Tertiary institutions and contemporary societal realities


By Andrew Erakhrumen

In an earlier intervention, we categorically stated that “…..we will be insincere with ourselves if it is not pointed out, here, that some Nigerian academics are part of the challenges encountered in, and by, this country and its education sector. We may not be able to go far into this aspect of the discussion; however, we have always suggested that academics should purge themselves and their constituency in order to prevent situation(s) where such advice as “physician heal thyself” will not be necessary. Consequent upon this statement, it was therefore promised that “…..we will return to this discussion, in another interaction, using this same pen, to discuss this issue”. This is one of the discussions we will engage ourselves in, here and soon. However, we expect that the submissions concerning the foregoing be read with open and objective mind. We yearn for a society peopled predominantly by humans with unquestionable moral rectitude and this can only be achieved when, as a people, we decide to continuously engage in soul-searching and, as a positive product of this, endeavour to do the right things – always – according to the desired high societal moral standard.

Prior to the earlier mentioned discussion, we will like to quickly digress in order to briefly look at two different editorial comments by the highly rated and respected Nigerian daily newspaper – Punch. The first is that of 9th February, 2020 while the second is that of 16th October, 2020. Excerpts from the editorials will be presented for the sake of short arguments and clarifications. In the first editorial comments, the editors vehemently criticised Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) for resisting the implementation of Integrated Payroll Personnel Information System (IPPIS) in public universities and also adduced this IPPIS imbroglio as the ONLY reason for the then imminent strike action (which eventual began on the 23rd March, 2020 after a two weeks warning strike) in public universities. Unfortunately, as at the time this article is being published, ASUU is still on a resumed erstwhile suspended total, comprehensive and indefinite strike to the delight (or how else can we describe it?) of Nigerian government. Quoting, among others, from the said editorial: “….. As citadels of learning, Nigerian universities should be agents of moral rebirth, and not be obstacles to innovation and cutting-edge technology in the fight against corruption”.

The above-quoted comment gave an impression that ASUU was, (and still is), resisting IPPIS implementation in public universities because it has something to hide. This was very surprising to some of us that have been following Punch newspaper for a long time particularly during the fight against military rule and other forms of dictatorship. We, however, concluded then (owing to the first editorial mentioned earlier) that it was either that there was a mix-up somewhere on the part of Punch newspaper or ASUU has not been able to communicate, convincingly, the reason for its resistance to IPPIS, or both. Whatever necessitated the Punch’s editorial of 9th February, 2020, the disappointment and consequent resistance – based on experiences – of those in public universities and other tertiary educational institutions that willingly enrolled on IPPIS should have cleared any doubt. The editorial claim that “…..cloaking lecturers’ interest in the garb of the overall interest of the university system to reject IPPIS is deceitful” is not acceptable and that “…..non-academic staff unions in the universities have embraced the [IPPIS] policy” is no longer tenable considering current realities. Thus, apologies should be rendered, by Punch, to ASUU for that editorial.

Nevertheless, as ardent followers of Punch newspaper, we were pleasantly surprised (although not unexpected of the newspaper) to read its editorial comments of 16th October, 2020 where it was stated, as we have also always posited, based on well informed argument, in various fora that “…. the Buhari regime’s slipshod approach towards the ASUU strike is absolutely worrying. A responsive and responsible government would have seized the window of the forced holiday offered by the COVID-19 pandemic to end the strike long before now….. In fairness to ASUU, it has since developed and offered an alternative payment system, the University Transparency Account[ability Solution – UTAS], which it said would equally meet the transparency and accountability requirements of the IPPIS” The editors, further went ahead to state, rightly, that “….. The crisis plaguing the university system goes beyond any payment platform. The entire system is putrefying: libraries, laboratories, hostel accommodation and lecture halls are in the worst form of degradation. Electricity and water facilities are epileptic in most universities, in some others, non-existent, forcing students to occasionally spill into the streets in violent demonstrations”.

The editorial comments, in the Punch newspaper of 16th October, 2020, concluded that “strikes are disruptive and destructive, especially to students. The union must rethink its strategy. The sustained use of strike is alarmingly routine and clearly not achieving the desired goals”. While this conclusion may cursorily appear to be on point, we will like to interrogate it by placing it side-by-side with our submission in an earlier interaction. There, we stated that “…..based on experience over the years and what has been documented concerning industrial disputes, particularly between ASUU and governments ….. Is it true that the ONLY language understandable by government when there is industrial dispute is strike? Why do government still adopt the same failed and perennially failing tactics in addressing industrial disputes in our universities? Are there bureaucrats in government whose interest is that strikes be activated for their selfish interest? Are we actually ready to move with the world with the way our universities and their human capacity are treated? Are we, as a people, not playing out the script written by the imperialists and their foreign and local agents who believe that we cannot manage (public) universities and so we do not need them?

Coming back to where we started from, we intend to highlight some alleged ills by, and talk to, some stakeholders whose actions/inactions are attracting bad names to the public tertiary educational system. This is necessary because we have been accused, severally, of defending workers, most especially lecturers in public universities, without addressing the alleged bad conducts, already in the public domain, by some of them. It is regrettable that this category of people constitutes an infinitesimally small proportion of the population of these stakeholders. At this point, we will like to put it on record that the intention here is not to encourage some halfwits in the society to baselessly harass and insult people of high moral standing, many of which are known to us, in the educational system. Having said this, we are assuring any of the identifiable “big men and women” who may decide, as some did in the past, to be mischievous or go roguish in future, by using this article as a basis to cast aspersions on people of high moral integrity in the system, that this pen is perpetually placed on refill mode, with ink, to place such people where they truly belong.

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In order not to run around in circles, concerning the perceived and real ills we referred to earlier, we will quote, copiously, from the two editorial comments by Punch newspaper mentioned earlier. Excerpts from them read: “….. Much of the little funds that go into the [university] system are stolen. The abuse of funds in the universities, as the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission [ICPC] and Auditor-General’s reports reveal, is becoming mind-boggling ….. Findings by the ICPC, chaired by Bolaji Owasanoye, a professor familiar with the university system, indicate that the institutions are neck-deep in the unethical practice of padding their personnel budgets….. The commission indicted the University of Benin Teaching Hospital for allegedly padding its budget to the tune of N1.1 billion; Nnamdi Azikiwe University (N915 million); University College Hospital Ibadan (N701 million); University of Ibadan (N558 million); Usmanu Dan Fodio University (N636 million) and University of Jos (N896 million)….. It is on record that some vice-chancellors and pro-chancellors have soiled their hands in managing funds…..

Furthermore, the Punch newspaper editors also mentioned in the above-stated editorials that “In 2017, one [vice-chancellor] of a Federal University of Technology was arraigned for N156.9 million fraud by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC]. He was said to have allegedly collected housing allowances whilst living in the government residential quarters, drew furniture allowance annually instead of once in four years as approved by the income and wages commission….. In 2018, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project [SERAP] claimed that there were allegations of corruption in several [Nigerian] federal universities relating to the unfair allocation of grades; contract inflation; truncation of staff’s salary on the payroll; employment of unqualified staff; certificate scandal; examination malpractice; sexual harassment; and issuance of results for expelled students to graduate….. All over the place, our campuses are brimming with an explosion in student population, many of whom were enrolled by corrupt university administrators into courses the National Universities Commission did not approve”.

Succinctly, the most “celebrated” alleged ills – of Nigerian lecturers, to be specific – in the public domain are issues bothering around moral and financial corruption such as rape and other sexual harassment (simply but more recently derogatorily termed “sex-for-grade”), acceptance of bribe and other types of gratification from students including their parents and guardians and recently, arising from the ASUU struggles with government, allegations of lecturers working and earning salaries, illegally, in multiple universities and involvement in ghost “workers syndrome”. While we are not here to enable debates – for and against – these allegations, we must state that there are ongoing legal proceedings on some cases bothering on what has been stated above. Also, there have been some convincing proofs, which have necessitated convictions, in legally constituted courts of law in Nigeria. Therefore, we urge those very few individuals alleged to be engaging in some of these ills to desist from them for their own sake. We must quickly add here that these ills are not specific to a particular gender (male or female), so deliberately stigmatising a particular sex is not fair even as the ills themselves are seriously condemned wherever and whenever they occur in these institutions.

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Focusing on other stakeholders such as the students, parents and guardians, we will advise that they imbibe the “see something, say something” concept. Whenever their rights and privacy are about to be violated, they should speak out and seek for help from authorities in their institutions. The universities, that some of us are familiar with in Nigeria, are not as “rotten” as some people depict them and want others to believe without interrogation. Part of the challenges is that those claiming to be victims are sometimes “partners in crime” to those few people engaging in these alleged ills. For instance, there are cases of students not focussing on their primary assignment – which is studying to pass prescribed assessments and examinations – in these tertiary academic institutions. This, most times, lead them into desperation for passing. This desperation exposes them to abuse and sometimes they initiate the abuse process. For the umpteenth time, we condemn these ills but need help from all stakeholders; especially the potential/real victims of sexual harassment, in subduing this and other earlier identified malaises. They should remember, according to Chinua Achebe (1930–2013) that “one of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised”.

Attention has been focussed, thus far, on the issue relating to indecent sexual relationships, between educators and their students, in higher educational institutions because it is one sore point whose authenticity may, most times, be difficult to prove. It is a moral as well as legal issue! Nevertheless, we will continue to support efforts at fighting these kinds of relationships between non-mutually consenting adults in our tertiary educational system. Moving forward, concerning financial corruption in public universities, we do not need to go far in finding a solution. Here, again, we will quote from our past submissions concerning this. Please, read: “[Federal Government of Nigeria] possess a monopolistic control of all its investigative agencies [Nigeria Police, State Security Service, ICPC, EFCC and others] that can tackle this problem, if it exists. These allegations should be taken away from the realm of speculations to that of evidence based reality. Nobody should encourage corruption – anywhere – but government should clearly act within the ambit of the law in bringing those involved, if any, to book. That has always been the position of ASUU”.

There are also internal mechanisms to deal with some of these ills “within the house”. What we are trying to say here is that academics also criticise and, if necessary, chastise themselves and their union leaders, always. The public may not realise this but it is true even if noise is not made about these efforts. The public universities, and ASUU as a union, also have some “self-cleansing” mechanisms, and when invoked, has given some positive results. However, based on experience, we have come to realise that some ASUU members, in some public universities, accuse their union leaders of using their positions for self self-aggrandisement. Some of us, years ago, as “Johnny Just Come” were almost swayed to wholeheartedly believe this incomplete story. Do not get us wrong, we are not saying, categorically, that there are no such ASUU leader(s) that is/are guilty of this accusation bothering on serious moral burden. The other part of the story that we are trying to communicate here is that, with the benefit of hindsight, it was later discovered that many of those members (not all) accusing those ASUU leaders were not doing so for altruistic reasons, as they would have loved to be the beneficiaries of the same “immoral” benefits they earlier condemned, considering their activities when they were given opportunity of being “in the saddle” elsewhere.

It is noteworthy that higher institutions, mostly universities, are to be beacons to the society but unfortunately, today, many of the criticised ills in our society had stealthily crept into these citadels of learning. This is because these ivory towers of academia became and are still increasingly porous to, and accommodative of, these ills. The reason for these anomalies is partly because of our priorities as a people, since tertiary educational institutions are run through human institution. As academics, we ought to go all the length to seek for the truth and propagate it to dispel ignorance. This is why we try to be logical, sensible, sensitive, and ensure we derive strength from proper and adequately knowledge-driven convictions. Therefore, government and other stakeholders should not see honest academics as enemies but dependable partners in the quest towards achieving success in all aspect of Nigeria’s development. There is no country in the world that has been able to achieve meaningful development without massive investment in its educational sector, from primary to tertiary level. Nonetheless, if there is any such country we are not averse to being informed.

