By Dele Momodu
Fellow Nigerians, permit me to make a serious confession. I had refused to pay much attention to the activities of Mr Nyesom Wike at the Education Ministry where he’s presently the Alpha and Omega, after the exit of the substantive Minister, Professor Ruqayyatu Ahmed Rufai. The fault is not entirely mine. Wike had succeeded in spending more time playing politics in his home state of Rivers than sitting down at the negotiation table with the enraged and striking Nigerian egg-heads.
Naturally, we were mostly fascinated by the war of attrition between the rambunctious Minister and his former boss, mentor and benefactor, Governor Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi.
What I find most intriguing was how the Federal Government led by President Goodluck Jonathan condoned the kind of rascality going on where a serving Minister is permitted to swim with such reckless abandon in muddied political waters while his whole Ministry is on fire and in dire need of desperate rescue.
Not just that, the Minister is allowed to seek his next political office as Governor of Rivers against the kernels of rules laid down by the President himself requesting that ambitious members of his cabinet must resign in a jiffy or get summarily fired by him. The popular belief is that Mr Wike has nothing to fear or worry about since he’s the President’s Man Friday and numero uno pugilist in the battle for the soul of Rivers where Amaechi currently holds the World Heavyweight Boxing title.
For a fact, education is one of the biggest sufferers in Nigeria today. Successive governments had watched the sector degenerate and deteriorate to an abysmal level as if it was a normal occurrence. I believe the Minister would have performed too well if he had been assigned to Special Duties. There’s no question that he can give and take deadly punches. He has taken on his former boss with the agility of a lion without batting an eyelid. Therefore I’m reasonably convinced that the man is in a wrong Ministry. Education requires someone who’s very cerebral, elegant and sober. Such a person would understand the eloquent use of language without sounding verbose and delinquent. He would abuse without using expletive words.
If Wike was already crowned the King Kong of Rivers, our Minister surpassed himself days ago as he launched a blistering attack on the warring members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities. In a tone and demeanour reminiscent of our inglorious military era, Wike instructed the lecturers to return to the classrooms or face immediate sack from their academic jobs. There was no time for any form of Diplomatese, as Wike belched fire and brimstone while addressing newsmen.
I’m glad I personally watched the speech repeatedly on Channels Television because I would never have imagined lecturers could be so insulted under the regime of a former don. I was stunned to no end. Even as I write this, I find it hard to believe that any leader or politician would issue threats he can never enforce. It was my unlettered mum who used to warn that no one should issue threats that are not enforceable because if you fail you’re sentenced to eternal shame!
Wike has inadvertently boxed himself and the government he represents into such ignominious corner. He should have known from time immemorial that lecturers may be materially poor they know how to hold theirs high in the marketplace of ideas. All they possess and guard jealously is their pride. Soldiers come, soldiers go; lecturers always remain. They’ve survived many tyrants and will survive aspiring dictators, no matter what. It is a fact.
Let’s now attempt a dissection of the main crux of the matter. ASUU has been on strike for about five months and the hapless and innocent students under their tutelage have been at home for that long. Their parents are totally frustrated that once again Nigerian students have become rudderless and defenceless. I must reiterate the fact that this has never been a big deal in our long-suffering country. It has almost become a curse to attend local tertiary institutions. Most of those who can afford the hefty cash have abandoned our shores to seek knowledge and certificates of all manners in nearby or far-flung places. The reason isobvious.
Schooling in Nigeria has become tantamount to an Israelite’s journey where a trip of 40 days stretches infinitesimally to 40 years. Rather than fix the cruel situation, members of the privilegentsia would rather vamoose with their children abroad and leave the poor ones to roast in hell. But unknown to such short-sighted leaders, it is not usually as simple as it looks.
The implications are legion but our leaders can hardly find the wisdom to discover them. No one cares much about what happens to those left behind. Since the children of the rich are not the ones mainly affected by perennial closures, the schools can shut down for as long as it takes without as much as a whimper from the highest authorities in the land. Unfortunately, there’s no escape for the wicked. Parents of those sent abroad are often too busy with their primitive accumulation of wealth that they studiously forget to check on the well-being of those kids.
