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End These Crimes Against Nigerian Students By Okey Ndibe

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Nigeria stands accused of committing grave and inexcusable crimes against its university students. It’s part of a broader, fiercer war on the youth, the largest of Nigeria’s demographic groups but the least reckoned with.

On February 14, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) led the country’s university teachers into what they called a two-month “warning strike.” The timing was atrocious. Valentine’s Day is associated with generous gestures. Like it or not, hapless students received a vicious slap on the day.

Seven months later, the strike continues. The criminal disregard of students – which translates into a crime against the future – proceeds.

If Nigeria were not such a joke of a country, President Muhammadu Buhari would not be snoozing while students dawdled at home. He and his indolent cabinet would hear daily from outraged parents. Legislative committees would hold explosive hearings on the scandal. For wasting so many of the country’s mind-hours, calls would resound from all corners for Buhari’s impeachment. Newspapers would write editorials demanding the resignation of irresponsible government officials.

None of that has happened because – let’s face it – the country’s ostensible political leaders do not take their country seriously. For many of them, education is a suspect investment. In the inner recesses of their heart, education may well be a thing of pure repulsion, perhaps an irritating luxury of which the less considered the better.

Why else would they seek with such singular force to smash the country’s educational edifice? What explains their indifference to the goals of education? Why are they, at best, half-hearted when budgeting for education?

It’s hard to exaggerate the neglect of the country’s educational sector. If you doubt me, peep into what passes for a library or a lab in many a Nigerian university. You’re likely to see libraries as bereft of books as the labs are without equipment. Or take a look at students’ residential quarters at any public university. You’d need a stalwart constitution to withstand the assault on your senses – the warmish, drifting stench of unflushed toilets, grimy bathrooms, grounds littered with plastic, rinds, peels and other detritus. It’s sheer blight, a shocking portrait of sordidness.

At graduation, students are often handed certificates that attest to their having being found worthy, in character and learning. It bears asking, what are the odds that students fostered in environments of unspeakable degradation can attain any desirable formation in character and learning?

ASUU’s fundamental grievance – the driver for the current strike – is chiefly about financial compensation for its members. University teachers are much better paid today than they were in the past. Much older ASUU members must recall the nightmarish days when their salaries were so poor that some of their number became part-time cab drivers to supplement their income.

This fact does not invalidate ASUU’s case for better conditions of service. For one, runaway inflation has wreaked havoc on fixed income earners in Nigeria. Besides, Nigeria lags shamelessly behind many African countries in the percentage of GDP spent on education. Yes, Nigerian politicians have a penchant for giving verbose speeches that profess their commitment to educational advancement. But their actions hardly match their words.

It explains why Nigeria is a no-show on rosters measuring educational expenditure as a percentage of GDP. As of 2020, Africa’s top five leaders in this category were Namibia (9.41%), Sierra Leone (9.26%), Lesotho (7.38%), South Africa (6.84%), and Swaziland (5.34%).

An impoverished professoriate spells disaster. Teachers who aren’t able to pay their basic bills can hardly be effective in the classroom. Nigeria’s political office holders, many of them dullards, bask in opulence. By contrast, many of the country’s educators are mired in penury. One understands why ASUU’s leaders view their struggle as high-minded, noble and inevitable.

Even so, I doubt that the association enjoys the support of beleaguered students and their anxious parents. The Buhari administration carries the trophy of culpability for letting the strike stretch out. But ASUU gets no pass for what has become another tragic episode in Nigeria’s higher education. If the government’s attitude was one of nonchalance, did ASUU then have to lose its head? Did its members not realize that interminable strikes – in the past as now – ultimately hurt their case? The longer a strike lasts, the firmer the public perception that education may not be that important, after all – indeed, that it should be treated as an afterthought.

Nigerian politicians have little incentive to bolster education. For the most part, their children attend schools in foreign countries, within and outside Africa. But when teachers walk away from their classrooms for seven months, they risk incurring the accusation of betraying their students. That charge sticks in a particular way because ASUU has done a subpar job of presenting its case to the public. I have asked several Nigerian contacts to summarize ASUU’s bill of demands. Each merely stated that the association wants more pay for its members.

It’s time – way past time – to end the strike. The government and ASUU can end this scandal if they negotiate in good faith. As neither party can hope to get its way entirely, the two sides should hatch out some basic common ground to enable students to resume their studies. Afterwards, a high-powered commission should be instituted to take up the task of transforming Nigeria’s educational sector, priming it to meet the country’s vast and growing developmental needs.

Okechukwu Ndibe, better known as Okey Ndibe, (born 1960) an acclaimed Nigerian novelist, political columnist and essayist  was born in Yola, Nigeria. He is the author of Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods, Inc.

Ndibe has worked as a professor at several colleges, including Connecticut CollegeBard College at Simon’s Rock, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and Brown University.

We are honored that he brings his sharp intellectual depth and years of political activism to write for Life and Times.

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