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Emerging ethnic crisis in Nigerian universities

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[FILE PHOTO] Adamu Adamu, Minister of Education

Universities by their evolution, philosophy, essence, and character, are universal institutions established to provide solutions to problems that confront humanity. And so the brightest and the best in learning and character are always called upon to run such citadels of learning where primordial sentiments such as ethnicity and religion should not rear their ugly heads.

That is it is unfortunate that ethnicity, which has been a threat to our national cohesion is also becoming manifest in Nigerian universities. Specifically, this enemy called ethnicity is being curiously weaponised on appointments and even on influencing election outcomes into elective positions in the ivory towers. This is sad. 

The implication is that merit is sacrificed on the altar of mediocrity and ethnic antagonism is being heightened! Also, as competency and meritocracy take the back seat, candidates from ethnic minorities hardly assume positions of leadership in today’s universities.

So, instead of being a place to use the best brains for our national development, our tertiary institutions are becoming battlegrounds for ethnic jingoism, to the extent that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) had to warn the other day against the ethnic crisis in Nigeria varsities. This is another sad commentary on the state of higher education in the country. 

Without prejudice to a few cases, where an insignificant number of exposed scholars are fighting ethnicity; positions, disciplinary actions, and activities in Nigerian universities are often ‘shaped’ too by the audacity of ethnicity. As such, ASUU’s warning should not be discounted; rather it should be taken seriously to form a compass for policies on university governance – to avoid enthroning mediocrity in our universities. So, how did we get to this point? 

With the creation of more universities, academics went back to their enclaves; and scholars started crossing from universities and moving to the ones in their states of origin to become professors and even vice-chancellors.

In addition, the establishment of state universities further worsened the already bad situation as state chief executives who are visitors to such institutions oftentimes pick indigenes to head the institutions as part of dividends of democracy. The act later escalated to federal universities, as the same governors started pressuring the Federal Government, rooting for indigenes from where the university is located, to be appointed as vice-chancellors. Hence, what commonly rends the air during appointments of university administrators is: ‘‘it is the turn of our own son or daughter to be appointed as vice chancellor.’’  This is contrary to what obtained in the 1960s and 1970s when very competent people were appointed as vice chancellors (VCs) by the government. For instance, the first vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) was Prof. Eni Njoku (1962-65). He was not a Yoruba man. We had Prof B. Kwaku Adadevoh (1978-80), another non-Yoruba.

In the same vein, the first Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan was Professor Kenneth Dike, from the then Eastern region. The first indigenous vice chancellor of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Professor Ishaya Audu who took over from the pioneer (expatriate) vice chancellor, Professor Norman Alexander, was a Christian. No Christian even from the North can aspire to be Vice-Chancellor of A.B.U, Zaria anymore; whereas, Professor Oladipo Akinkugbe, from Ondo State was vice-chancellor of the same university (1978-1979).

In the same vein, Professor Adamu Baikie, a Christian who hails from Kano was vice-chancellor, University of Benin. Professor Cyril Agodi Onwumechili, who was made at the University of Ibadan, was at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, (UNN) when he was appointed the vice-chancellor University of Ife (now OAU) in 1979.

Again in faculties, people in leadership positions and senior faculty members commonly referred to as ‘‘elders’’ who can best be described as ‘‘Council of Sanhedrins,’’ are worsening the situation by placing ethnicity above competence, skills, and experience in appointments and choice of candidates to occupy elective and appointive positions. Commonly, when elective positions are vacant, they meet and decide on a candidate, ‘‘anoint’’ and endorse the candidate; and such candidates and their campaign team come up with campaign messages such as ‘‘…endorsed by the elders.’’ Furthermore, such elders warn their kinsmen to vote ‘‘their own’ not ‘outsider’. Essentially, some elections into positions of leadership in Nigerian universities are merely a selection. Therefore, competent and skilled eligible candidates do not contest for elective positions, because competence is no longer a major consideration. This trend has politicised the psyche of academics, with the resultant poor individual and system performance; which may be a major contributor to the decay and deterioration of educational institutions.  Besides, it sometimes results in the cold war and or intense office battles with intrigues, schisms, mischiefs, trap setting, deaths, character and life assassinations, and kindred misfortunes in an academic environment. Ethnically conscious heads of departments and deans are hailed by their kinsmen; whereas detribalised heads, deans and directors are condemned by their kinsmen. 

Similarly, when favoured staff members commit offences, they are usually given ‘‘soft landing.’’ In addition, appointments as directors and unit heads, reflect ethnic and religious colouration; not discounting favouring the ‘‘home’’ faculties of those who are in positions to appoint. Hence, the winner takes it all. 

Also, university managements and councils do not reflect national character. Essentially, ethnicity has taken over. As this newspaper noted the other day, “over the years, the appointment of varsity administrator has been based on political and ethnic reasons, rather than credibility and competence. And most times, the council and parties involved ended up sacrificing merit and promoting mediocrity through their style of selection.” 

Therefore, if universities aid and abet ethnicity, then where is the future of the country? Sacrificing quality for ethnic interests is merely destroying the universities. According to ASUU, “allowing a tribal crisis to determine the appointment of the top management staff of universities in Nigeria would destroy the country’s citadel of learning”. Again, critics have argued that this not just a form of corruption, but it deepens corruption in the system as such inept staff helps their ‘‘godfathers’’ to cover their tracks. Also, it is promoting nepotistic appointments and hiring.

So, ethnicity is tearing down at all levels of governance in the universities. This unfortunate development is unhealthy and is fast destroying the system. If it is not addressed urgently, the country will suffer for it because if intellectuals cannot come out of ethic cocoons, the nation is doomed. 

What is worse, to divert the attention of Nigerians to the issue of ethnicity in the universities, management of some universities has resorted to tokenism in appointments. However, this will not solve the problem.  

To make Nigeria great, in this time and age, when issues of competence and credibility are critical for achieving superior performance indicators, intellectuals should come out of ethnic coat because countries that make progress push the frontiers of excellence and are driven by the culture of excellence, not ethnicity, religion or states of origin. 

Although, the sentiment is the undercurrent, which runs through our lives when the chips are down and unavoidable in social settings, the ivory tower should show the light for people to find the way. And such an effort should promote meritocracy, be the mark of a good society because a university is an institution that entails untrammeled academic freedom. It is guided by values of equity, fairness, justice, humanism, credibility, and integrity. Hence, it should be shielded from ethnic and parochial interests.

Therefore, the Federal Ministry of Education should come up with a policy of inclusion in university governance, as a university should be universal. The policy should ensure that appointments into key academic and administrative positions must be based totally on merit, without bias or discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, social status, and religious affiliations. Furthermore, the National Universities Commission (NUC) should include diversity inclusion indices, subject to merit, within the instruments for institutional accreditation and consider this in its ranking for our universities. 

Above all, even as ASUU deserves a pat on the back for drawing attention to this blight, it should go beyond identifying the problem and come up with solutions and ensure that mediocrity is defeated in our universities. Besides, education-focused non-governmental organisations should advocate inclusivity in university governance, which is a way of promoting national unity. That is why the current administration should be broadminded enough to see this national-question challenge in our tertiary institutions as another opportunity to restructure our decadent higher education sector. 

 


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