These days, perhaps due to my largely sedentary lifestyle occasioned by some ongoing personal events, I find myself increasingly having very deep thoughts about my country. These thoughts, which are often triggered by the news and the discussion (sometimes not so much of discussion as it is pure noise) it generates on social media, continue to point me to one major conclusion; that we are a nation of pretenders, both government and citizens alike. Everyone is acting according to a prescribed script and this has now been elevated to a national policy of sorts.
It’s everywhere, in everything we do, in every sphere of our national life. Take the
educational sector for instance. President Muhammadu Buhari while speaking to Al Jazeera recently (by the way, I guess we are now resigned to the fact that we shall only learn about major policy statement and the true inner thoughts of our president when he travels and sits down before some reporter with an accent) indicated he was no longer willing to avail Nigerians studying abroad of forex to pay their fees, essentially telling those who in his words ‘cannot afford it’ to perhaps withdraw and come home to study. This (and many other faux pas in the said interview) has naturally been generating quite a buzz on social media with some commentators pointing to the insensitivity and ‘unpresidential’ tone in which the president spoke while others marveled at how a president who claimed just a little over a year ago that he was broke and had to take a loan to purchase his nomination form was actually at said time, and even currently, sponsoring his children’s education abroad.
Not much have been said, about the real reason many Nigerian middle and upper middle-class families who are barely scraping out a decent living (majority of who can now no longer afford to pay the fees at current parallel market exchange rate) are desperate to send their children abroad to study. The answer simply is that our universities are glorified secondary schools and we have for so long kept up the act that they were really universities, even establishing new ones by the day like our very existence depended on it.
The students in our universities pretend they are learning. They resume every semester, pay their fees, which fulfills the requirements of their part in this giant theater of deception, and then they settle into character. They sit in classrooms that look like party rallies and pretend they hear and understand what the lecturer whose voice is not even aided with a microphone is saying. They live their lives out of hostels fit only for animal habitation and pretend their character is being molded. At the end of the semester, they pretend they have become more knowledgeable. When they graduate, they pretend they have achieved a feat and update their resume with the pretense then they appear at a job interview and reality sets in.
The lecturers help to keep the show going. They pretend they are actually teaching and passing knowledge across. They pretend they carry out any real research. They pretend they have the funding, that the labs are well equipped, that the libraries are stocked. Once in a while when they feel the need, they down tools, roughen the government up a little to add few coins to their take home pay and then the pretense continues. For the show to go on, they package whatever ‘copy and paste’ publications they have into journals published by their friends and with it secure promotions to professorship without adding an ounce whatsoever to knowledge. Every year they grade and graduate a new batch who they pretend know jack about the degrees they are being admitted to.
The university authorities pretend all is well. They even go about boasting about the schools they head. Being a vice chancellor is the apogee of an academic career here but it is also a very sensitive job that requires a great measure of skills in pretending. Like every other political appointment (forget that governing councils nominate, it is the Visitor that says yes and, believe me, the politics involved is unbelievable) the VC must pander to many interests while walking the tightrope of balancing relations with the students, his staff and the governing council. He certainly cannot be the one screaming about the deplorable state of things in his school. So he pretends all is well while grabbing as much as he can and praying his tenure ends without any major crisis. Annually (and this is rare, many graduates don’t see their certificates until many years later), he signs off thick pieces of paper that pretends to find students worthy in character and in learning and the show goes on.
The Ministry of Education and the Universities Commission gives this game of pretense an official seal. They pretend the allocation to education in the annual budget is adequate. They pretend the universities are not overcrowded and the facilities obsolete. They pretend the teaching staff are improving themselves as they ought to. They even rank the universities and when one of our universities makes the top 100 in Africa, they roll out the drums and give themselves high-fives. Meanwhile, all their children are either in private universities or abroad.
The visitor, (President or Governor as the case may be) is the chief pretender of the lot. Education is always prominent in every manifesto, in every campaign speech but that is as far as it goes. When the budget is read, the story is different. The universities awards them honorary doctorate degrees, they accept it with both hands and pretend that it is right to do so. When the teachers down tool, they hurriedly reach an agreement they know they will not keep just so the show continues. From time to time, they create new universities in line with the political exigency and record it as an achievement then they use the appointment of vice chancellors and governing councils to oil the wheels ahead of the next election.
The end result of the above is that we have universities that are so in name alone hence the desire of Nigerians to ship their children to places where education is taken seriously. I will expect that beyond putting up a cautious mien when speaking about Nigerians who demand forex to pay school fees (and in the process making those who cannot afford it feel less Nigerian), Mr president and his team should sit down and ask themselves the hard questions on why our own universities are so undesirable and how they can work to change their fortunes. The alternative is to pretend as we’ve all been until their tenure ends and another bunch of pretenders arrive on the scene.
First published here on 8 March 2016