by Sonala Olumhense
First, I congratulate Blessing Okagbare, who won Nigeria’s two medals at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. They were our first since she was a baby.
Team Nigeria limped home last Tuesday, our collective collapse somewhat ameliorated by her individual brilliance. Kenya, by contrast, had 12 medals, five of them gold; Jamaica nine, six of them gold; and Ethiopia 10, including three gold medals.
On the same day, President Goodluck Jonathan was “ordering” resolution of the ongoing strike of university teachers.
“The President has instructed us as to what to do,” said the chairman of the Universities Needs Implementation Committee, a certain Gabriel Suswam, “and he has shown commitment to flagging off projects worth about N100 billion in all the universities in the country: about 61 of them.”
Mr. Suswam’s job title is actually Governor of Benue State, where he has a plethora of problems. But it is part of the Nigerian conundrum that governors of the ruling party prefer to see themselves as waiters and stewards not of their states, but at the presidential buffet of power in Abuja.
Needless to say, Abuja is the champion and progenitor of this mentality, where the federal government officials often seem to have a single-minded focus on that power buffet.
This attitude is responsible for a situation where a country with the size and resources of Nigeria returns from an international athletics competition in this millennium either with nothing, as in the last Olympics, or two medals, as in Moscow, with the leadership feeling neither shame nor outrage. How can we make any progress when the leadership has such low self-esteem that it is not embarrassed by two medals?
This lack of character is responsible for a situation where the government reached an agreement with university teachers in 2009 but never honoured it. Into the fifth year, the president this week gave the “order” that the ASUU strike should now be resolved.
Pardon me if I am not doing any cartwheels in celebration.
It is always sad when university teachers go on strike and students are thrown into the streets, but the irresponsibility of the government in terms of its insensitivity to growing problems is usually the cause.
The tragedy is that the current stalemate should never have taken place were the government to be of good intention. It is another question about the character of the current government, and more questions will follow.
Of the key electoral promises that Mr. Jonathan made in 2011, education was one of the most noteworthy: A five-year plan to revolutionize agriculture and establish industries; a four-year development plan to open up the South-South geo-political zone; a five-year development plan to accelerate development; roads and other basic infrastructure to be developed in four years; road construction to take new five-year structure, ending yearly budgetary allocations; a five-year strategic plan for road projects; and a holistic review of Nigeria’s education policy.
If Mr. Jonathan were serious about his “transformation” message, these would have been the pillars of both mission and measurement. It is a cause for serious concern that for a man who wants to run for a second term, Mr. Jonathan has barely referred to any of them since his election, as if they were meant as a joke in the first place.
But speaking about his intended “holistic review” of our education policy in Ile-Ife on March 12, 2011, Mr. Jonathan said, “It is quite disturbing that our educational delivery system at all tiers has, over the years, degenerated to such levels that have led to a reversal of fortunes, not only for the Nigerian youth, but also for the larger Nigerian nation.
“After nearly 100 years of unstable educational policy, we have resolved to, as a matter of urgent national importance, carry out a holistic, but careful review and faithful implementation of our educational policy.”
That was in addition to promises in the education sector that included improving the teaching and learning environment; granting access to education to every Nigerian; establishing federal universities; improving hostel facilities for students; and improving the sector as a condition for transforming the economy.
It is up to Nigerians, the youth in particular, to ask Mr. Jonathan now that he has just over one and a half years left of his term whether he was merely fooling them. Last week, his government provided part answer.
First, Finance Minister dismissively told the university teachers that the government would not give them the earned allowances they are demanding, about N92 billion.
She made this curious statement: “ASUU wants the government to pay N92 billion in extra allowances when resources are not there and when we are working to integrate past increases in pensions. We need to make choices in this country as we are getting to the stage where recurrent expenditures take the bulk of our resources and people get paid but can do no work.”
Suswam, on his part, stated that the government was offering to pay N30 billion, that is, less than one-third of what it owes to the teachers.
In other words, the government of Mr. Jonathan was offering an insignificant N130 billion to solve the mountain of problems that besets university education in Nigeria.
This is not only ridiculous, it is insulting.
To say that this country should short-change its university teachers by two-thirds, and that N100 billion is a fair estimate of the infrastructural requirements of over 60 universities is a slap on the face of all Nigerians who know the value of education.
The irony is that Okonjo-Iweala’s tale is being told at a time of conspicuous consumption by the executive and legislative arms of the government; a regime where waste, mismanagement, dishonesty and corruption are barely questioned.
As long as this continues to be the scenario, we will never focus on the public interest long enough to implement policies that yield results.
This is why Nigeria’s best teachers are moving to private institutions or leaving the country. It is why our athletics teams cannot win medals.
The most tragic of all of this, however, is that while we can count gold medals we failed to win, we cannot count the damage to our children and our future. It is funny that a government littered with supposedly well-educated people is trying to downplay the seriousness of this challenge.
The current crisis in education in Nigeria is part of the damage by a confused government that if far more interested in power than it is in responsibility. Crisis management is not governance; it is often the result of poor or incompetent governance.
For the universities, and the education sector in general, it will be interesting to see if Mr. Jonathan government will finally find the heart and the courage to embark on that policy review, and if so, if he can find the character he has lacked since 2007 to implement it.
A brighter day is not impossible, but Nigerian citizens—the youth in particular—must demand it and insist on it. If they do not, tomorrow could be far worse than anything we have yet seen.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Sonala Olumhense