The Death of the Nigerian Public University, By Moses E. Ochonu
Federal universities in other parts of the country have, to varying degrees, similarly recalibrated to become extensions of their immediate sociocultural environments, resulting in intellectual and academic inbreeding and in incestuously insular intellectual reinforcement. Conversely, the very things that make the university a marketplace of ideas — diversity of thought, cultures, and perspectives — are now missing from these universities.
The new vice chancellor of Nasarawa State University, Professor Suleiman Mohammed, is reported to have said he would deploy a whistleblower policy to deal with ethical violations in the institution.
Whether this will work or not remains to be seen, since the problem of bad ethics in the Nigerian university is not just the absence of reporting (an absence which endures because no one is ethically clean enough to be a whistleblower) but also the absence of consequence for wrongdoing.
Recently, a story was published in PREMIUM TIMES on how Professor Solomon Atere, a former head of department of criminology at Federal University Oye-Ekiti (FUOYE), repeatedly raped a 16 year old first year student in his department and then forced her to have an abortion.
According to the investigative story, two university panels, one headed by a professor from another university, returned damning verdicts on him but instead of being punished, the VC accepted his resignation and he was promptly offered an appointment at Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU).
The FUOYE authorities deflected inquiries and intimidated the student and her parents. The VC advanced a specious, feeble defence of his decision to let the predator resign, rather than punish him.
When a senior Nigerian academic, working with some of us behind the scenes, tried to pressure the appropriate authorities to fire this ethical disgrace of a professor, he hit brick walls and was given the run around by people who clearly were protecting Professor Atere. When he persisted, a top university administrator at OOU asked him pointedly: Do you really want the professor to lose his job because of sex? That outrageous statement sums up the culture of ethical impunity on Nigerian university campuses.
Clearly the ethical putrefaction is deep and multilayered, and it would take nothing short of a radical disruption to effect change.
Nonetheless, the VC of Nasarawa State University deserves credit for thinking outside the proverbial box and for suggesting a novel approach that has not been tried.
Other universities have not lifted a finger or shown any intent of combating the rot.
And, of course, poor ethics is not even the most serious problem in Nigerian universities. The most pernicious problems in the Nigerian public university sector are nepotism, ethno-religious exclusivity, insular and parochial thinking, and an incestuous intellectual culture.
These problems have taken a toll on the primary missions of the universities: teaching and research.
Today, everyone agrees that the two most serious existential challenges to university education in Nigeria are poor teaching and poor research.
The result is that the Nigerian university system is now saddled with a majority of professors and lecturers who have no interest in the passions and obligations of the academy – teaching and research – because they lack the capacity to fulfill these obligations and because they only see university academic work as a mere vocation, much like a civil servant sees his/her job.
These two problems, in turn, are tied to the broken system of academic staff recruitment. The collapse of professional protocols for recruiting academic staff has, over the last several decades, brought many mediocre people into the Nigerian academy – faux academics who would never have entered the system had meritorious professional entry mechanisms been used.
The result is that the Nigerian university system is now saddled with a majority of professors and lecturers who have no interest in the passions and obligations of the academy – teaching and research – because they lack the capacity to fulfill these obligations and because they only see university academic work as a mere vocation, much like a civil servant sees his/her job. You show up and get paid at the end of the month, while accumulating time and experience for the next promotion.
Which takes us back to the factors of nepotism and ethno-religious preference that now underpin normative operations and decision making in Nigerian universities.
In most public universities in Nigeria, an academic staff is recruited simply with a note from the VC or from a governor, minister, or some other top government official. Such well-connected people are usually egregiously unqualified to enter the academy and do not possess the aptitude and skillset to cope with and thrive in the rigour of academic work. Nor do they even have any passion for academic work.
There are scandalous stories of heads of departments coming to their offices to see strange faces with notes from this or that Oga asking the HOD to provide office space for the department’s new academic staff!
Sometimes there is no calculated patrimonial method to the recruitment and it is rather informed by a desire of some important person to have a foothold in the institution. Such capricious hiring is quite common.
In most cases, then, the benefitting mediocre academics enter the system because their highly placed benefactors or relatives simply want them to have a secured, pensionable government employment, and because such top university administrators and external influencers see public universities in crudely patrimonial terms as spaces in which to reward and place loyalists and family members.
Then you have a major aspect of the problem: the insistence on recruiting academic staff from preferred and favoured ethno-religious and other parochial identities. No matter how qualified, passionate, and prepared a candidate is, in today’s Nigerian higher education system, they cannot make the cut if they do not belong to the preferred primordial community of a particular university and they are forced to give way for a mediocre candidate who comes from the right place and/or prays in the preferred manner.
This is a national virus that has destroyed the “universality” in the idea of the university in Nigeria. Federal universities in Nigeria have all essentially become catchment area institutions, recruiting academics and in some cases admitting students mostly from their catchment areas. There are, in some cases, even further sub-ethnic and sub-religious fragmentations and dichotomies that determine who gets hired or admitted and who does not, or who gets elevated and who gets ignored, with absolutely no regard for ability or output.