To add briefly, before we conclude this interaction, it will be unfairly insensitive if we do not talk about the various peaceful street protests – by disenchanted youths – currently spreading like wild fire, across Nigeria’s major towns and cities, which started as protests against brutality by a notorious arm of the Nigeria Police known as Special Anti-Robbery Squad – SARS. These peaceful protests were first tagged #EndSARS and later #EndSARSNow and #EndSWAT. We need to acknowledge the courageous civil protesters (some people call them “Yahoo-Yahoo” boys and girls) who have decided to take their destinies into their hands. From what is playing out, the protesters, with lots of energy, appear to have more positive demands, for themselves and the country, up their sleeves, beyond the #EndWHATEVER. We need to encourage these non-violent peaceful protests and expect the government to quickly listen to these energetic protesters in earnest. This is irrespective of the inconvenience that some of us had to pass through when we trekked miles in the dead of night to get to our destinations. We consider this as part of the sacrifice that has to be made, by us, if necessary, for the quest towards a restructured Nigeria we all hope for.

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Nonetheless, we want these peaceful protesters to be more organised in preventing the situations whereby the same group of Nigerians they are protesting for eventually become unnecessarily inconvenienced and disenfranchised. For instance, the complete blockage of major roads is a recipe for untimely death in health cases that require emergency medical attention. We will also like to advise them to be very careful and watchful in order for miscreants and hoodlums not to infiltrate their midst, so that these scoundrels do not hijack and make nonsense of the protests. Criminals may even be sent on evil mission(s) that will support government’s aim at discrediting the peaceful protests and protesters. The peaceful protesters should learn lessons from the bad experiences in Benin City and some parts of Lagos State, Nigeria, where some miscreants and hoodlums took advantage of the protests to commit heinous acts against some publicly, and privately, owned facilities. We strongly condemn these acts and expect the authorities to investigate and bring those behind the dastardly acts to book. If this is done, it will not only reassure law-abiding citizens but will also serve as a deterrent to other potential roguish characters with such malicious intent.

As usual, instead of Nigeria’s Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, the “chief conciliator of industrial disputes in the country” to concentrate on how to bring the current industrial action by ASUU to a logical suspension, he was able to create time to engage in his regular pastime of careless “misfiring” with his mouth (what we already termed “diarrhoea of the mouth”). He was quoted, in newspapers, to have purportedly said that “students who should be in the classrooms have been “recruited” to join the ongoing #EndSARS protests. Let us concede that the above-quoted comment of the minister is correct, we want to ask: What has the government been doing concerning the ASUU strike since 23rd March, 2020? Additionally, he needs to be told, because they leave in denial, that even if those students were on campus they would have still joined the protests. Members of ASUU did not just wake up one day and decided to go on strike. There are valid reasons and government is aware of them. It is just that the ruling elite have decided that public university system should collapse like the public primary and secondary schools.

Regrettably, the same people, in their seventies and eighties, that brought this country to this low ebb, are still the ones in charge of the country today, behaving as if we are still in the 1970s, when the world is already thinking of the twenty-second century. The solutions they are proffering to the challenges encountered by this country are still the same antiquated ones that has never worked. These governance approaches by, and behaviour of, people in Nigerian government since “independence” and the current poor economic fortunes of the citizens in the country including lack of infrastructural wherewithal to facilitate empowerment of these youths (apart from their usage as thugs before and during elections) are actually the fuel “powering” these protests. The ages of these young energetic peaceful protesters mainly fall between 20 and 25 years old. These are Nigerian citizens born shortly before, and during, this democratic dispensation. Many of them have acquired digital and other valuable skills but they have not been given the deserved opportunity by the Nigerian state. Intimidating these peaceful protesters, using the military, will not work in the long run. If the people in government do not know this by now, we will like them to know, very swiftly.

Andrew Erakhrumen, PhD is of the Department of Forest Resources and Wildlife Management, University of Benin, Benin City, Nigeria

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