By Obi Nwakanma

I was at the University of Nigeria in February to give the keynote to a conference jointly organized by Nsukka’s Institute of African Studies and the Harris Center of the University of Chicago. I remember the gaunt listlessness of the campus, because I arrived there the very day the ASUU strike began. But there was something else beneath the palimpsest of dust that covered the campus of Nsukka. It was decay that felt like a settled crust on the campus of Nigeria’s premier university. I felt an out of body experience because I am a product of the Nigerian universities of the 1980s. The University of Jos of the 1980s, for instance, still had its Country-Club atmosphere in those years. It was what you might call a “party school.” But serious business went on there. The students were competitively selected for admissions; it was a very diverse group of students, including the presence of international students. Its faculty was equally diverse and international. Conduct and activities on campus was still cultured and mannered. University faculty still had their dignity, and carried themselves with dignified purpose.

The most reputable among them had the high regard of their peers locally and internationally. They were apparently still doing path-breaking work in various areas of research and teaching. Student mentorship was significant. For instance, I retained the regular intellectual counsel and care of the then Dr. Abu Abarry (who later moved to Temple University in Pennsylvania), who was my faculty advisor in the English department. University faculty and staff lived in dignified silence inside the cloister, totally shielded, both my emolument and by creature comfort inside those cloisters. It was a real Ivory Tower situation.  That was why I was struck by the changes -physical and intellectual – that had happened at Nsukka. 

It might as well have been because everything had been stepped down by the strike, but there was something of a deadly insularity; a loss of vision and quality, and much of that stood out to me. This decay – this need to regenerate the Nigerian universities has been at the very core of the ASUU fight. It is the fight for the survival of the mission of Nigeria’s public universities, among which is to educate a very competent national work force; conduct strategic research for national development, provide the basis of national renewal, and be the foreground for the building of the republic as an egalitarian society. 

The mission of the Nigerian university as articulated by its nationalist visionaries is contained in that motto developed by Dr. Azikiwe for the University of Nigeria, which formally opened its gates to its first set of students on October 8, 1960, exactly one week following the formal end of colonial rule in Nigeria: “to restore the dignity of man.” In its current state, neither Nsukka, nor any other Nigerian university in their current states, can “restore the dignity of man.” How can the graduates of these institutions help to restore the dignity of man whenyou send young men and women to live and be educated under conditions worse than the worst ghettos anywhere in the world. 

The best way to measure the situation of the young Nigerian undergraduate is to enter the toilets and bathrooms in student residential halls. There is no prisoner of war camp that has any worse facility than Nigerian university students, nor do prisoners of war under the harshest conditions endure such conditions. It is terrible. Then you have to wonder what those in charge of student residential life do for these campuses. You wonder what facility managers employedby these universities do, both in terms of proper design, upgrade, and aesthetic renewal of these university campuses as required from time to time. How can a Nigerian university graduate, who has  not learnt the habits of proper dining; who has not enjoyed the benefits of cultured life as once modeled by universities; who has never enjoyed the benefits of elegant sororities and fraternities; who has never done charity work for the sake of charity simply because it is no longer an ethos of the university; who has been consumed in an environmentof despair, religious fundamentalism, bigotry and fear rather than a secular and enlightened pursuit of knowledge; who are increasingly taught by second rate faculty because the universities can now hardly attract nor even afford to recruit or retain cutting edge, world class scholars and researchers from across the world help advance the dignity of man? The soul of the public university is gone. This has been, as I understand it, the basis of the fight of the University staff Union, ASUU since the early 1990s when this began to be a hot issue. 

The underfunding of the Nigerian universities and the misgovernance of these universities constitute not only an existential problem for Nigeria, but to all intents and purposes, a national security issue, because, one, no nation lets its most advanced thinkers slide into the ghetto and become free agents. Not in a world currently driven by knowledge. Besides the simple logical fact that the devil builds a workshop for the idle hand, without the well-designed workshop called the Nigerian public university,the knowledge economy cannot happen or develop in Nigeria, nor would Nigeria be able to compete in the current world if its National University system is not repositioned. Two, the universities of nations are connected to their National Security and Defence infrastructure: whether it is defence from biological and viral threats; military threats, or even the threats of nature itself, the universities are the frontline research and analysis centers of nations. 

The products, through natural collaboration between National Research Centers and University research networks and capabilities provide strategic solutions to aid  the productive genius and mission of sovereign nations. The nation’s universities are the keepers of its national scientific and strategic secrets. It is only Nigeria that allows its strategic human resources to be very easily harvested by other nations, and fails to protect the strategic products of its indigenous knowledge system. Other societies create laws to protect this, and provide indemnities to secure these irreplaceable human treasures of nations. This fact is the basis for founding universities. Universities are not established as commercial ventures. Universities are not profit-making ventures. They are specially protected territories or zones of knowledge making. 

Many Nigerians have a very poor, usually uninformed notion of the ideaof “private universities.” These are actually not privately owned places, as Nigerians erroneously think. No individual owns a university,as it is now the case in Nigeria, where private universities have become for profit institutions with little regulatory protocols. Let me use the example of Harvard. It was established in 1636 by an Act of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to further the puritan educate mandate. Over the years, its character had changed. Today, although it is still run by a  Trustee (known as Board of Overseers) and the President and Fellows of the College – that is the equivalent of Vice Chancellor and Faculty of the university (who run the non-profit called the HarvardCorporation”). 

It is the governance of the university and its endowment that makes it essentially “private.” Harvard is a big non-profit, since all monies earned return to the Endowment for the advancement of the mission of the school, and are never shared to any shareholders. It is not like the public universities, like the University of California, Berkley, for instance, which is the flagship of the University of California system. Berkley is governed by a board of Regents which is appointed by the Governor of California. But that said, Harvard is strictly speaking, not a “private” university because it is the largest recipient of the US Federal Research grants, quite aside from its endowments. 

It conforms thus to the regulation of public universities who are equally recipients of public money. But back to Nigerian universities. I have heard a number of loony proposals about what to do with them going forward. Atiku Abubakar, though he has denied it, suggests that he might hand Federal Universities to State governments, or to private entities. This would be a mistake of tragic proportions. The fact is, Nigeria’s public universities were designed and established to servein producing not only the manpower needs of Nigeria, but bolster its goals of national development. The public university system serves that purpose enormously. The Federally-owned public university in Nigeria must be rebuilt therefore, and maintained, and preserved, not dismantled and privatized. Privatization so far has failed to deliver any value to Nigerians. What needs to happen is a reconceptualization of the governance of these public universities. The National Assembly needs to create new, independent funding mechanisms, not new universities. Allow the existing universities, for instance, to set and collect fees, because there is nowhere in the world where university education is free. Anyone who wishes to attend the university must pay for it. But the federal government must set up the Federal Students Loans Board and the Federal Scholarship Board. Fund these agencies with 25% of the Education Trust Fund. Regents of the Federal Universities must step up their game.

Establish University Endowments. There are so many alumni of these universities who are willing to step up to the plate. But there is frankly, it seems, a deliberate battle between self-interested actors between the government and ASUU to ensure that the public universities system, just like other components of the public education system, collapses, so that privateers would take over education in Nigeria. This has to stop.

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