Nigerian Higher Education at a Crossroads

Professor Ebenezer Obadare

By Ebenezer Obadare


With the most recent negotiations between representatives of the Nigerian Federal Government and representatives of the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (ASUU) having ended in a stalemate, all bets are off as to the likely outcome of a strike action by the academics that has been in force since February. This is the union’s second strike in as many years, the previous strike in 2020 having lasted for nine months. Since the inauguration of the Nigerian Fourth Republic in 1999, ASUU has gone on strike sixteen times for an aggregate total of 1,404 days.

Within that period, the union’s list of demands has hardly changed—increased funding for tertiary education as a share of the national budget, university “autonomy,” renovation of decayed infrastructure across the country’s public university system, and “competitive salaries” for university professors. In Nigeria, the average monthly salary of a full professor is less than one thousand dollars.

On the whole, the public has been in broad sympathy with ASUU, consistently taking its side against a government that is perceived to be mischievous at best and reckless at worst. The support, combined with moral pressure on the Nigerian federal government, is often crucial in tipping the scale in favor of the union. Solidarity with ASUU has not occurred in a vacuum, predicated on a social consensus on the value of education as a public good that is imperative for the state to oversee and deliver.

Against this backdrop, the undeniable shift in public attitude towards ASUU and its demands constitutes one of the more remarkable aspects of the current strike. Whereas previously ASUU could snipe at the federal government from the security and comfort of public approbation, for the first time in a generation, the union looks ideologically vulnerable and at real risk of being routed in the battleground of ideas.

The reason for ASUU’s vulnerability is that it does not seem to have good answers to some of the questions that critics have directed at it, making it look more and more like a relic from a not too distant past when the state alone was supposed to foot the bill for education. For instance, why, in a federal system, should states have to honor an agreement that they were not party to? How can ASUU insist on “autonomy” from the state and at the same time maintain that the federal government pick up the tab for the running of the universities? Why should university faculty spread across thirty-six states be paid the same salaries even though they teach different things and live and work in different social circumstances? And why should a single union be the one to negotiate on their behalf? In other words, should ASUU exist?

Finally, why, its critics ask, is ASUU, reliably vociferous about official corruption, curiously heedless of the rot within the system? A 2018 report by the Lagos-based Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) described Nigeria’s federal universities as “a cesspool of corruption,” riddled with such malpractices as “unfair allocation of grades; contract inflation; truncation of staff’s salary on the payroll; employment of unqualified staff; certificate scandal… sexual harassment; and issuance of result for expelled students to graduate.”

ASUU’s stuttering response to the foregoing questions is one reason why public support for its latest strike has been eroding. But there are other important sociological factors at work as well. First, unlike when ASUU’s power was arguably at its apogee in the 1970s and 80s, Nigeria now has a two-tier tertiary system comprising public universities which are poorly resourced and their private counterparts which, while often only marginally better, can at least be relied upon to maintain a reliable calendar. The level of distrust in public universities is such that even professors who teach and earn their living there prefer to send their children to private universities. Since ASUU has no sway over the private universities, it is alienated from members of the elite who in turn are disconnected from the reality in the public system.

For the very rich, education for their children means college abroad, preferably in Europe and North America, failing which, other African countries. An estimated 75,000 Nigerian students currently attend universities across Ghana, contributing over one billion annually to the Ghanaian economy. Early this month, Nigerian newspapers published photographs of President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, and numerous state governors celebrating their children’s graduation from various foreign universities. According to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), between 2010 and 2020, Nigerians spent a whopping $28.65 billion on foreign college education. Most Nigerians agree that ASUU would have been treated differently if the children of the elite pursued their university education in Nigeria.

ASUU is also a victim of the transformation in public perception of the universities, instigated by their military-assisted devitalization and consequent surrender of their role as champions of reasoned debate. As I argue in my forthcoming book, as Pentecostalism has strengthened its grip on the Nigerian mind over the course of the Fourth Republic, the public has idolized an assortment of seers, prophets, and revelation-mongers. At the center of this throng is the ubiquitous Pentecostal pastor, who, having assumed the social status once enjoyed by the Nigerian university professor, currently commands a level of cultural prestige that no professor could have imagined possible when the universities were at their peak influence in the 1970s. Thus, when ASUU is not defending aspects of its core demands, it is fending off attacks against the corporate reputation and social utility of the professoriate. A union with a shaky raison d’être, but which might have convinced had it been more strategic, has suddenly become the bête noire of various groups across the Nigerian state.

Where does all this leave the impasse with the federal government? It seems unlikely, but it is not inconceivable that the strike will continue for the foreseeable future, perhaps until the presidential election in February next year. Already neck-deep in debt (currently, the cost of debt servicing exceeds its retained revenue), the government has warned that it will not borrow more to meet ASUU’s demands.

No matter how the crisis is resolved, it is abundantly clear that Nigerian higher education confronts challenges that transcend the ASUU strike. In the short term, the impasse will further stimulate more Nigerian professors and students to look for opportunities outside the country. Between June and July of this year alone, the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom reportedly licensed at least 266 Nigerian doctors.

First in 1986, and again in 1999, Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka called for the closure of Nigerian universities “for between one and two years to enable the authorities to address the many problems facing tertiary institutions in the country.” Today, even those who attacked his proposal at the time as too radical now take his basic point that the system requires an infusion of new ideas to rejuvenate it. It is difficult to see the system surviving for long without that urgently needed restoration.

*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This article was originally published by the CFR as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy: