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A babel of citadels 

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[FILE] Minister of Education, Mallam Adamu Adamu

Martins Oloja’s typically detailed and characteristically incisive piece in his Inside Stuff column in The Guardian on Sunday of June 27, 2021, practically took out from my mouth, an issue, which has agitated my mind in recent weeks and months. Titled, “Nigeria Needs Better, Not More Universities,” Oloja interrogates the exponential expansion of universities, public and private, in the country and wonders why government is licensing more and more private universities and building new ones itself. He contended that existing institutions could be improved upon via adequate funding and provision of infrastructure.

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Indeed, on a social media platform to which Oloja and I belong, a very eminent and distinguished administrator and statesman, commented on the said piece by remarking that “there are 1800 universities in The Philippines, for a population of 105 million people.” He explained further, that most of the universities in Philippines, which, he cited as an example, do not require vast acreages of land like we have in Nigeria, because they are “specialised institutions.”

I began to take very keen interest in the unwholesome proliferation of universities under the incumbent administration, when in 2018, the Nigerian Army, then under the leadership of Tukur Yusuf Buratai, a lieutenant general, established a university in the Northeast of the country. The institution, named the Nigerian Army University (NAU), is sited in Biu, Borno State, Buratai’s home state. With an existing Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), established almost 60 years ago and domiciled in Kaduna, the political headquarters of the North of the country, you are compelled to dissect the basis for this rather wasteful duplication. 

For the avoidance of doubt, the NDA in 1985, began to offer five-year undergraduate degree programmes to military officers in training. The institution has since blossomed into one, which offers masters and doctorate degrees for both military and civilian students. The NDA has long earned international recognition, such that it attracts foreign students predominantly from African countries, to its programmes. 

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The founding justification for the NAU, remains hazy at the very best and has been interpreted to mean Buratai’s dividend of democracy for his people. The university supposedly “focuses on research and technological innovation in the defence sector with particular emphasis on local challenges in asymmetrical warfare in Nigeria, Africa and the world at large,” whatever that means. 

If the army and the defence sector in general desire education in this area of innovation and technology, why wouldn’t it take full advantage of the preexisting defence academy and indeed, the Defence Industries Corporation, DICON, which is also located in Kaduna? Why a brand new institution, which will continue to draw from the shrinking resources available to government to cater for its constituents? 

As though in competition for honours for the most unimaginative innovations in this administration, Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Chibuike in 2019, set up a Federal University of Transportation in Daura, Katsina State, hometown of President Muhammadu Buhari. The project sits on over 400 hectares of land and “will focus on research and development of human capital for the country’s transport sector.” Buhari, at the groundbreaking ceremony of the proposed university on December 2, 2019, noted that it is the first of its kind in Africa “and will provide technical skills, enhance managerial capacity and pave the way for innovation in Nigeria’s transport system.” 

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In one breath, the project has been described as a gift to Nigeria and part of Corporate Social Responsibility, CSR, by the China Civil Engineering and Construction Corporation, CCECC, builders of the ongoing rail network in the country. In another breath, the Federal Government is said to have approved the sum of $50million (N18 billion naira) for the project. The Transportation University will also have primary and secondary schools to cater for the educational needs of children of staff of the institution, among other facilities. Amaechi has also hinted that a similar project will be established in Rivers State, in the foreseeable future.

The last time, I checked, two Nigerian universities, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology (LAUTECH), Ogbomoso, Oyo State and Lagos State University (LASU), Lagos, offer degree-awarding programmes in transport management technology. There is also a Nigeria Maritime University (NMU), located in Okerenkoko, Gbaramatu, Delta State. While LAUTECH is a 31-year-old institution, LASU has been in existence for nearly four decades.

The NMU on the other hand, was initiated by the Buhari administration and began offering degree courses in the 2017/2018 academic session. There is, of course, a Federal Government-owned Maritime Academy of Nigeria (MAN), in Oron, Akwa Ibom State, which enjoys parity with federal polytechnics and was established in 1979. This is not forgetting the National Institute for Transport Technology (NITT), in Zaria, Kaduna State, overseen by the Federal Ministry of Transportation.

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Couldn’t government have boosted the carrying capacity, personnel quality and physical infrastructure of some of these institutions without expending the nation’s debilitated resources on new universities?

Away from the nation’s coastal states and communities, the Nigerian Navy has announced plans for the establishment of a “Desert Warfare Institute” in Kano. A press report on the subject a fortnight ago, said the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Awwal Zubairu Gambo, desires the “presence and visibility of the Nigerian Navy in Kano State.” Gambo by the way, hails from Kano State and is following the footsteps of Buratai his senior colleague who gifted Borno State with a university for the army.

