By Ebele Orakpo
Professor Peter Azikiwe Onwualu is the Director, Academic Planning at the African University of Science and Technology, Abuja and former Director-General of Raw Materials Research and Development Council, RMRDC. In this chat with Vanguard, Prof. Onwualu speaks on national issues and what must be done for Nigeria to move forward. He says uncontrolled expansion not matched by resources, has created problems for us. Excerpts:
As a child growing up, the first major experience I had was the civil war; I kept wondering why brothers and sisters should be killing themselves. By 1970, the war ended and Nigeria got back on track. God, in his wisdom, blessed us with oil but that blessing appears to have become our problem. Nigeria was much better than what we are seeing today. It was easy to get scholarships. I went through school all on scholarship either from state or federal government. Some state governments gave bursaries to students and student loan. As undergraduates, we enjoyed free meals and accommodation because government wanted to use the oil money to train a critical mass of its citizens. To be fair to the system, there were fewer people then. People who went to study abroad in those days were people who couldn’t pass school certificate. The Nigerian currency was higher than the US dollar so it was easy for communities to contribute money and send their sons and daughters abroad to study.
The major security issue was armed robbery because people had access to guns during the war; the military tried to tackle that. I still remember going to watch firing squads when they arrest these armed robbers.
In my final year in the university, companies and government agencies came to our campus to recruit so by the time you are going for youth service, you already know you have one or two jobs waiting.
As an Easterner, I was looking forward to serving in Sokoto or Maiduguri. I felt bad when I was posted to Port Harcourt. People served anywhere and communities received them wherever they came from. Of course, we had our differences but things were moving. At the University of Nigeria where I schooled, we had lecturers and students from all over the country and also expatriates and that gave a global perspective to education.
I guess part of our problem is population explosion and the issue of technology. Demands for resources, products and jobs are on the increase and yet, we don’t have a commensurate increase in the number of these resources. That has brought us to where we are today where it appears we are all confused especially in the area of security. In those days, we had about 20 universities but today, we have about 170 universities and yet, they are not enough to absorb admission seekers.
This uncontrolled expansion that is not matched by resources, has created problems for us. Again, we did not manage the oil money well and we abandoned the other sources of income such as agriculture, solid minerals, manufacturing etc. Even where solid minerals are being handled, they are done illegally such that government earns nothing from there.
The youths are roaming the streets, looking for non-existent jobs. When I analyse these things, I have some kind of mixed feelings. There are more opportunities now but we have not been able to organise ourselves properly to harness what we have.
Rumours have it that government wants to remove fuel subsidy and use the money to provide infrastructure. We’ve heard that over the years. What’s your take?
Linking infrastructure development to subsidy removal is trying to deceive ourselves. We should have a definite plan for infrastructure and it should not be tied to anything. Infrastructure is wide but let’s look at transportation (roads, waterways, airways) appears to be the one that links everybody.
Is it impossible to say that every state capital should be connected to another state capital by a properly maintained dual carriageway? If you do that as a policy, you will find that the road network will be excellent. You can do it in such a way that State A can take care of the road linking it to the border of State B and State B will make sure that from the border to the state capital is constructed and if you are linking two state capitals, the road will naturally pass through a number of towns and cities. If government doesn’t have money, they should go the way of public-private partnership. If I am travelling from A to B for example, and you ask me to pay N1,000 and I know that I am on a clean road, I will gladly pay. Get private sector people to finance this and people pay toll over a period of time until you recover the money. That way, the only thing government has to do is to guarantee the loan. I believe this is doable.
Our airports are not properly managed but there is improvement. We have to get to a point where people can easily travel by air. Right now, except for a few routes, the rest of the cities are connected by one flight daily and because of this, you pay through your nose. For me, there is nowhere in Nigeria that we should be paying more than N20,000. I prefer economy of scale; if you bring down one hour flight to N10,000, more people will fly and then you can put in two to three flights for each of the airlines. Now, they do just one flight and most times, except festive periods, the plane is not full so we need to do some re-jigging to ensure that the airlines operate in such a way that they are affordable.
