Who will save education in Nigeria?

Who will save education in Nigeria?

Monday, August 5, 2019 4:20 am

Sylvester Asoya

Sylvester Asoya

Nelson Mandela, the famous anti-apartheid revolutionary and former president of South Africa once described education as the ultimate investment. According to him, “the power of education extends beyond the development of the skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation”. Perhaps Mandela had Nigeria in mind when he uttered those immortal lines. Without education, Nigeria will continue to go round in circles and this is exactly what is happening today, despite all the pretense and drama.
Education is in dire straits, and I think most Nigerians are in agreement. The reason this all-important sector is in a parlous state is not far to seek, it is basically leadership failure.

A few days ago, I told a friend that our rising appetite for foreign degrees is not just a passing fad. Every day, we watch in horror, as very senior public officers and politicians brazenly and contemptuously display on social media and other media platforms, their excited faces and those of their children at convocation ceremonies in Ivy League universities across Europe, Canada and the United States.

The message from their actions is simple and clear. Those in charge of Nigeria today appear to be advertising their lack of faith in our current education system which is failing students and parents. And these leaders have no scruples. For these powerful politicians, the only way to escape the impending cataclysm on account of their failure, is to ferry their children to schools built and managed by citizens of other countries.

The truth is that education has been priced out of the reach of ordinary Nigerians and with rising tuition, corruption, instability, discrimination and poor policies, education has finally been taken away from the people who actually need it.

For some of us from middle income homes, we had the privilege of university education, not necessarily because our parents had all the money to fund the kind of education we eventually got. It was largely because of the efforts and sacrifices of some conscientious Nigerians. Yes, we are indeed, lucky!

Even at that, I remember we still had to contend with the snares and critical comments of some of our young lecturers who insisted in those days, that we arrived when the glory had departed. Usually, they cited among other things, absence of serious research and funding, the overcrowded dormitories and lecture theatres, the removal of meal subsidy, which was a big deal, the absence of first rate lecturers, (it was a period when the very best of Nigeria’s lecturers left in droves in search of greener pastures abroad), the perennial strikes, the riots and the problems of cultism, the unbridled interference of government and the crisis of confidence. Those less charitable even concluded that we were going to turn out as half-baked graduates. But is any form of baking taking place today on the campuses of Nigeria’s public universities?

Looking back, graduates of my generation must be grinning and I think they have every reason to count themselves lucky. In the midst of all the challenges in the universities of the 1980s and early 1990s, I think we were actually in a dreamland considering today’s incongruities and contradictions.

As a matter of fact, we met so many good things, though some were already relics but they had positive impact on us. For instance, the halls of residence allowed for only three occupants in a standard room, the cafeteria system also ran marginally, so food was relatively available and affordable. For those who detested public food, the university had kitchenettes attached to every room for the convenience of those who wanted to cook their meals. I remember we had many foreign students and lecturers who added value to learning with their unique insights and perspectives. There were also libraries at the faculty level and even in the departments, this is in addition to various teaching aids. I still remember my first day in our language laboratory. I was overwhelmed by different gadgets, the instruction and the remarkably cold studio.

By far the most profound and rewarding part of my university education was the quality of our teachers, this is in addition to the pop star image of some of them who were already national and international icons, long before we became their students. ‘Zulu Sofola, the renowned playwright, professor of theatre arts and head of our department had the utmost influence on most of us.

I hasten to add that Sofola’s native town, Issele-Uku, is a community in Aniocha/Oshimili Federal Constituency in Delta State. Recently, a friend drew my attention to daughters of this constituency who, at one period or the other, also played leading roles on the world stage. The ones that readily come to mind are Buchi Emecheta, celebrated author of more than 20 books, including The Joys of Motherhood, The Slave Girl, Second Class Citizen and The Bride Price; Professor Tess Onwueme, another playwright, scholar and poet who is respected globally for her plays with themes of social justice, culture and the environment; Patti Boulaye, popular British-Nigerian performer, author and publicist; Rosemary Anieze-Adams, actress and Miss Nigeria 1960/Miss Independence and Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, economist, international development expert, former Managing Director of the World Bank and Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance.

Aside being the first published female Nigerian playwright , Sofola was also Africa’s first Professor of Theatre Arts. I recall, her larger than life image, occasionally distracted us in class because long before our arrival on campus, we had read and heard so much about her, though some of the stories were mythic.
But many of us had read some of her seminal and popular plays like The Disturbed Peace of Christmas, Wedlock of the Gods, The Operators, King Emene: Tragedy of a Rebellion, The Wizard of Law, The Sweet Trap , Old Wines Are Tasty and Memories in the Moonlight.

We are also lucky to have met Professor David Cook, the British academic, literary critic and anthologist who opened our eyes to the possibilities of literature. I first met Professor Cook in a public library in Asaba, Delta State while preparing for JAMB examination. The meeting, however, was in a journal he edited at Makerere University, Uganda with his student and well-known African novelist and playwright, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It was indeed, a rare privilege to be instructed by Ngugi’s teacher; so we actually treasured every moment of our undergraduate days.

Professor Cook was the first person who introduced me to South Africa’s unusual literature, anchored on the pervasive evil of apartheid through works like A Walk in the Night by Alex la Guma, an anti-apartheid activist and author. Cook, I must say, aided our appreciation of racism, social conflict and white supremacy which are the main themes of this collection of short stories by Guma. I also remember how this respected British scholar and anthologist recreated the novel, Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams , essentially to also assist us in understanding the problems and struggles of black South African miners who suffered all kinds of indignities during the apartheid era.
But another major surprise also awaited me at the Department of Modern European Languages. Sam Adewoye, another academic and writer I had encountered in my junior secondary school in his novel, The Betrayer, published by Pacesetter Series, eventually turned out to be my lecturer.

There was also Professor Akanji Nasiru, the unselfish scholar, author of Come Let Us Reason Together and Sofola’s successor who taught creative writing with style. He exposed us to American literature with the works of Langston Hughes, the inimitable Pan-Africanist, poet, playwright and popular columnist who wrote for Chicago Defender and John H. Johnson’s Ebony Magazine. Nasiru also familiarized us with the work of another American playwright, Arthur Miller who defends and advances the frontiers of a new kind of theatre with his work, Death of a Salesman, a play that deals fundamentally with the issue of tragedy and the common man. Death of a Salesman is not just a serious and pragmatic drama, it is also a fatal blow on the illusion of the American dream.

There were also other great teachers like Professors Segun Oyewo, Raphael Akamidu, Efrosibina Adebija, Mary Tinuoye, Bode Omojola, Ayo Akinwale, Bayo Ogunjimi, the mercurial literature teacher and others who polished our rough edges.

Learning was entertaining and interesting, I must confess. We all looked forward to the unique daily erudition sessions with our cerebral and superstar teachers and scholars who simplified education. This is what today’s leaders have denied young people. Sadly, many of these same youths who should be angry, are on social media, defending those who stole their future.

I think we must give some thought to Mandela’s views on education. I am certain that if we fail to pay attention to the fundamental issues raised by this great Pan-Africanist on education and its latent problem-solving character, then we should all be prepared for a very long night.

-Sylvester Asoya is a journalist, formerly of TheNEWS

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