There was, of course, the rash approval by the Federal Government last February, of 20 new private universities, which escalated the number of privately-owned universities to 99, just one institution, short of the one century mark. Even as some of these tertiary institutions supposedly strive to meet the minimum standards set by National Universities Commission (NUC), some of them are no better than the “cornershop, single structure universities,” in some neighbouring countries. Elsewhere, they have indeed been labelled “glorified secondary schools.” Institutions like these are those the NUC and National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), perennially admonish Nigerians not to patronise.

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The number of state-owned universities, that is those established by the various state governments and the Federal Government, continues to grow. Indeed, the total number of such institutions runs neck-to-neck, with the aggregate figures of privately-owned universities, when we consider the recently approved “specialised” Federal Government-owned universities and some recently licensed state-owned institutions. Carefully computed, there may be close to 200 universities in Nigeria today.

Governor Ifeanyi Okowa, of Delta State, announced the creation of three new universities, by his administration, in addition to the long-existing Delta State University (DELSU), in Abraka, a few months ago. A new Delta State University, Agbor; Dennis Osadebey University, Asaba and Delta State University of Science and Technology, Ozoro, were licensed by the NUC in March. The new universities will grow out of existing physical structures in the College of Education, Agbor; Delta State Polytechnic, Ozoro and the Anwai campus of DELSU. 

Okowa rationalised the establishment of the new universities within the context of the inability of enthusiastic admission-seeking youths to secure university education, in existing state and federal universities, owing to space constraints. His words: “In the JAMB report of 2018, a total of 80,131 Deltans, representing 4.85 percent of total applicants, sat for the board’s university entrance examination. 

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The Delta State helmsman noted, however, “that only a fraction of candidates who passed the qualifying examinations could be admitted. Also for the 2019/2020 academic session, 25,896 candidates from Delta State, chose Delta State University as first choice. Out of this number, 22,358 qualified, but only 4,854 candidates could be admitted.” The governor opined that the state government could not continue to look the other way, when its youths are frustrated and depressed by inability to pursue their educational dreams, no thanks to inadequate slots in various universities.

Delta State ranks amongst the top five most affluent states in the country, in terms of fiscal accruals from the Federal Government; its share of the 13 per cent derivation funds for oil production states and indeed, its internally-generated revenue (IGR). It is one of the very few states in Nigeria, which has two functional airports in Warri and Asaba respectively, a measure of the intensity of socio-economic activity in the state, especially in the oil and gas sector. While it may be able to fund and sustain many universities, can the same be said of a state like Kogi?

Here is a state, which has been serially unable to discharge the simplest of statutory obligations to its citizens, the payment of workers’ salaries and pensions. The incumbent administration has gained national notoriety for pioneering an uncanny and duplicitous “payment in percentages” of workers’ emoluments. There have been reports of suicides and sudden deaths by public servants in this state, on account of despair and depression occasioned by lack, hunger and insolvency. Only recently, however, the state House of Assembly, approved an executive request for the establishment of a new university by the state government. An operating licence has since been issued by the NUC, for what is to be known as a “Confluence State University of Science and Technology,” CSUST.

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The institution is to be sited in the Central Senatorial Zone in Kogi State, where the incumbent governor of the state comes from. It will operate from the existing structures of the College of Mines and Metallurgy of the Kogi State Polytechnic, which is located in Osara, in Kogi Central. 

Kogi State, by the way has an existing 20-year-old university. It was envisioned by the far-sighted pioneer democratically elected governor of the state, the late Abubakar Audu. Christened after Audu for his pathfinding endeavours, and known as “Prince Abubakar Audu University,” (PAAU), the institution can do with massive upgrades in personnel and infrastructure to bring it to parity with very successful state-owned universities like LASU; Ambrose Alli University (AAU), Ekpoma; Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba, Ondo State and the Abia State University (ABSU), Uturu, among others.

Early May this year, the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, passed a bill for the establishment of a “National Steel University” (NSU), to be sited in Ajaokuta, home of perhaps the largest, but unfortunately moribund steel complex, in Africa. Ajaokuta by the way, is also in Kogi’s Central Senatorial Zone, host of the fledgling CSUST, and so, we are about to have two universities, with the same vision and mission statement, within the same catchment area in Kogi State.