We have been talking about rail but I think it’s more of talking than action. We need to invest in rail so people can have alternatives. We build roads and allow trailers carrying cement, rods, etc., to be on them, within a short time, they go bad but if the rail system is working, most of these goods can be moved by rail.
It seems only Lagos port is working now, why should that be so? We have Calabar, Port Harcourt and Warri ports, so there is no reason why on our shoreline, we shouldn’t have up to 10 seaports. Today, goods come into Lagos and we start carrying them to other parts of the country whereas if the other ports are developed, we will have more revenue and it will be better for everybody. Some of the rivers, especially River Niger, can be dredged in such a way that smaller ships can go into the hinterland. Onitsha Port was commissioned during the Shagari regime and today, it is still under construction.
Infrastructure is key for any government that wants to succeed. The average Nigerian only needs government to provide infrastructure. If the roads are good, they can move around easily and develop things. Leave the issue of building, people will build.
Do you think government should declare a state of emergency in the education sector?
When you want to assess the educational system of a country, you look at a number of variables:
Quantitative: How many people have access to education from primary, secondary to tertiary? The UN declared that education is the right of every child and primary education should be free and compulsory.
In Nigeria, not up to 50 per cent of children are in school; you see children between five and 15 years hawking when they should be in school. I don’t understand why government would allow this to happen. Is it impossible to pick up any child you see on the street hawking and find out why? One of the reasons is low access to education. The school fee may be as small as N2,000 but the downtrodden cannot afford it so they send the children to go hawk to support the family. That is child labour!
Government must ensure that schools are available. They can build schools and run them as public institutions or allow the private sector to come in but they supervise them. Again, secondary education is also a right. It may not be free but it should be compulsory. That means that government should set up a commission or whatever, so that any child that is not in school should be arrested and forced to go to school. Then the technical and vocational schools should be revived. Those who are not cut out for the university should go to technical colleges where they can obtain diplomas in different areas such as plumbing, electrical works, bricklaying etc. and acquire real skills. These are the people that actually drive the economy.
At the university level, government has done well. So in terms of quantity, we seem to be doing well but it’s not all about quantity, we should also look at quality. The zeal to expand has made us to compromise on quality. People are raising questions about our university system. Four students are officially allocated a room but unofficially, they may be 10 sleeping in a room. The cafeteria system is dead. I hear that students patronise food vendors on campus so they don’t get to learn those soft skills we learnt in the cafeteria. I understand most classrooms don’t have windows.
Output is also an issue. We have gotten to a point where these children come out and cannot find jobs. The manufacturing infrastructure is decaying, companies are closing down, the employment space is shrinking so only those who are properly trained for the industry get jobs.
The world is moving to a point where people should be trained to create jobs not to look for jobs, that is the idea behind start-ups and innovation hubs.
Unfortunately, while the world is moving towards service-oriented industry, our curriculum has remained almost stagnant. When students come out, they have a lot of knowledge in their heads but cannot translate them to services. You can’t run a good educational system without good ICT infrastructure, everything is internet-based.
On campuses, they have hotspots but students still find it difficult to access them. You go to cybercafé; you have to pay from N100 to N500 to have access. That is linked to infrastructure, if our communication infrastructure is strong and robust, then access to internet will almost be free.
Nigerians spend a lot of money on data. Data is like air, once you get used to it, you cannot operate without it. So it should be cheap.
All these are interlinked so the education system needs to be overhauled. My worry is that declaring state of emergency is like fire brigade approach; we should go back to the drawing board and redesign our educational system, put a machinery in place such that the system has a feedback mechanism. We need to design it in such a way that as times are changing and technology is changing, the system should also be changing. The developed world is moving from classical traditional classrooms to massive open online office. In other words, you don’t have to be in school to get an education. This requires massive infrastructure in the area of ICT.