I am a graduate of Bayero University, Kano (BUK), so I am what we call a proud BUKITE. That pride is anchored on something special. I am not one to romanticise the past as a perfect contrastive foil for the present, and the BUK of my undergraduate days had its problems of provincialism, professorial laziness, and poor ethics. However, when I attended the institution, my class was very diverse, refreshingly reflecting Nigeria’s ethnic, regional, and religious plurality. Even the academic staff was fairly diverse.
As a result, the campus played host to an ecumenical, cosmopolitan intellectual culture. A vibrant intellectual community accommodative of multiple perspectives and approaches to big philosophical questions existed and was nourished by the assemblage of students and faculty from different backgrounds.
For lack of a better term, the “caliphate” perspective was ever present as the dominant, modulating intellectual foreground, but many “non-caliphate” perspectives flourished, tempering, enriching, critically and productively engaging and ultimately unsettling the certitude of the caliphate perspective. As a result, those of us from non-caliphate milieus came away profoundly re-educated and humbled and those born and raised in the caliphate way of seeing were forced to become self-reflexive and self-critical and to look outside themselves. In fact, precisely because of the intellectual cosmopolitanism that existed on campus, many academics and students from the North-West strained hard to demonstrate that they had transcended the aforementioned caliphate worldview and had acquired a critical, transcendental intellectual edge.
If the segregated and ethnically reclaimed federal universities are fostering academic incest by excluding brilliant “outsiders” and privileging mediocre insiders, the state universities are even more provincial since their template of inclusion and recruitment is not the usual multi-state catchment area but rather a narrowly defined state indigene criterion.
I understand that in a process of reversal that began around 2005, the people of the catchment constituency where the university is located, fearing that they were losing what they saw as theirs to outsiders, have reclaimed “their university” by admitting students and recruiting academic staff only from the catchment area — the North-West. When I hung out with two BUKITE friends in Nigeria recently, they both confirmed that the university now thoroughly reflects Kano and the North-West and is no longer demographically or intellectually national in character. How sad.
Federal universities in other parts of the country have, to varying degrees, similarly recalibrated to become extensions of their immediate sociocultural environments, resulting in intellectual and academic inbreeding and in incestuously insular intellectual reinforcement. Conversely, the very things that make the university a marketplace of ideas — diversity of thought, cultures, and perspectives — are now missing from these universities. The old, deliberate policy of appointing VC’s from outside the catchment area and recruiting a diverse faculty has given way to an aggressive, increasingly atomistic effort to redefine universities as bounded ethnic enclaves.
In some federal universities, such as the Federal University, Otuoke, the mission to “reclaim what is ours” as our share of the national cake and to keep “outsiders” out is so brazen that there is a toxic convergence of two anti-intellectual and reactionary actions. One fight, directed mostly at Nigerian academics from other parts of the country, seeks to remake the institution in the image of its ethnic host community in its recruitment and administrative hierarchy. The other seeks to undo a previous policy of recruiting and relocating diaspora academics to deepen the pedagogical and research talent pool of the young university.
Such projects of sub-national takeover of the university are fueled by a suspicion and a demonisation of the national and diasporic Other as a disruptive, intrusive, and undeserving academic interloper who should go back to universities in his or her own natal or residential abode.
The state universities are even worse in that most of them are not only unviable political creations but they also replicate the political and ethnic hierarchies and hegemonies in the larger politics of the state. The governing architecture and motif of such universities depend on and are shaped by networks of loyalty and political support that correspond to the dominant patronage arrangements of particular governors and regimes.
In Benue State University (BSU) for instance, no non-Tiv academic from Benue State (not to mention from another State) has ever been VC or ever will be, not because there have been no qualified non-Tiv candidates but simply because they are not Tiv by birth. BSU is governed consistently as an extension of the Tiv political hegemony in the State, and the distribution of administrative offices there mirrors the distribution of political offices in the State. Meritocracy and excellence are happily sacrificed for a mediocrity that conforms to the prevailing political hierarchies in Benue state. How can such a space be called a university?
To complicate matters for BSU and other state-owned universities, the schisms of ethnic and zonal politics intersect with the volatile and fluid politics of personal loyalties and camps, all of which, combined, determine recruitment, promotion, rewards, and opportunity structures, to the detriment of research and teaching excellence.
If the segregated and ethnically reclaimed federal universities are fostering academic incest by excluding brilliant “outsiders” and privileging mediocre insiders, the state universities are even more provincial since their template of inclusion and recruitment is not the usual multi-state catchment area but rather a narrowly defined state indigene criterion. Most state universities are simply vernacular institutions reflecting the state’s civil service. They are not universities in the strict sense.
You cannot have institutions that are for all practical purposes not universities and expect them to behave like actual universities.
Institutions that incubate and cultivate mediocrity, while doing violence to merit and the intellectual enterprise, cannot but produce mediocre graduates and research output. There is a reason why universities self-consciously insulate themselves from the political pressures of the larger society. It is because diversity of thought and demography is critical to a university retaining its identity as a sanctuary of elevated thinking, ideational exchange, and productive debate.
Moses E. Ochonu can be reached through firstname.lastname@example.org.