The kids who ostensibly have everything at their beck and call are always ready to spoil themselves silly from the booty provided by their overloaded parents. In the process, these comfortable children pick up dangerous habits and entertain themselves with perilous indulgences. Not just that, most of these children become totally alienated and far removed from reality back home. Many are never able to re-integrate properly into African societal values.
These are the reasons I expected the Federal Government to go all out to sort out the intractable problems of Education once and for all. Our collective future is terribly at risk because of the incessant break in our school calendar. No country has ever transformed into a First World nation without investing a chunky part of its resources and budget on Education. The Ministry of Education is also far too important to be handed over to hard-core politicians who are rabidly obsessed with acquiring and retaining power by any means necessary. Unfortunately in our strange country, nothing is too big or highly sensitive to be dashed out to political godsons.
The Education Ministry is one of those cash-cows considered very lucrative for appointment seekers. It ranks among the top four very important places to be coming only after Petroleum, Defence and Finance. Education enjoys the lion’s share in our annual budget, yet nothing has changed over the years because the politicians and civil servants have perfected the art of movement without motion. I’ve sat in a high-level gathering where we were regaled with tales of the fabulous wealth of Educational Administrators. It was such a breath-taking experience to discover there was so much money available to appointees but none for the supposed beneficiaries. This is why appointments and promotions have become matters of life and death in our higher institutions. Merit has been sacrificed at the altar of greed and avarice.
In all of this hocus-pocus, the regular lecturer and the students suffer so much. The lecturer is abysmally poor. He lacks modern and updated facilities to work with. It is a miracle that he’s able to catch up with his counterparts elsewhere. Cambridge University, Oxford, Harvard School and many others are better funded than many African countries while our students are subjected to the most inferior forms of learning at this time and age. Our universities now pitifully rank extremely low on the world list and our certificates are largely treated with disdain. It is for this reason that ASUU is seeking a total overhaul of our university system. Those who think they are merely fighting for salaries therefore miss the point.
Truth is, something drastic needs to be done to bring our universities up to acceptable standards. The ding dong relationship between the Federal Government and ASUU has been on for far too long. Many heaved a sigh of relief when for the first time our country was led by a President and Vice President who were once university dons. Poor health did not allow President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua do much in office. His eventual death deposited the heavy burden on the new President, Dr Goodluck Jonathan. On January 24, 2012, a comprehensive agreement was signed between the Federal Government and ASUU.
But towards the middle of 2013, nothing had happened thus necessitating ASUU to return to the trenches. A recalcitrant government that failed to honour its agreement carried on as if all was well. Meanwhile a government in the middle of such gargantuan crisis still found the space and money to approve new universities, all in the name of political consideration. The infuriated lecturers said there was no going back until government fulfils its promises.
When it became obvious that they won’t blink, the Federal Government swallowed its pride and top government functionaries led by the President intervened. While it is commendable that the President spent about 13 hours with the ASUU leadership, it is regrettable that his agents reneged on salient points raised at the marathon meeting on November 4, 2013. The Federal Government is yet to pay the agreed N100bn fund for infrastructural development. There are other areas in the MOU that would have demonstrated good faith on the part of government and secure the revitalisation funds for universities. Other terms sought to protect the fate of ASUU activists against any form of victimisation but Government has refused to endorse any of these pledges.
As if the situation was not already bad enough, Mr Wike has now poured petrol into the raging firing by issuing threats to an apparently determined community of teachers. My take is that the President would be the ultimate loser and not the Minister. For a man desperately seeking a re-election in barely over a year to come, it is a totally wrong move. The President should do everything within his power to stop this unreasonable decision about sacking any lecturer that fails to return to work by December 4, 2013. I make bold to say it is an impossible task if the lecturers decide to call his bluff. Is the Minister going to replace university lecturers with palmwine tappers? By what Arithmetic did he arrive at the figure that it would be easier, quicker and cheaper to recruit new lecturers? From where does he think these new recruits will appear?
We are talking about lecturers, senior lecturers and Professors. I guess Wike and his cohorts would assess and appoint new ones as they see fit in their moment of phantasmagoria. If this issue was not so serious it would have been a rib cracking comedy of errors.
But we have seen all this shakara too many times. This too shall pass away.