Sometimes when I look at the reactions of the government to issues relating to public education and health, particularly with respect to the meagre public expenditure on such social sector in the budgets and strike activities of the labour unions, I would feel an urge to walk to the president to ask for his letter of resignation for playing ludo with the most important sub-sectors of the Nigerian economy. Unfortunately, I don’t have such power since he got there through an election. Can I go to court to file a case for his removal for negligence? I am not trained in the legal profession. I am not a learned person and I have no money to hire a lawyer to help me out or to even seek advice from a lawyer. Often, I remind myself that the president and his team know the importance of health and education. They just think that we, their subjects, do not matter. Who are we to live or to get educated or live healthily to have the strength to fight them? But we demand education and health for the good of our dear country.
To demonstrate that our leaders know the importance of these sectors, we have to check how many times the president, as the head of the team, has visited the United Kingdom for medical check-ups. The other time his child had an accident, was he treated here? How many times have our leaders attended hospitals in Nigeria, even with some exotic hospitals that are coming up in Lagos and Abuja in recent times? I saw a video of one multipurpose hospital some people on a joint venture were trying to build in Nigeria a few years ago. I understand the venture could not get land approval. This might be because such a structure will prevent our leaders from travelling abroad for their health challenges. There would be no justification for travelling out with our money when substitutes are available here. Of course, some civil or public servants would miss the opportunity for estacode to go and attend to their principals. So such a project has to be frustrated from the inception.
On education, how many of our leaders have you seen posing with their children during graduation ceremonies in Nigerian public universities? Their children must study abroad for quality education, and they must show us the pictures to affirm their class. They know and care less that our institutions, from primary to tertiary, are not of the right quality and cannot give quality education to the populace. Why should their children go to such schools when they can afford to send them abroad? They take pride in saying that “my children are abroad.” It is a status symbol.
In academics, when we were growing, our professors would have to schedule lectures for odd hours because of invitations from advanced countries to participate in world affairs. The professors have to announce it as a matter of pride. That they were recognised internationally. It was such that Nigerian academics must contribute to intellectual discussions around the world in all aspects of academic endeavour. Some of us were attracted to academics because of such opportunities and we were lucky to be part of the ‘lucky’ ones when we eventually joined academia.
By the time we joined academics, some of the decay was already becoming visible. A colleague was invited for a conference on scientific innovation in the medical field but could not present his paper because he found that the methodology he used had been supplanted by a more rigorous and efficient methodology over five years back. That was in the mid-1980s when internet facilities were alien to this part of the world, such that the opportunity to follow the global trend was not available.
I remembered when a computer was donated to a department in our faculty by a private individual in 1989 or so. I suspect that was the first computer in our university. I had learnt typing and shorthand in-between secondary school and tertiary institutions and thought I could demonstrate my skill on the new computer since the keyboard structure was the same. The department refused to let me touch the computer to avoid damaging it and no one in the department could use it either. Some of them were just undergoing training.
Two years later in 1992, I was in the United State on a fellowship without knowledge of computers. Albeit, I was shocked to learn that the computer we were protecting in our faculty was the first set of desktop computers which had left the US market over a decade before my arrival! That tells us how long our governments have been underfunding education at any level and particularly the tertiary level. Within six weeks, I have become a well-known figure in the computer laboratory in the underground of our hostel with 70 pieces of coloured screen computers. That is where education matters. They give their citizens and those from other countries the best quality education.
I was lucky to be part of the last batch of those who enjoyed undergraduate university education in Nigeria. I was planning to go for a Higher National Diploma in Agriculture when a group I belong to had a programme in the University of Lagos. We were served three pieces of meat at every mealtime in the cafeteria. I asked if that was the practice and was told it was. I then vowed that I must attend university. No more polytechnic for me.
Fast forward, I gained admission (not UNILAG) with direct entry and found that apart from the cheap accommodation and zero school fees, we were normally given two bedspreads on Fridays. Initially, the laundry workers would lay the bed with one bed sheet and put the other on the bed before they changed to ‘lay it yourself’. Apart from that, with fruits or ice cream, we must eat sumptuous chicken parts on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons or there could be students’ unrest if no plausible reasons were given. In addition, tea in the morning was free. If you have no money, you could eat dry bread in the hostel and fill it up with free tea in the cafeteria.
At the time we were graduating, the politicians of the Second Republic were already telling lies that there were no hostels and subsidised feeding in advanced economies. By the time I returned for my master’s programme two years later, the cafeteria system had been cancelled but they could not bring down the hostels. Over ten years later in the United States, by choice and to verify the truth, I lived in a university hostel, a public university for that matter and our feeding was highly subsidised as we paid half of what outsiders paid for the same buffet menu. You eat and drink whatever you want and I drank coke for a whole week until I was diagnosed with constipation for water deficiency in my meals. I am told the system is entrenched and has not changed till today.
I would have liked to take a census of adult readers who sent their children to public primary and secondary schools. Some public secondary schools could be lucky if they have virile alumni associations but primary schools are worse as they are totally neglected. Each time I pass by my primary school on Lagos Island, I always have one excuse or another not to stop over. From outside, I would just look at the class where I had standard six with Mr Coker’s white cane. Good old days when teachers were dedicated and earning peanuts called salary. Teachers’ reward, they were told, was in heaven. If judged by dedication, most of them would go to heaven and earn the reward. Not so today when Nigeria’s environment is preparing people for hell, no thanks to bad governance. Most public secondary schools in virtually all the states, except newly built ones, laboratory facilities and libraries are in a sorry state. The elites have abandoned such schools for the children of poor folks. Our children are in private secondary schools for better quality.
Since 2009, ASUU has abandoned staff welfare issues and concentrated on funding the public universities in order to provide quality research and teaching. Ranking in Webometric is not based on physical structures in universities but on research output which they believe can be enhanced by the former, the physical structure. Even in Africa, Nigerian universities are not ranked among the best 100, yet if you go to South Africa which dominates top ranking you see the staff structure dominated by Nigerians forced out because of the poor academic environment. Let us continue from here next week.
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