Reinventing Education In Nigeria

Every day I step into class to acquire the requisite knowledge that will position me for the career I have always dreamed of; I silently admire the intellect of my professors and bask in the overwhelming avalanche of information that makes American students top notch products in the global sphere. Ironically and simultaneously, I weep at the state of the Nigerian educational system which compared to what obtains in the United States can be as irrational as equating black and white. This statement is no longer news as it has been touted on the pages of newspapers, online and other media. However, I believe it must be restated again and again until the Obasanjo administration and subsequent governments get its priority rights by giving education the attention it deserves.

Without a doubt, we all know that education is vital to development in every segment of an economy; more so in a country like Nigeria which seeks development unlike never before and whose citizens are yet to see the ever-heralded but invisible ‘dividends of democracy’. It is this painful scenario that must give government the impetus to focus on developing the human capital of Africa’s largest nation before it is too late… that is, if it is not already too late.

Nigeria with over 134 million people, with the English language as lingua franca; cannot take advantage of the exploding outsourcing industry that is set to dominate the global service industry in the years to come. The bulk of this business is headed towards Asia, with India leading the economic cavalry. Why, we ask ourselves are Nigerian entrepreneurs not taking advantage of this opportunity? The simple answer is that despite the enormous pool of talent that exists in the country, the world perceives our educational system as so porous to handle and manage the operations of such a profitable, but intricate operation. India on the other hand, whose leadership (something we evidently lack in Nigeria) foresaw the opportunity of the future, put in place viable policies to build a veritable education base that can virtually support the demands of any economy. With all the pictures of poverty from India and many of our uninformed perceptions of Asians as lacking the intellectual capacity to compete in the global marketplace; it would do us reasonable justice to know that many Americans are considering the option of studying (particularly technical courses) in India, because of the reputation their universities have garnered over the years; not through piecemeal investments in the sector but through conscientious planning and funding.

Nigerian politicians should take note that the Indian government did not suspend its priorities, bickering over excess oil sales allocation derived from a region that lacks basic infrastructure to support basic human living. They were not scheming to mute the voices of the academic world, requesting those things that make a university what it should really be: a centre of excellence where human thought can be stretched to its limit to achieve its wildest dreams. No, they did not disregard lecturers and school administrators as a pack of oldies seeking more money. I can remember while studying economics at the University of Ilorin, my disgust at statements made by government officials that university staff were greedy and should be content with their wages; and not hide under the pretext of increased funding for the tertiary system. In my opinion, those are the voices of uneducated individuals who have no inkling of the importance of nurturing the minds of those who will lead a nation in the future. On the other hand, I remember that some of our ‘representatives’ in Abuja and the various state capitals are under the delusion that they will hold political office forever!

I can remember classes without windows, deteriorating office buildings, the infamous ‘handouts’ that served as substitutes for desperately needed textbooks, university administrators organizing owambe-styled development launchings to raise money to complete one project or the other, lecturers denigrating the teaching profession by stooping so low to the level of taking bribes from students just to make ends meet; oh yes, I still remember those days.

Despite the reality on ground, the government is still sending out its spin doctors to deliver the empty rhetoric of it doing its best to fund the educational sector. They are actively supported by our politicians who (to the best of my knowledge) have not taken it upon themselves to see that a revamping of the system is initiated.

Anyone who still wonders why America is regarded as the most powerful nation in the world should visit an average university campus in God’s own country. First, the infrastructure would stun the average Nigerian student. I was privileged during my summer break to take a group of low-income kids to a number of community colleges in Kansas and Rice University in Texas. At the community college (usually relegated in comparison with bigger schools), while the high school kids snickered at the school facilities; I did a quick comparison of the school’s library with those of many universities in Nigeria, many of which I visited as a student business leader. The library was a high-tech facility, the books were innumerable and materials for research were abundant. Stunned as I was, I received a shocker when my guide called me aside to apologize that they had not stocked up the latest volumes required. I smiled at him while thinking, “dis one no sabi wetin dey happen for Naija, e dey say sorry“; but I guess that is the way Americans take education so seriously, that they consider having 2003 editions as a sign of incompetence, while Nigerian libraries are adorned with prehistoric editions!

Student accommodation at many American universities would belittle many of the motels sprouting around our nation’s capitals; because the U.S. government understands that students must not only study but live in an environment that is conducive to learning. American professors are provided with every tool possible and available to ensure that there research does not suffer; because Americans know that the research of these minds are the bedrock for future advancements in technology and business; areas that will define global leadership for years to come. In contrast to the beggarly call for funds from our universities to our wealthy individuals; American schools have no problem financing research. It is an open secret in the United States that companies fall over themselves to finance ground-breaking research because innovations are taken seriously by Washington and could serve as a pedestal for commercial gain. Of course, after the final products are delivered to markets all over the world; the Nigerian government and unscrupulous importers would spend our hard earned foreign exchange to buy goods created in the many research institutes scattered in education-centric countries.

It is pathetic to note that many lecturers at our universities do not have computers to use for basic tasks; outsourcing many jobs to business centers. Lecturers are starved of research funds to stride into the crannies of their minds to unearth the goldmine of knowledge embedded. Let me ask another question: Why in the world does the Nigerian government allocate so much money to the defense ministry when the critical areas of education and health are neglected? It makes no sense! Do we not realize that research from our universities; are the seeds for our development? Why do government officials talk about embarking on one project or the other and unashamedly, ‘import’ expatriates to manage them? It is a shame and a clear case of the absence of a lack of judgment. It is a scenario that can not happen in the developed world. The U.S. administration would prefer giving a Nigerian, American citizenship so he can handle an assignment, than continually request his services whenever they want to build a stadium or road.

With the government continually making a case for non-oil exports, the glaring step to take is to embrace the academia and seek their advice on what sectors to nurture to achieve this objective. If the government fails to take this vital step, it would be unfortunate and disastrous. Policymakers around the world depend on the intellectual basket at research institutes and colleges to formulate relevant policy. In America, it would be a rarity for the government to gain public support for a policy if the expert advice of some intellectual is not publicly acknowledged. This is a cue to those who see the futility of disregarding the educational system, to stand up and place Nigerian educators starting from the primary school system to the tertiary level, in its place of honor; at the table of public discourse. I have purposely obliterated examples of American public schools from this article; to cushion the psychological pain it could give Nigerian university students!

The Nigerian government at many times has called on the private sector to invest in education; as if it is the moral obligation of our entrepreneurs to do so. No. The government must show effective leadership by proactively providing the sustainable framework that creates an educational system that will attract the private sector. The government should take responsibility for its failure in not nurturing and retaining human capital. The fact that Nigerians in America are the most educated segment of the population is an indictment and a call to positive action by the government. Nigerians in the Diaspora are appalled that government officials would come over here and chastise us for leaving our country and not coming back to help in the development process. It is sheer malarkey for such statements to be uttered. The rhetorical question is: “If you have no respect for ideas, how can you support the possibility of change happening?” Until a solid educational system is in place in Nigeria, politicians can scream all they want and continue lying to our people about making progress; when in reality, we are falling way behind in the global race for advancement on all fronts.

In September 2003, at Lekki, I participated at the Venture in Management Program facilitated by the Lagos Business School. At this knowledge-enriching event, one of the guest speakers was Bunmi Oni; a unique personality and the Managing Director of Cadbury Nigeria. During the question and answer session, I asked him what the prerequisites for an entrepreneurial-oriented society were. He unequivocally replied: “A knowledge driven society with emphasis on health, education and political stability”. I decided to take an intellectual jab at this industrial stalwart, citing the fact that despite the fact that Sweden operated a welfare-based system of government, providing its citizens with all these privileges; the Swedes were still not as aggressive as the Americans. On the other hand, the United States where individualism and capitalism (another form of “every man to his tent”), does not guarantee its citizens all services; had a stronger entrepreneurial flair amongst its people. I then asked Mr. Oni to explain this situation.

He smiled and answered that Americans, unlike Scandinavians, had an incurable addiction for acquiring information (a solid reason why they do more because they know more). He explained that the provision of facilities was not really the issue but how the government viewed education, supported education and utilized the research dividends of education to further national development. Bunmi Oni emphasized that the moment the country gets serious about building a dynamic army of educated Nigerians, the world will take us serious.

We have no choice but begin to revamp our educational system today and not tomorrow. Yes, it’s that serious.

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