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Meanwhile, my people in Kogi West Senatorial Zone, arguably home of the largest pool of professors and intellectuals, per square meter, in Nigeria, are clamouring deservedly and correctly, for the upgrading of the College of Agriculture in Kabba into a full-fledged university. At its establishment over 50 years ago, the college was affiliated to the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria and has continued to operate as an appendage of the premier university in the North of the country. 

Several submissions have been made both by socio-cultural organisations and succeeding parliamentarians from the zone about the need of our people for a full-fledged university. Indeed, with agriculture as the mainstay of the local economy of the seven local government areas in Kogi West, a University of Agriculture, can only enhance the capacity of the nation towards the attainment of the goal of food security. It will equally help in getting our youngsters “back to land,” in a dispensation where youths hang around politicians awaiting crumbs and handouts from their tables, and are easily procured to serve the selfish, oftentimes mortally risky ends of their local principals.

While it is convenient for government to approve of the establishment of universities and more universities, mainly for political expediency, the same government has lost sight of the daily skyrocketing numbers of unemployed graduates in a rapidly constricting economy. Graduates from the universities: federal, state and privately-owned, are periodically joined by the spilling army of graduate jobseekers from federal, state and privately-owned polytechnics and colleges of education. The youngsters savour momentary relief during the one year mandatory NYSC, before confronting the inclement temperament of the elements on the streets, in their relentless quest for sustainable engagement. 

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The Federal Government continues to peddle figures of Nigerian youths purportedly taken out the unemployment market, even as the numbers continue to multiply in leaps and bounds. Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), negate this assumption, while highlighting the worrying reality on ground.

The fourth quarter report of the NBS for 2020, puts the unemployment figures at a minimum 33.3 per cent or about 25 million people. It would be more because such figures are usually mere estimates. Unfortunately, government has not liberalised the economic space enough to absorb more and more Nigerians, so the craze continues for nonexistent white-collar jobs.

A babel of citadels of learning is not what Nigeria needs now. Not at all. What the nation needs is to consolidate its fiscal and human capital to grow institutions, which will build youths and youngsters with the requisite knowledge, intuition and skills to contribute meaningfully and productively to the growth and development of a rapidly changing national and global socio-economy. The space for expansion is not the challenge of most state-owned universities, where vast, almost infinite stretches of hectarage have long been procured by pioneers for further development. The University of Ilorin, for instance, straddles about four local government areas, contiguous to its present location. The Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), a few years back, was going to partner with some Brazilian investors to cultivate cassava and other crops, which should add a few billions of naira, to the IGR of the institution, within its surplus physical space. Space, therefore, is not an issue.

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We should be concerned as a nation for instance, about why foreign artisans dominate construction sites across the country. Togolese, Beninois and Ghanaians have become first choice craftsmen in painting, plaster-of-paris decor and tiling. Yes, we have them here, but how do we help them to up the ante of their trades? Why do Nigerian-trained medical personnel excel in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere? Have we upgraded our facilities for teaching, learning and practice to the level where the urge to seek greener pastures outside our shores, becomes less and less compulsive for our medical professionals? 

We must intentionally grow relevant, requisite and appropriate human capital who will be meaningfully and sustainably engaged in operating the wheels of our domestic economy, given the dynamics of the global village. This is achievable, not by dissipation of energies and resources, but by the consolidation of aggregate capital, human and material. We need to get interested in growing entrepreneurs in today’s world of limitless prospects of information technology 

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We must find ways of making agriculture, for instance, very attractive to our youths, beyond the punitive “live your life in the sun” fallacy that has been ingrained into their thinking. How has agriculture become such a successful and booming preoccupation elsewhere in the world, where whole aircraft are chartered to deliver day-fresh farm produce to designated destinations across the world? Whatever happened to the model experimented about 20 years ago, by the Zimbabwean farmers who lived and farmed in northern Kwara State, under the administration of Bukola Saraki? Agriculture is the present, it is the future with its infinite downstream potentials and possibilities.

Once upon a time, our economy was so very robust, our exchange rate so solid, that our universities attracted global icons in virtually every sphere of education. They came from all over, the USA, the UK, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo DRC, Sierra Leone, and so on. They added new vistas to scholarship and fresh perspectives to learning. We need to grow top-flight human capacity across board in the academia, in substantial numbers and take pride in the engagement of our excess human resource in other climes. There, they not only hoist the national flag with pride and conviction, they equally participate actively in giving back to their country of birth. We have to get there.

Tunde Olusunle, PhD, is a poet, journalist and scholar.

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