitted through the Joint Admissions Matriculation Board that year, but I said he could come in through the UNILAG internal exams. We got home and, lo and behold, each time I spoke to this fellow in English, he would look down and not respond.
“I was wondering, ‘What could be the cause? Could it be self doubt or because he just didn’t know what to say?’ Then I took from the shelf some titles I had written for nursery school pupils and asked him to read. The boy was stuck to the chair; he couldn’t stand up. The following day, I took him to the university and I asked a professor of Economics to pretend to conduct an exam for him to enter into the Economics department.
“The boy could not figure out anything; he didn’t even write anything. At the end of the day, I asked him what happened and he told me his parents paid for him to write exams at a special centre.”
Money is the game
I arrived Nodos International School for my first paper, Civic Education on Tuesday, June 2, with wads of naira in my pocket. I had been told I would have to spend more money during the examination.
Entering the towering two-storey school building, I was directed to a similar structure at the back of the compound. I met the principal, a light-complexioned, plump woman. She was engaged in a heated conversation with a pupil’s mother, a politician who was arguing that, contrary to the school’s claims, her daughter’s fees had been paid in full.
In between their conversation, the principal sent for Bash. Bash turned out to be a fair, unshaven man of about five feet. He was clad in a white long-sleeved shirt atop dark trousers and appeared to be in his mid-30s. He was the chief exam coordinator of the school.
When he appeared, I introduced myself and explained that I was a candidate for the NECO exams. He asked for N2,000, which I handed over to him. He then ushered me to the office of the school principal’s secretary.
After sitting there for about 15 minutes, the principal came in and pointed to three ragged uniform shirts in a corner of the office for me to choose from. Of the musty faded shirts, there was only one which had a complete row of buttons. I wore it. With that I was transformed into a student of Nodos International and I could walk into a classroom and sit for the national exam.
The external candidates, about 15 of us, kept mum in the principal’s office. Save for a few, many of the candidates looked young and could have passed off as school pupils.
After another 15 minutes of waiting, the principal brought out a stash of ID cards, which had yet to be laminated. She asked each of the external candidates to search for his or her ID card, while she monitored the activity.
The subject which we were about to sit for, Civic Education, was not a general one, so only about one-third of the entire population of candidates at the centre sat for that paper.
I found my ID card but it did not have a passport photograph attached to it. The principal noticed that a number of others did not have photographs attached either. She asked where I signed up for the exam. When I told her I registered at Ultimate Tutors, she then asked me to return to the centre to get the passports of all the candidates that registered there.
With about 20 minutes to the paper, I returned to Ultimate Tutors and collected the passport photographs of seven of us, excluding a female candidate who had already come back to pick up her passport.
When I returned to the school, I gave the photographs to the principal and was asked to go to the topmost floor of the building where the exams would be conducted.
I was the first examinee in the hall. I met the invigilator seated on a desk. He sized me up and asked, “Are you an external candidate?”
I said yes and then he asked what my name was. I told him, “Tosin Adedayo.” He then asked what state I was from and I told him Osun State.
He replied in native Yoruba, “I know one other Adedayo, but not from Osun.” Still speaking in Yoruba, the invigilator lowered his voice before telling me matter-of-factly that I would have to give him some money. “External candidates are expected to drop something before they will be taken care of.” I asked him how much and he said N500.
I, however, ended up parting with N1,000 because he didn’t have N500 change to give me.
With the money paid, the invigilator ushered me to a seat in the front and proceeded to give me special treatment, in spite of the freedom the entire hall enjoyed.
As the paper was about to begin, the principal appeared with our ID cards, which still had not been laminated.
She distributed them. She added that we must return the ID cards immediately after completing the paper in order to laminate them.
Afterwards, the invigilator distributed the question papers and answer booklets at the same time.
He asked us to start as soon as we got the papers. Normally, the papers are distributed to everyone before the invigilator asks the candidates to begin, so as to ensure orderliness and that everyone starts the paper at the same time.
As the exam started, the invigilator called me and asked which of the four question types—A, B, C or D—I was given. I told him I had Type C. He then asked if I had the instant messaging application, WhatsApp, on my phone.
After answering in the affirmative, he told me, “Let me call some other centres to find out if they have your question type. Once they do, they will send it to you via WhatsApp.”
He then made several phone calls to other invigilators. With no answers forthcoming for my question type and noticing that I did not know anything about Civic Education, he moved a candidate from the back and placed him next to me.
The invigilator instructed the tall, slender boy with dark skin, who I quickly realised was a pupil of the school, to help me. The boy then took out his smartphone and placed it in the full glare of the invigilator, and logged on to www.examsanswer.net.
The site contained the answers to all the questions for Type A. He had already shaded nearly all of the 60 multiple-choice questions within 15 minutes of starting the paper and would intermittently go back and forth from the webpage to WhatsApp, where he had received the answers from another source.
The boy used the WhatsApp answers as a means of cross-checking the answers on the site. Though I had Type C and my partner had Type B, the invigilator encouraged me to follow suit, regardless of the fact that the answers we were both using were for Type A. “Just shade the answers. When you’re done, write ‘Type A’ on your answer sheet,” the boy told me, pointing at the top-right corner of the answer booklet provided for candidates to indicate the question type they received.
With the boy too far ahead for me to keep up, he gave me the URL of the website and the login code for that day: “rule”. He also introduced me to www.jazzyfans.net, which also had only Type A answers.
About 30 minutes into the exam, Bash, who is also the school’s economics teacher, entered the classroom with a textbook and began to write out the answers to the questions in the essay section. All the pupils in the hall copied from the board hurriedly.
Though the time given for both the multiple-choice and essay sections was three hours, I finished them in 50 minutes. The pupil beside me finished in even less time.
Comrades in crime
The chief examination coordinator was Bash. He was the man who ran the show when it came to exam-related activities. He was often the one who went round collecting the random N100 fee from each candidate in the middle of general papers like English Language and Mathematics in order to provide the answers.
He was assisted by — Mr. Ugochukwu (Physics), Mr. Silas (subject unknown) and the Biology and Geography teacher (name unknown) who were responsible for making sure the answers were available for each paper and assisting with collecting money when the need arose.
Typically, at the beginning of the paper, the external invigilator would begin by keeping an eagle eye on the candidates, but soon after the paper started, the invigilator would be beckoned on by one of the school’s exam coordinators and he would be gone for several minutes.
Shortly after, the invigilator would return with a more relaxed disposition and the candidates would have a field day, albeit with varying degrees of freedom per invigilator. While a few invigilators at this special centre would allow the use of phones by candidates, others would insist that all phones must be left outside the hall no matter what.
Daring candidates would, nonetheless, still sneak in the phones. As a result, it was common to have at least one case during each paper whereby a candidate’s phone would be seized. Phones or no phones, one common liberty which the invigilators granted was the freedom for exam coordinators to write the answers to essay questions, unhindered, on the board.
There were times when the external invigilators from NECO allowed the coordinators to call out the answers to the multiple choice questions, according to each type.
Also part of the exam coordinating crew was a standby member of the National Security Civil Defence Corps. Save for the last few papers, an unarmed NSCDC officer was always present. Such officers were expected to ensure that candidates, who were caught in exam malpractice, were arrested but they turned a blind eye at the centre.
The restitution angle
The Examination Malpractices Act No. 33 of the 1999 Constitution stipulates a minimum punishment of N50,000 and a maximum of five years imprisonment without the option of fine for violators of the offences stipulated in the Act. However, only a handful of examination malefactors are ever prosecuted.
What is common is that NECO sanctions secondary schools for malpractices in different parts of the country every year. In September 2012, the then registrar of NECO, Prof. Promise Okpalla, announced the blacklisting of 13 secondary schools in the country for alleged involvement in malpractice in June/July examinations.
Okpalla said the schools cut across seven states in the federation, including Cross River, Imo, Rivers, Anambra, Benue, Kano and Nasarawa.
Similarly, the West African Examinations Council blacklisted 113 secondary schools nationwide as punishment for examination malpractices in 2012. In addition, the results of 30,654 candidates, who sat for the May/June 2012 West African Senior School Certificate Examination, were cancelled. The exam body also placed a two-year ban on 3,321 candidates from sitting for its exams over misconduct.
Another common occurrence, according to examination officials, is the growing number of students who turn up at the examination bodies’ office to confess involvement in past examination malpractices. In 2013, WAEC announced that a total of 256 candidates, who admitted to have cheated in the past, returned their certificates because they had “found Jesus.”
Deputy Director, Public Affairs, WAEC, Mr. Yusuf Ari, said the 256 cases were just the ones the examination body got between April and November 2013.
He said, “It is very common to get requests from such born again Christians, who are usually from a particular Pentecostal church I won’t like to name. The individuals come to our office or write letters. Some of those who come even start crying. They say they cheated and they have decided to return their certificates because they are now born-again.”
On Friday, June 5, I arrived at the school 45 minutes early for biology practical. The school’s tall, dark-skinned teacher of Biology and Geography (name unknown) summoned me to his laboratory on my arrival. He handed me a sheet of paper which resembled one of the exam question papers.
On top of the paper were the words: “HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL. The information contained here is highly confidential. Efforts should be made, therefore, to avoid candidates getting to know of this either directly or indirectly before the examination.”
I discovered that this was the sheet of paper known in biology teachers’ circles as the “yellow paper.” A top-secret list of specimens for practical which the exam body makes available to the centre ahead of the exam, in order for the school to make timely provision of the needed specimens.
The teacher then asked me to find a small piece of paper and quickly copy out the items from the list of specimens.
“Use a sheet of paper that is small enough to carry into the hall,” he told me. As I began to tear out a piece of paper, a female candidate joined me and the man asked her to copy the specimen too.
Shortly after, we went upstairs for the paper and found a bench placed in the corridor outside the four classrooms used collectively for the NECO exams. On the bench, the specimens were arranged in a row and labelled ‘A’ to ‘P’.
Soon after the paper began, the Biology teacher, who was one of four exam coordinators in the school, ordered all the 95 candidates to file out from our classrooms in pairs, glance at the specimen and then return to our halls before identifying each specimen in our answer booklets.
“Don’t waste time. Just briefly look at the specimen and go back to your seat. It is just to fulfill all righteousness,” he repeatedly said.
When we all got back to our classrooms, those of us in the know discreetly pulled out our sheets of paper and started copying out the specimens. The answers for Specimen A to P were: Housefly, toad, prawn, hibiscus flower, bean seed, coconut fruit (with husk), maize grain, mango fruit, tomato fruit, cockroach, earthworm, thoracic vertebra, cervical vertebra, caudal vertebra, sacral vertebra and humerus. Some candidates found the answers using their phones to browse websites, including www.jazzyfans.netand www.waploaded.com.
The homepage of www.jazzyfans.net was designed as an all-purpose site for young students. The banner had a green, nondescript crest. At the top of the homepage was the site’s menu, which included music, video, Naija news, entertainment, technology, education and sports.
Listed below the site were a mix of links to wide-ranging subjects, including education, politics, entertainment and answers to examination questions.
The same was the case on www.waploaded.com. The site’s menu included forum, music, videos, stories, among others.
On the homepage of www.examsanswer.net, there was a stern caveat requesting mobile airtime to be sent to the site’s administrators before answers would be provided.
The password-protected site read, “WAEC English answers: Direct mobile/SMS — N800 MTN card. Online answers/password — N400 MTN card; send your MTN card, phone number, subject, exam type (WAEC/NECO/NABTEB) to 08107077307.
“Subscription ends one hour before exam starts. Don’t even expect free answers. We don’t talk much. Please note: MTN LINE is best for our runz (business), we can manage Etisalat airtime; each subject costs N800, while practicals cost N400 for direct mobile; each subject/practical costs N400 for link/online answer. Do not call us, just text, know the difference between link/online answer and direct mobile.
“JAMB/NECO and NABTEB GCE enquires only —08107077307.”
Halfway through the two-hour paper, the external invigilator and female NSCDC officer only watched as the examination hall became rowdy. Most candidates began to switch seats to copy from one another.
Tales of desperation
A particular NSCDC official tried to act tough during the examination. She had gone round telling everyone to make sure they put their mobile phones and other incriminating evidence away because anyone caught in a compromising position would not be spared.
A female candidate, who looked to be in her mid-20s at least, angrily said to the hearing of everyone nearby that she had written SSCE exams no less than five times, mostly at special centres.
“I dare her to stop me! After collecting my N25,000, they want to tell me rubbish. They should try it first. Is it today I started writing exam?” the female candidate said after the NSCDC official’s threat.
The invigilator later gathered all the candidates into one class and supervised the free exchange of answers, while the once scowling NSCDC officer watched in silence.
The Mathematics teacher also wrote out answers on the whiteboard as we hurriedly copied into our answer booklets.
After the teacher had written out the first answer, Bash asked him to stop in order for him to collect a random N100 fee from each candidate. Those that didn’t pay were prevented from writing. When Bash was satisfied, he asked the teacher to resume.
On June 18, when I sat for English Language, the female NSCDC officer had been replaced by a more accommodating male officer.
Like most of the other papers, it was a walk in the park. Half of the class brandished their mobile phones in search of the answers. Only Type A answers were provided, so those like myself, who had other question types, used the answers as a guide in answering our respective question types.
Candidates occasionally dashed back and forth between desks to compare answers, while the easy-going invigilator watched.
The case was the same with the multiple-choice and essay papers of Government and Economics.
The missing key
At 10am on June 23, the day of the Biology multiple-choice and essay papers, when the paper should have begun, the invigilator could not find the key to the padlocked courier bag of exam question papers.
The NSCDC officer said one of the coordinators had forgotten the key at home and had to go back to retrieve it. While candidates across the country had completed the multiple-choice questions, no candidate at my centre had laid eyes on an answer booklet.
We all sat in our classrooms idle. Before long, some had put their heads on desks and drifted into sleep. It wasn’t until over an hour after the official starting time for the paper that the question papers and answer booklets were distributed. We started the paper at 11:11am.
Still, many of us completed the paper in record time as the coordinators furnished us with the answers by writing them on the whiteboards as we hurriedly copied.
Friday, July 3, was my last paper, Christian Religious Studies. I was an hour late for the exam because of traffic but I decided to feign a fever as this was the only tenable excuse. I told the invigilator that I had just left the hospital. He asked for my medical bill or report, but I did not have one. He then asked me to pay the sum of N300 before I could go into the exam hall.
After paying, he led me to a seat with two other candidates who were copying the answers off a website using their phone.
After a while, the invigilator fetched a CRS textbook for Junior Secondary School which had some answers and placed it on my desk.
One bright spot
On July 1, when it came time to take Literature-in-English (Drama and Poetry), the story changed.
The external invigilator on duty was a woman in her late 40s who would not condone any misconduct. Her strictness first became apparent when, just before the paper started, the handful of candidates taking the paper decided to scatter themselves in the classroom. But she ordered that there must be no empty seat in front of anyone. That way, no one could escape her watchful eye throughout the paper.
The silence that hung over the entire hall was deafening. Even when Bash came in momentarily to whisper something to the hearing of the taciturn woman, as he did other invigilators before her, we all saw her unflinching resolve and we accepted our fate.
Throughout the paper, the silence was so thick that one could cut it with a knife. The friendly NSCDC officer could not help us. When two candidates arrived one hour into the exam, she told them, “Let me tell you, you have set yourself up to fail woefully. I am not cursing you; I am just saying it as it is. If you want to fail, you will fail.”
With each passing minute, the paper seemed to last longer than the one hour and 40 minutes allotted.
Playing the ostrich
When contacted on SUNDAY PUNCH’s findings, the Information Officer, NECO, Mr. Sani Azeez, told our correspondent that once the exam body found any school engaged in malpractices, it banned it.
He said, “You are making a very grievous allegation. The consequence is that once the council is able to establish that such a centre exists, the centre will be banned.
“If you can cast your mind back to when the results were released, some centres were blacklisted. It could be that they would be outright banned from conducting NECO exams. That is why I want the details of that centre.”
A Senior Lecturer in the Department of Educational Foundations and Counselling, Obafemi Awolowo University, Dr. Bamidele Faleye, said members of the illicit exam network are enemies of the state that must be apprehended by whatever means necessary.
He said, “As someone who has worked directly with NECO, I am surprised to hear this. While serving as an examiner, I only heard about such centres without ever actually encountering anyone. But an end must be brought to this ugly trend.”
On September 10, the NECO Registrar, Abdulrashid Garba, announced the results of its June/July 2015 SSCE exams with a 16 per cent pass rate improvement.
Garba, while making the announcement in Minna, said 68.56 per cent of candidates had more than five credits, including Mathematics and English Language.
Explaining that the 2015 result was an improvement on that of 2014, in which 52.29 per cent had above five credits, Garba noted that 969,491 candidates wrote the examination out of 969,991 who registered.
He added that 0.11 per cent cases of malpractice were recorded and that the results of candidates involved had been cancelled.
“The 2015 examinations result was released within 60 days after the final paper. This shows a great success achieved by the council.
“Lists of schools which were involved in examination malpractice have been blacklisted and the results of students who wrote in such centres have been cancelled,” he said.
Two days after Garba spoke, I logged on to the website of the National Examination Council to check my result. I smiled sadly as my fairly good result was displayed in front of me: English Language (B3); Mathematics (C4); Civic Education (C4); Biology (C5); Christian Religious Studies (C5); Government (C4); Economics (C5); and Literature-in- English (E8).
Going by my result, I was one of the lucky 969,491 candidates who, according to Garba, were not involved in examination malpractice.