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Today’s national wealth a solution to tomorrow’s poverty

August 26, 2009

Image removed.Address to the Samuel Odunaike foundation dinner by AYO OBE at the Sheraton hotel & towers, Ikeja, Lagos on August 18th  2009

I must confess that when I saw the topic for tonight’s lecture, I was rather baffled.  It seemed to contain both a lie and a curse.  The lie was the suggestion that there exists any ‘National Wealth’ in Nigeria Today, while the curse was the implication that what is in store for Nigeria Tomorrow is Poverty!  In fact, I almost contacted the organisers to ask whether there hadn’t been a mistake, and would they correct it so that I might get started on the paper.

But on second thoughts I saw that there were so many ways that the topic could be interpreted.

There is indeed a great deal of wealth in Nigeria today.  Nigeria’s tragedy is that she is a rich nation full of poor people.  For the most part, our wealth is either untapped wealth, or squandered wealth.  We remain a nation of great potential, but it is unrealised potential.

At the top of the list, if only because it contributes so very much to our national income, comes Oil.  We are rich in oil, but tomorrow it will be gone, either because it will actually run out, or because the world – fearful of the effects of global warming – will learn to use a great deal less of it.  And not only will it be gone, but if we go by what is happening in our country now, the oil will be gone having taught some of us the habit of wealth without work, and left many of the rest of us with the corrosive desire to achieve wealth without work.  We should remember that Mahatma Gandhi identified ‘wealth without work’ as one of the seven social evils.

The way we are going now, rather than the oil that we have trained ourselves to see as our national wealth being the solution to tomorrow’s poverty, it will instead be the cause of tomorrow’s poverty.

The struggle to control that national ‘wealth’ is what has bequeathed to us the cut-throat, ‘do-or-die’ battle that passes for electoral contest in Nigeria because everybody, from the President down, believes that if you can just get your feet under the table where the national cake is being shared, your future - your material future at any rate – is assured.  The result is that in large part, we are ruled by electoral usurpers for whom the well-being of the people they are supposed to be representing or governing is a third, or fourth, or fifth consideration.

That it is why it is more important to award a road contract than to build a proper or durable road.  The only variation on this particular theme will be when road users can be forced to pay the person with government’s ear who has been given the monopoly of a toll road.  (I use the word ‘monopoly’ advisedly because contrary to the practice in other parts of the world where there is generally a free alternative to the toll road, in Nigeria such considerations are irrelevant to our rulers.  For example, only a very unrepresentative and for that matter, unserious and uncaring, government can seriously suggest that a viable alternative to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway is the Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan road.)

It is because of the struggle to control the national cake that so much wealth must be amassed from the share that you control today so that you can assure yourself of access to a share tomorrow.  As a result, government is all about patronage, and the share that you as patron will get back for future political battles from supporters or even from competent contractors.  (Although the competent contractor is more likely to be engaged by the government supporter than to have direct access through a free and fair bidding or tendering process.)

This is why the substantive is so completely overshadowed by the ephemeral.  And even what appears to be substantial is only a façade.  Take for example, a government – at any level – local, state or federal – that builds an educational establishment (because that can be easily seen, and the building can be named for self-glorification), but considers the provision of well-trained educators and educational materials to put inside those buildings (and actually educate the students!) to be at best an optional extra, and at worst, yet another avenue for the political patronage that was not exhausted when the building was being awarded.  (Ask yourself: How transparent is the process by which text books are selected for standard curricula?  What is the quality of some of those text books?)

This leads me to what I consider to be our true national wealth, and how perhaps the biggest problem with the oil that we erroneously see as our national wealth, wealth which produces an income that impoverishes us on every front – economic, social, emotional and moral – is that it prevents us from recognising our true national wealth, and investing in it so that we will be able to banish the poverty that threatens to engulf us tomorrow.

Of course our greatest national wealth, yesterday, today and tomorrow, ought to be our people.  The question is: are we investing in ourselves as people today, so that we can produce sustainable wealth tomorrow?

Three nights ago, you may be surprised to learn that I was in this very same room.  It was a Saturday night, and the occasion was the closing celebration dinner of the 18th African Human Rights Moot Court Competition.  Students from 73 universities all across the continent took part in a competition that went out of its way to ensure that language barriers were minimised, so that there were prizes for Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone universities, and the final of the competition (of which I was one of the judges) featured an oralist from each language group on each of the two opposing teams.  Need I dwell on how none of the finalists making presentations came from a Nigerian university?  How very few Nigerian universities featured in the lists of ten best Anglophones, whether individually or as teams?  Only in the drama presentation did we make any decent showing although even here, there was no first prize.

And how could it be otherwise?  If you look at the World University rankings, you will find that the highest placed Nigerian University is the University of Benin, which ranks 6,602.  The next two Nigerian universities, the University of Ilorin and Obafemi Awolowo University rank 7,902 and 7,942 respectively.  The nation’s premier University at Ibadan is 8,034, while the host, Lagos, was 8,871.

Of course, we can quarrel with ranking systems.  We can argue that individual courses are what count.  We can go on deceiving ourselves.  Because frankly, those kind of numbers are not even worth disputing or quarrelling with.  You argue when you are in the first 500 or the first 1,000.  But what kind of magic will catapult a university from 6,000th to 1,000th?

