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The Question of Human Capital By Sonala Olumhense

This week in New York, my daughter, Eseosa, will become the first of my four children to earn a higher degree.  It will be a proud moment for my family, but particularly for me.  

Why?  It is 35 years since I abandoned my quest to earn a Masters degree in Mass Communication at the University of Lagos.  After one full year, I could not justify the quest.

Thirteen of us had overcome a qualifying exam of over 250 people to get into the program.  Upon arrival, I was surprised to find how poorly organized the department was.  In the Print Media sequence in which I was engaged, only two courses were in any way challenging.  

In addition, not only were some lecturers often engaged in fighting, it was difficult to believe that a couple of them were products of a journalism program in the first place.  

For instance, one of those teachers, who claimed to have done graduate studies in the United States, taught the same “class” over and over for an entire semester, something about four categories of Nigerian journalists.  To his weekly three-hour class, in which there were students with many years of professional experience, he often arrived late and left early.  

When he appeared to be running late again for the first class of the second semester, the class resolved to end the charade.  We found him sitting in his office, where it was our surprise he was surprised to hear our mission.  

Didn’t we know, he asked us, that the course was over?  Just like that.  No substance, no concluding test, no grades. 

That was not my idea of graduate school, I told myself, and I didn’t want such a teacher on my conscience or on my resume.  If I wanted a postgraduate degree I could strike my chest about, I thought, I needed to go somewhere else.  

Footnote: a few years later, I learned with great grief that the “four categories” professor had somehow become the Head of Department.  Given the pace with which incompetence and mismanagement had continued to punt afar Nigeria’s better talent while making a temple of sewage dumps, that should not have been surprising.  

This week, Ese will be one of the thousands of Nigerian children in the US laying their hands on undergraduate and graduate degrees, and sometimes, even jobs.  Each year, those of them who were born in the United States have direct access to the opportunities of a strong educational ethos, even if it leaves them swimming in a river of student loans.  

For the others, it is a case of the cow going through the eye of the needle, as they must labor through complicated immigration and financial requirements to get into available academic or professional programmes.  

Given those odds, it is a marvel that so many Nigerian students register in American and other foreign institutions every year.  Some of them are fighting through a variety of doors closed to them at home to knock on others which are at least manned, abroad.  

Next month, for instance, 101 young Nigerians, part of a 1000-strong African contingent, will head to the US to participate in the 2017 Mandela Washington Fellowship program.  Over 22,000 Nigerians had applied.  In 2016, 100 Nigerians were chosen out of 10,000 applicants; and in 2015, 40 out of 7,000.

In comparison, there is an average of 20 from 48 other African countries who will participate in the program, in which 40 universities which will engage them in public management, business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership, and energy.

It is disquieting to consider what might have happened had the US simply asked the Nigerian government to nominate 101 Nigerians in a country in which, almost every time information leaks about government hiring, the process is found to have been manipulated.  

Last month, for instance, the State Security Service (SSS) was unmasked as having gerrymandered its 2016 recruitment to favor the North.  Worse still, more people—51—were scandalously employed from Katsina, the home state of President Muhammadu Buhari and of Lawal Daura, the Director-General of the SSS, than from the South-east states combined. 

Nobody apologized.  Nobody voided the appointments.

In March 2016, the Central Bank of Nigeria was similarly exposed for secretly recruiting children and relatives of politically-powerful Nigerians without advertising the positions as required by law.  The beneficiaries included a nephew of President Buhari; a daughter of then Inspector-General of Police, Solomon Arase; a daughter of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar; a son of the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Ibe Kachikwu; a daughter of a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ghali Na’aba, and a son of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Abdulrahman Danbazzau.

Nobody apologized.  Nobody voided the appointments.

Against that background, we may also remember that in 2014, at least 16 people were killed in stampedes for government jobs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  Over 500,000 jobless persons, from whom the insensitive government had illegally collected millions of Naira, were invited to contest for fewer than 5,000 positions in open stadia with limited capacity.

Speaking of opportunities, last Sunday President Buhari returned to England to resume the medical vacation he did not complete last March.  While most Nigerians wish him well, the irony is that this continues the tradition of entitlement and lack of transparency for which he had criticized his predecessors, and which continues to deny the Nigerian child equality opportunity.

Apparently, the same tradition extends to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo.  It turns out that while Mr. Buhari wrote to the Senate as prescribed by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria about his intention to return to sampling the medical delights of another country, he only wanted Mr. Osinbajo to serve in his absence as Coordinator, rather than as Acting President.  

After it became public knowledge that Mr. Buhari had made a mistake, to put it delicately, another story emerged: that he was guilty only of having failed to read the letter he signed.

That letter, for those who did not see it, comprised two paragraphs of four sentences and 72 words.  The truth is that no excuse is good enough for a political elite which is impermeable to change, unwilling to sacrifice and incapable of leading by a good example.  

This is the ailment that is keeping Nigeria sick in bed.  This is the ailment that is chasing our best away and into the hands and lands of others.  This is the ailment that is keeping our streets overflowing with an army of the unemployed, handcuffing the employed, and making those trained abroad unwilling to return home.  

While Nigeria continues to seek foreign loans, what it needs most is the heart to acknowledge its lavish gift of human capital, and to establish a policy to harness it.

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense