“If they ranked all the presidents or governments in the world, which position will [Yar’Adua] be?”

This question was filed, one month ago, by Dr. Kehinde Kester, who is a lecturer at the University of Ibadan (UI).  It is probably the most important question asked by a Nigerian in 2008.  I do not believe it was answered. 

That is probably because it is also the one question that every Nigerian, including two named Umaru Yar’Adua and Olusegun Obasanjo, knows the answer to.  We know that to find Yar’Adua on such a ranking, we would have to look at the bottom.  That is how badly he has fared in his first two years.  

Dr. Kester must have asked the question in some anger.  President Yar’Adua, speaking at the convocation ceremony of the nation’s oldest university, had just told the world that in his estimation, the university does even place favourably among its elite institutions.  

Strictly speaking, Yar’Adua was right. Sadly.  

But Yar’Adua was not in the famous city of Ibadan to accept responsibility for UI’s fall from grace.  Nor was he present to commit himself to the task of lifting it back to pre-eminence.  

He was not in Ibadan, period.  As is often the case, Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s first university-trained leader had sent someone to throw his stones for him.  And he did it without grace; he sounded like a student of Ahmadu Bello University taunting a student of UI.  He did it without the sense of responsibility necessary to turn things around. 

The truth is that the issue is hardly the University of Ibadan.  The issue is the collapse of values in our country.  It is of this collapse that education in our country is a consequence.  UI comes in for the cheap attacks because it is our oldest and most recognizable institution.    

To begin with, Nigerian leaders (a term I use broadly, to include those who rule, those who fool, and those that drool after wealth) no longer have much commitment to our education.  While most people understand that education is the foundation of any advancement, few think about it within the context of Nigeria.  We would rather steal the money so we can send our children abroad— including Ghana—to get a good education.  

Take Yar’Adua himself.  If he wanted to make a strong statement on behalf of education, particularly university education, there was no better place that the convocation of the University of Ibadan.  

But what did he do?  He sent a Minister of State—who may not have been good enough for UI in its prime—to tell the university community not how he is preparing to fortify Nigerian universities to enable them assume their full role in development, but to insult them.  And this insult from a man who has difficulty remembering to appoint boards or governing councils of federal institutions.  Is that an act of leadership?  

The recent story of Nigeria’s educational sector is summarized by Olusegun Obasanjo’s Bells University.  Anywhere else, including Ghana, leaders would be embarrassed to admit thoughts of betrayal of office, but not in Nigeria.  He could not identify any contradiction in setting up private businesses to compete with the public ones in his care.

Obasanjo was preceded by a variety of soldier-leaders who had similar priorities: making themselves rich, easy women, and partying.  It is widely-known that some of our military leaders joined the army as young men because it was thought to require no application of the intellect.  Their lack of interest in university education, and unending efforts to destroy its proponents such as the Academic Staff Union of Universities are well documented.  

As a civilian and university product, Yar’Adua was expected to break with that attitude.  The problem seems to be that he has a serious identity crisis.  He succeeds this motley army of leaders and seems uncertain he should not be one of them.  Education is the one thing that separates him from them, but I am not sure he knows what that ought to mean.  

It ought to mean that he demonstrates great respect for education.  That should begin with resisting the easy temptation to attack our institutions.  Instead, he should be leading the cheering for them; thoroughly analyzing what went wrong, and coordinating their renaissance within a broader educational framework.

If Yar’Adua respects education, it will show in his response to the difficulties they face in infrastructure, funding and staffing.  It will show in his acknowledgement of its stars--students, researchers, and staff.  While his recent National Honours list was full of all kinds of men, I do not remember anyone who was being celebrated for exemplary achievements in, or contribution to education.    

Next time President Yar’Adua is tempted to embark on the kind of misadventure he undertook in Ibadan, I urge him to try the mirror trick first.  If he stands before a mirror, he will see a man who came to office on the basis of an election that was rigged from front to back.  He will see a man surrounded by questionable men and women.  He will a see a man standing beside policies framed in vacuous magical colours of smoke and mirrors.  The mirror trick is a little disconcerting at first, but in an atmosphere of humility, it prevents foot-in-mouth infections, and attracts respect.  

Let me be clear.  While the failures of the University of Ibadan are principally traceable to the neglect and arrogance of the federal authorities, others must be placed at the foot of the management of the institution itself, and its graduates.  

The University of Ibadan has produced thousands of graduates for nearly half a century.  Most of them simply grabbed their certificates and vanished.  While every Nigerian is a great critic, it is often difficult to find enough people willing to come out and do the gardening.  That task is to spend that love that every institution and community needs if it is to flourish.  If you are one of runaways, Great Uite, shame on you.  If they ranked all the Greats, where would you be?

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