I don’t even want to dwell on the shabbiness of what is supposed to be one of our leading universities, or the interruptions to the power supply that the students from all over Africa, can only have become used to because they would by the time of the final, have spent a full week in Nigeria.  (The kind of power cuts that we experience as normal here are simply unknown in most other African countries, including those much poorer than us.)  The reality is that increasingly, when our students are exposed to the standards of the outside world, they fall short.  Yes, we still have many excellent products who go abroad to secure educational laurels.  But these succeed almost in spite of what happens to them in our educational institutions, not because of it.  And on the other side of the picture, there are more and more heartbreaking stories of Nigerian graduates who seek further qualifications abroad but have to return with a diploma instead of the undergraduate or even post-graduate degrees that they had hoped for, either because they were never university material in the first place, or because what they have gone through in our own universities has warped, atrophied or destroyed their capacity to learn.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have our primary schools.  Two days before the Moot Competition dinner, I had spent the afternoon at a meeting of the board of trustees of the Z.O. Dibiaezue Memorial Libraries.  Apart from the public library at Awolowo Road, the ZODML carries out projects whose goal is to bring the reading culture to children in State schools.  Our first such project – the CATHY (Catch Them Young) – started off by bringing ten students from a private school and ten from a state school to meet a children’s author whose book they would have read in advance.  Thereafter, they become library members.  Because the need in state schools was so great, we had to drop private schools and concentrate on state schools.  This eventually led to the Oasis project – equipping a classroom as a library – bright, clean & pleasant (adjectives which do NOT describe the atmosphere of most public schools) so that more children could have access to books.  When our consultant went to the Oases to see how they were doing, we discovered that popular as the libraries were, a large number of the children, who were in Primary 5 and Primary 6, and about to be pushed on to enter secondary school, could use only the picture books.  Because they could not read.

And if one considers the numbers in state schools, the huge size of the classes, and the dilapidated facilities (bring your own desk or share one), one should not be surprised that primary school teachers can only educate the children who can keep up under their own steam, and those who cannot, simply fall by the wayside.  One can hardly wonder that alarmed parents prefer to put their wards and children into the hands of private educational institutions.  Nor is it surprising that some of these have to engage in dubious and unscrupulous practices to ensure that their products obtain the necessary pieces of paper that will enable them to progress to the next stage of the educational process.  In today’s Nigeria, many illiterate or semi-educated parents, desperate to do their best for their children, hardly understand that the payment demanded by some teachers and/or examination authorities for advance copies of questions, or for ‘answers’, are not a standard or even legitimate requirement, so deep has the rot gone.

Ours is an educational ‘system’ that has abandoned the substance for the ephemeral in a truly tragic way.  An educational ‘system’ (if that is the word) where the possession of a certificate is more important than the content of the education that it is supposed to represent.

This is no way to prepare for our future, certainly not a future that will depend on the products of this system to generate wealth for the nation tomorrow.  It may suit an uncaring political class, or those whose own children can be educated privately or abroad.  The members of the political class who have emerged as our rulers, being themselves the possessors of certificates of ‘victory’ that do not represent actual votes cast will need to engage in a great deal of double-think to be able to understand the dangers of certificates of ‘education’ that do not represent actual educational attainment.  Yet they must.

For one would need to be extremely short-sighted to feel comfortable with what has happened to our educational sector.  It was such short-sightedness that led the rulers (both military and civilian) of yesteryear to imagine that the destruction of student unionism (through a combination of fostering cultism and corrupting student leaders with government patronage) would allow them to have political peace in the universities.  The result of that has been to leave the Academic Staff Union of Universities to fight the educational standards battle alone, and the current decline in our once proud and once sought-after universities is a testimony to what happens when a man is asked to fight on only one leg with one hand tied behind his back.

Only short-sightedness would welcome the maintenance of a system where the products of even a university education are so bad that only patronage can secure jobs for them.  (The French graduates who cannot even speak the language, the Accounting graduates who do not know what double-entry book-keeping is, can still find their way into employment in our public sector if they have the right godfathers.)  But that is a short-sightedness that is irresponsible.  For myself, I prefer to emphasize the benefits of enlightened self-interest.

I think that it was Lord Rothermere who, describing the British press, referred to ‘power without responsibility – the privilege of the harlot throughout the ages’.  If we are to assist Nigerian politicians away from their current trajectory which appears to be taking them down the same road of being in power with no responsibility to those under their rule, we must ensure that they do more than pay lip service to ‘education’, what it means, what its purpose is and what it consists of.  This goes well beyond the current showdown between ASUU and the Federal Government.  However, the devils in this problem are not all on one side, and despite its struggle for better standards in our universities, ASUU must ask about the part played by its own members in the conduct of the Universal Matriculation Examinations that still manage to allow unqualified students into universities, or what standards are applied by its own members who mark the papers on the basis of which degrees are awarded to those who cannot legitimately pass even ‘O’ level examinations.  Those who want to maintain standards must have the support of their union.  A lecturer should feel confident about refusing to have someone who did not pass the UME or obtain the required Joint Admissions & Matriculation Board score in their class, or about marking papers and exams to internationally recognised standards.

The solution does not lie simply in throwing money at the problem, nor is it only in the hands of the Federal Government and ASUU.  It extends to all levels of government: local and state as well as federal.  Definitely teachers, lecturers and educators need to be properly paid so that quality people are attracted to the profession, so that those with the dedication and vocation are not forced to suppress it in favour of seeking better paid employment, and so that those who do enter or remain in the profession are better able to resist the corrosive effects of bribery on the educational sector.  But bad habits have also to be unlearned.  By everybody.  Exams need to be more rigorously policed, but those who stand against malpractices need the support of not just their unions, but the wider society, and this includes religious bodies and other sectors of organised civil society.

Our greatest national wealth ought to be ourselves.  The people of Nigeria.  But we must invest in ourselves.  This requires that we put in the work and the effort ourselves.  Heaven helps those who help themselves.  So we need to stop deceiving ourselves that some deus ex machina or divine providence is going to appear and save us from the consequences of our retreat from responsibility.


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