The Nigerian graduate: Alienation, brain drain and all that

The Nigerian graduate: Alienation, brain drain and all that

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 1:23 pm

Adebayo Lamikanra

Adebayo Lamikanra

By Adebayo Lamikanra

Education may mean different things to different people, but there is no doubt that it means something to everybody. For some, education is no more than a guarantee of a high standard of living in a society where the quality of life is appallingly low. For others, it is power with which to bend other people’s will and exploit them for their own selfish benefit. Yet others see it as a means of establishing a reputation for powerful but corrupt intellect. It will be grossly unfair however not to concede that there are some educated people who think of their education as a responsibility to society and a vigorous challenge to them in making a positive contribution to the development of that society. I find it difficult to think of education outside this definition if only because the provision of meaningful education for people within any society is the collective responsibility of every member of that society. This being the case, it should be obvious that the only morally justifiable way of regarding education is that, it is public property kept in trust by members of any community who have the rare and expensive privilege of sound education.

At this point, it has become necessary to state that education in the context of this essay is the formal education which today, is acquired through regular attendance at a functional institution designed to provide theoretical as well as practical instruction in various fields of human knowledge. In the final analysis therefore, an educated man must be regarded as someone who has acquired the knowledge and discipline required to perform certain specialised and important functions within the society.

In pre-colonial Africa, there was no formal education, at least not in the narrow definition of what is now regarded as education as there were no special institutions set aside for the sole purpose of passing on skills to successive generations. This is not to say that the people were uneducated. On the contrary, most of them were highly educated in the sense that they had undergone what in many cases, were detailed and extremely rigorous training which equipped them with the ability to perform various vital functions within the community. There may not have been institutions in terms of buildings, curricula and faculty set aside for formal education but, countless generations of Africans were made aware of forces which regulated society and were taught the skills with which to make contributions to the development of their community. There were also, elaborate apprenticeship and guild systems which regulated the training and practice of various professions.

For example, the training of medical practitioners in pre-colonial Yorubaland was long, arduous and very thorough. At the commencement of his practice therefore, the practitioner was armed with a large body of practical as well as theoretical knowledge, which made it possible for him to be of maximum use to his patients. People did not go to school as such, the whole society serving this function. This being the case, there were no cadres of people who, because of their education, could appropriate unto themselves, the disposable resources of the community.

At the beginning of the 20th century, most of the territory now called Nigeria had become incorporated into what at that time, was the mighty British Empire. The land areas making up this vast empire were more often than not, seized by the British to provide the means by which the living standards of native Britons could be enhanced. In other words, the empire was regarded as a huge field from which natural resources could be extracted as cheaply as possible and within which the products of British industry could be sold to generate the largest possible volume of profit. In order that these two aims be realised, it was necessary to have an army of administrators and other functionaries within the various organs of the colonial administration, that is, the Civil Service, the Church (in this case, the Anglican Church, which was also called the Church of England), mercantile houses and parastatals like Ports Authorities and the Railways.

In many of the British colonies including Nigeria, the environment was so hostile to European habitation that only a few of them were hardy enough to do more than contemplate the desirability of living in the colonies for any extended period of time. For this reason, it became imperative that some of the colonised people be absorbed into the colonial administration, albeit as minor officials. According to the prevailing racist theories of those heady days of unchangeable white supremacy, it was considered quite impossible for Africans to be anything but minions, subject to constant and close supervision by members of the superior race. It is worth noting, especially at this uncertain period of our nation’s history that the army was used in the establishment of the colonies and the subsequent ruthless suppression of civil liberties, which made it possible to enforce the subjugation of the colonised peoples, by the colonisers.

Although the colonial armies were under the command of British officers, the colonised people occupied many of the positions in the lowest ranks of the officer cadre. It was appreciated from the onset by the Colonial authorities that, they needed to recruit ‘natives’ into their system and furthermore, that these recruits needed, at least, a modicum of formal education to prepare them for tasks within the colonial system. This inescapable necessity led to the creation of the first schools within the colonies.

The institutions, which were set up to produce indigenous colonial officials, were not meant to produce a highly educated body of elites. But then, even the best-laid plans have a way of going awry. There is now no doubt that, the plan in this case, to produce a few functionally literate compradors went out of hand in many colonies including Nigeria. It was not long before it became apparent that there was a surplus of trained manpower with more functional knowledge than the colonial masters wanted them to have. The institutions set up in the colonies were a caricature of schools in Britain, and even worse, the curricula were as British as the colonialists were and therefore completely divorced from realities within the colonies.

It was appreciated from the onset by the Colonial authorities that, they needed to recruit ‘natives’ into their system and furthermore, that these recruits needed, at least, a modicum of formal education to prepare them for tasks within the colonial system. This inescapable necessity led to the creation of the first schools within the colonies.

Following from this, it becomes easily apparent that the genesis of formal education in Nigeria can only be described as being grim and decidedly unpromising. The first and indeed succeeding generations of educated Nigerians were, to all intents and purposes, part and parcel of the colonial apparatus, which was by its nature, primarily oppressive. Our educated elites are still tainted by the brush of these murky origins. Education in our society has been oriented towards foreign values that we have not been able to graft onto our indigenous tree and so, the acquisition of formal education in our country today could so easily be a giant step away from the hopes and aspirations of the nation.

In spite of its dubious origins, it is obvious that western education has a great role to play in the development of Nigeria. A virile educational structure will produce a steady stream of people with the ability to provide all the services required by a modern society. Education is indeed meaningful, at least in a so-called developing country, only in terms of the service, which its educated elite can provide. It must be emphasised that without these services, no developing country can entertain the hope of climbing out of the morass of underdevelopment. On the other hand, it has been shown by the newly industrialised states of South East Asia, that possibly the only viable investment, which can be made, is in people, through the provision of excellent educational facilities.

There are countries like Taiwan, Singapore and Hong-Kong that have no natural resources to speak of but they are now out of the league of developing countries. They are, to all intents and purposes, fully developed nations and they have achieved this status because they had taken the trouble to create a very large and well-educated work force. The virtue of meaningful education is therefore plain for all those who wish to see it.

When Nigeria became independent in 1960, there was not a single autonomous degree awarding institution in the country. But now, there are no fewer than thirty-two universities with close to 200,000 full-time students. On the face of it, there has been an explosion in the availability of educational facilities in the country. When the number of students in our universities is compared to the number of Nigerians who should have access to university education however, it becomes easily apparent that there is a very heavy shortfall of university places. The picture of the Nigerian educational sector becomes even less impressive when the quality of education now available is taken into account. When this is done, it will be seen that as far as education is concerned, we are in a disaster zone. The public primary school system is well on the way to becoming extinct, having been superceded by private primary schools which charge what are very clearly, exorbitant fees from the point of view of the ability of a large majority of Nigerians to pay.

As for the secondary schools, we are at a point in time when there is no longer any point in pretending that these institutions are capable of preparing young Nigerians for the rough and tumble of life in a modern society. Universities are at the very top of the education pyramid but those in Nigeria are in such a state of despair and decay that university lecturers have had to embark on a long and frequently stormy strike action in order to place our universities on the nation’s agenda. Although the lecturers have succeeded in squeezing out some commitment to university funding and autonomy from the government, there is still no basis for optimism on our university campuses. It is clear that without a massive injection of money, determination, discipline and stark principles, the university system will soon collapse under its own weight.

Whichever way we look at the problem of education in Nigeria, we now have to come to terms with the quality and relevance of the products of our educational institutions. It was Dr. Julius Nyerere who, as president of Tanzania remarked that primary schools in his country did no more than prepare their pupils for the secondary schools, which in turn, produced candidates for university education. In view of the fact that less than 2% of pupils entering the educational system at the primary school level succeeded in going all the way to the university, the provision of education involved a colossal waste of talent and material. This observation is applicable to the Nigerian situation where education, even at the highest level is not geared towards the production of adequately trained manpower.

Rather, it is used as a means of the recruitment of elites who do not do anything to justify their enhanced status within the community. In any case, education is perceived here as a diabolical obstacle course and anyone going through it successfully has paid his dues to the society which, from then on should pander to the outrageous appetites which the process of education is thought to create in the educated person. The undiscerning Nigerian graduate is thus alienated from the aspirations of his society. He therefore feels comfortably justified in using his knowledge to amass immense personal wealth even at the direct expense of the larger society. In Nigeria, university graduation ceremonies are seen as a celebration of newly won rights of plunder of the nation’s resources.

In the last seven years, we have witnessed a massive flight of expertise from our shores. All over Europe, the Middle East and the USA, we find Nigerians brought up and educated with the meagre resources available here, holding positions of great responsibility and contributing in no small way to the development of those societies in which they are economic refugees. The scale of emigration of academically and professionally qualified people from these shores has been of such great magnitude that it has put the future of this country into jeopardy.

The Nigerian graduate has a great potential for self-fulfillment within a society, which is geared towards the provision of creature comforts for its elites, no matter how undeserving they are. For most of them however, this potential may never be realised. Nigeria’s unproductive elites have, over the years mismanaged the affairs of this country so thoroughly that the nation has not been able to generate the wherewithal to assuage the craven appetites of the few perched on top of a dangerously rickety structure.

