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The Great Example of Ahmadu Bello University By Pius Adesanmi

No thanks to one of her most disgraceful and shameful products, Senator Dino Melaye, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, has had a lot of negative press lately. You are never going to get good press when you have somebody as unworthy in character and learning as Dino Melaye strutting across the national landscape, claiming to have been your product.

Dino-gate occasioned a national scramble for falsehood among the alumni of our various Universities. Whereas those of us who have spent our entire adult lives crisscrossing Universities on every continent have a full grasp of the tragedy of higher education in Africa, especially in Nigeria, it was depressing to see alumni of Nigeria’s first and second-generation Universities frolicking in a fool’s paradise of superiority. 

Unilag is greater than Kogi State University, UI is better than Ekiti State University, OAU is greater than Abia State University, Nsukka is the greatest, ABU is supreme and all that jazz. Serious stakeholders working for improvement in African and Nigerian higher education understand fully well that this is nonsense; that conditions are so uniformly bad, so uniformly underdeveloped, so uniformly backward as to render any claims of difference or distinction pretty much useless.

It against this backdrop that I offered my reality check for ABU and other Nigerian Universities – using something as basic as their 17th-century web presence as a window into the broader tragedy of higher education in Nigeria. 

As might be expected, the essay jolted many in the University system in Nigeria. Backchannel reactions from many University leaders have ranged from outright hostility (Pius, who are you to talk like that; you are in the diaspora; you think you know better than us?) to mild tolerance (from some Vice-Chancellors I got, “Pius, thank you for your essay, we shall look into it).

In at least one instance, I even got not hostility, not mild tolerance but something like: what has a website got to do with standards in a University? Mind-boggling, isn’t it? Then, this morning, I got this inbox message direct from ABU:

“Yesterday we had a meeting in ABU and somehow your name came up. It was about online presence and the quality of the ABU website. The VC and some principal officers flagged your recent diatribe and decided to take action. Right now the Institute of Computer and Information and Communication Technology is coordinating with departmental ICT officers and faculty webmasters to improve the content and quality of ABU website. There is also a mandate to step up the use of ICT teaching and learning tools. It is true that the current VC has a vision, and is conscientious enough to have picked up the positives from the whole incidence and is charged for a serious introspection. In case you decide to write about this, please let me remain anonymous. Thank you. Kudos for pushing us to reflect.”

There are lessons to be learnt and heavy conclusions to be drawn from ABU’s handling of this matter. Conventional wisdom in Nigeria holds that the rot in our Universities is a reflection of the rot in the larger Nigerian society. This, of course, is untrue. It is actually the other way round. 

The rot in Nigerian society is a reflection of the rot in our Universities. The historical function of the academy and other repositories of knowledge is to lead society to light and civilization. A society cannot rise above the mores, ethos, practices, and cultures of its spaces and sites of knowledge production.

One reason why the spaces of knowledge production – the academy in this case – have the mandate to set the pace for society’s advancement is that they are grounded in philosophical practices of query, inquiry, questioning, critique, and revision. 

All protocols of scientific and humanistic knowledge production are subject to the procedures of constant critique and revision. That is the fundamental ethos of communities of knowledge. That is the basis on which is established their mandate to hold the light for and lead society. In the University, we engage, we critique, we criticize, we scrutinize, we unpack, we deconstruct, we query, we reject, and we revise. We ask you to rework and resubmit. This is the informing spirit of higher education. This is the DNA of the University.

In the years after independence, the academy in Africa began to lose her way by acquiring cultures of hostility to critique and engagement. I do not want to go into a detailed history here but the coarsening of University culture is evident in the hostility to critique in every sphere of campus life. Lecturers became tin gods whose lectures cannot be critically engaged, queried, and scrutinized by students. 

My students here are co-producers of knowledge in a mutually respectful relationship in which I am the supervisor but their freedom to query, challenge, engage, and scrutinize me respectfully in class is critical to the knowledge process. I exchange summer reading lists with my students. Professor, I discovered this newly published book while studying for your midterm. I think you should read it if you have not already done so. And I would thank such an undergraduate student for the recommendation.

When I travel across Universities in Africa, I encounter students who literally freeze in the presence of their lecturers. This is especially true of Nigeria. Maybe this is a carryover from the gerontocratic bases of our cultures. Who are you to ask questions? How dare you criticize? 

This coarsening of the University culture is not peculiar to the student-teacher relationship. It is actually worse in the teaching and administrative ranks. Junior lecturers freeze in the presence of senior lecturers and Professors. How dare you critique your HOD? How dare you engage the Dean? A whole Dean fa? See this small Assistant Lecturer that we hired yesterday. He says he has better ideas than the Deputy Vice Chancellor. Nonsense. How many junior lecturers have been doomed on the promotion front because they dared to engage a senior Professor in authority in our system? 

In this atmosphere, the Vice Chancellor and his various committees and principal officers are tin gods and orishas who may not be challenged, queried, critiqued, and engaged. 

With our Universities being this way, are you surprised by the attitude of our President, Ministers, Senators, Reps, Governors, political appointees, and practically anybody in any position to criticism, query, and engagement? The ethos of the larger society devolve from the ethos of the inhabitants of her spaces of knowledge.

This explains Nigeria’s sorry attitude to criticism, engagement, and revision. This explains why we have a society that has only room for praise singing and deification. This explains why we have had two successive theocracies in recent years. 

Goodluck Jonathan was the deific figure in a theocracy in small letters. His followers, sorry, devotees, classified any critique, any engagement, as hate. Only an unrepressed choral deification of their god was allowed. They were abused and excoriated by President Buhari’s supporters. 

Little did we know that an unhealthy majority of that Buhari core was only waiting to replace one god in small letters with their own God in capital letters. The theocracy of Goodluck Jonathan in small letters has now effectively been replaced with the Theocracy of President Buhari in capital letters. Every criticism, every engagement, every suggestion of revision is classified as hate and wailing by his supporters – many of them are products of our Universities and are thus strangers to critique.

This culture of hostility to critique applies to every office holder in Nigeria. Using political aides, recruited supporters, and hangers-on, they seek to manufacture a society of consent where critique is unwelcome and criticism is demonized. They send the dogs out to wail that you must offer “constructive criticism” as if any criticism that is not praise singing would ever meet their woolly-headed and ill-defined standards for constructive criticism. Nigeria is what happens when a society declares criticism and revision a mortal enemy.

It is against his background that the action of the Vice-Chancellor of ABU and his principal officers must be commended and celebrated. I see in it a thorough grasp of the mission of the University: we critique and we revise in order to improve. This is how a University should lead and set the pace for society. 

When next the spokespersons of President Buhari, of your state Governor, of your Senator invade your space on social media with their trademark calls for “constructive criticism” (code word for consent and praise singing), show them the example of Ahmadu Bello University. Tell them that the Vice Chancellor of ABU has the resources to unleash hounds on social media to scream about how great ABU is and to shout down criticism. Instead, he elected fidelity to one of the fundamental ethos of the academy: revision after appraisal of issues.

The case of ABU is an example to all Vice Chancellors and heads of our Polytechnics and Colleges of Education in Nigeria. The change that is being mouthed by politicians cannot happen in society unless it happens first in our spaces of knowledge production for it is our historical mission to be the light of society. It is our obligation to transform our campuses to spaces of change and example. It is our duty to think it, to philosophize it, and most importantly, to be it. It is from within our ranks that it will radiate to society.

To the Vice Chancellor of ABU I say: keep at it, dear colleague. However, I am sure you understand that staying power is key to sustaining one’s vision in advanced societies, let alone in a discouraging context like Nigeria. If you form committees to bring the ABU website into the 21st century and you do not stay on top of things, you know what will happen. 

Also, global best practices is an imitative process. Yesterday, I was in my office when an inspection team arrived from the Dean’s office. They said they had come to perform workplace safety check in my office. Some books were not properly stacked in a shelf above my head. They marked that spot as a safety hazard. An edge of my office carpet had come undone from the floor and was slightly raised, they marked that spot as a safety hazard. One of my guest chairs was arranged in an awkward position relative to the door, they marked the chair as a safety hazard.

I asked them what all the fuss was about. Their reply had me thinking and gnashing my teeth about Nigeria. They said it was their duty as my employer to ensure my safety at work so that I can continue to give the best to my students. If a book fell out of my office shelf and hit my head, if I tripped on the carpet or I bumped into a chair and fell in my office, it could lead to workplace injuries for which they would be liable. I would also not be able to teach. 

So, once a semester, they go around every office on campus to ensure that all Ontario standard safety codes are met. They must ensure that my own office is safe for me by inspecting it every semester. Before they left, they rearranged the book, glued the edge of my carpet to the floor, and indicated where I should reposition the guest chair.

They used to do the checks once a year they told me. Till they heard that one University was doing it every semester…

Global best practices – that is an imitative process.