It is painfully ironic that a country, which is in dire need of experts in all areas of human interest, cannot provide jobs for people who, by the nature of their training are, at least in theory capable of rendering very useful service within the society. It is apparent that this nation has lost its sense of direction completely, or else, how can we explain the fact that doctors are idle in a country where all the indices of good health point to the incontestable fact that this is a dangerously unhealthy country. Although our schools of Medicine churn out fresh graduates every year, there is no Nigerian of note who does not make what amounts to a mandatory annual visit to Europe or the United States for the purpose of undergoing a medical check-up. As can be expected in the affairs of mortal men, some must die from time to time and, for Nigerians, no well-heeled member of this society is allowed to suffer the indignity of dying in the country. At the first sign of serious trouble, all those who can afford the expense, that is, members of the ruling class, are hustled abroad for terminal healthcare.

As it is with our idle doctors, so it is with graduates in all other areas. One of the more visible problems requiring urgent and careful attention is that of graduate unemployment. This problem has become especially acute in the last five years during which the nation’s economy has been savaged by open and deep corruption, sycophancy, disregard for truth, indecency, dishonour, drug trafficking, undisguised nepotism, the flagrant promotion of mediocrity and, other such practices which have come to be associated with our unrepentant and discredited ruling elite. All the money, which should have been used to expand the nation’s economy to provide, jobs within which our graduates can find some measure of professional satisfaction has been diverted into private pockets. Such money has been used in the prosecution of spectacularly unprofitable ventures such as weddings, funerals and various other events, which border on criminal frivolity.

It is very sad that at this time, nobody can claim that something is being done to correct a situation, which is now close to becoming calamitous. On the contrary, we have been engaged in sterile and bitter debate over such inane points as the desirability of employing graduates as bus drivers. There are some Nigerians, who from the comfortable niche that they have managed to create for themselves express the crass opinion that the development of this nation depends on whether or not, Nigerian graduates are prepared to drive buses, clean the streets and find employment as waiters. These are all essential occupations but, I am yet to be convinced that Nigerian graduates can, at this time be spared from more specialised and vital functions such as, bridge building, the design of and construction decent houses, the manufacture of safe and efficacious drugs, the instruction of Nigerian youths, the study of the dynamics of society and other such useful occupations which indeed, the Nigerian graduate has been trained to perform.

In the free-for-all situation that now exists in Nigeria, there are very few opportunities for graduates to perform truly useful functions. Consequently, they are primarily involved in the promotion of their own individual interests. All they want is an outrageously remunerative job in the banking and finance sector of an economy, which has gone berserk. It is in the immediate interest of any bright fresh graduate in any field to earn the fantastic salaries, which the banks are offering. And so, we see graduates in all disciplines falling over each other in their frantic endeavor to get an MBA, Accounting qualifications or a diploma in Computer Science.

There is therefore an internal drain of brains from potentially useful sectors of the economy to one, which serves no more than cosmetic purposes. The managers of the nation’s economy receive astronomical salaries and perks for gross mismanagement and culpable irresponsibility. And our best young brains are being sucked into this quagmire. This aspect of what I call our brain-drain syndrome has hardly been addressed. But it should not require any mental gymnastics to appreciate the fact that a registered pharmacist working as some glorified bank clerk, a doctor who sells computer accessories or a graduate teacher selling lingerie in an attempt to find self-fulfillment, constitute grievous losses to our society.

In the last seven years, we have witnessed a massive flight of expertise from our shores. All over Europe, the Middle East and the USA, we find Nigerians brought up and educated with the meagre resources available here, holding positions of great responsibility and contributing in no small way to the development of those societies in which they are economic refugees. The scale of emigration of academically and professionally qualified people from these shores has been of such great magnitude that it has put the future of this country into jeopardy. Furthermore, it constitutes a great drain of the nation’s resources. The scale of this drain and the worth of Nigerian talent abroad is put into perspective by the fact that according to calculations by the American Medical Association, the astronomical sum of $5 million is required to produce one surgeon. Thousands of similarly qualified Nigerians are now plying their trade in many parts of the developed world. It is ironic that Nigeria which is being hounded from pillar to post by her creditors has in fact been providing crucial and massive technical aid to these very same creditors!

A great deal of resources has been committed to the production of adequately trained manpower for this country and there has been some measure of success in this field. There are now many thousands of Nigerian graduates who unfortunately, are not making any worthwhile contribution to the development of the nation and are therefore a waste of our scarce resources. It is difficult to see how under the present deplorable circumstances, it is possible for us to make any real progress as a nation.

This article was written in 1993

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