Owei Lakemfa a Labour Activist, writes on the state of the education sector in Nigeria
COLONALISM was like slavery, one of the most vicious crimes against humanity. But the last 50 years of political independence in a country like ours deepened that tragedy; the colonial masters seemed more humane. The same banditry and misappropriation of our national wealth goes on except that each stage seems a worse pedestal than the previous.
Soon, I joined the chorus of those who talk about ‘the good old days’ When I visit our campuses and see the sub human state our student compatriots study and live, I am usually tempted to talk about the glorious days in Ife. We had manageable space, did not need to bother about power failure even when the rest of the country was usually in darkness; many of us could afford good meals at the cafeteria as we managed the little from home and the generous bursary from the states.
Those who found the going tough were assisted in various ways, including temporary jobs in the cafe offered by the university which guaranteed free meals and some pocket money. We walked to the lecture rooms, strolled to the library and reading rooms. When a few students had to be accommodated off campus in Ifewara, the university took it upon itself to transport the students in a big bus or buses and ensure that their stay was comfortable. Even with these, when the Ifewarites, as we called them complained, it was phased out.
These were before the new bad days when the military led by Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Babatunde Idiagbon, Ibrahim Babangida and their fellow travellers struck. One of the first targets of the obdurate Buhari regime was the university system which it tore down with so much venom that you would have thought it was the primary aim of the tragic coup. The cafeteria system was torn down, lecturers harassed, free discourse and symposia became crimes and student leaders were arrested and in some cases kidnapped.
When Babangida took the mantle of destruction from Buhari, the demolition was completed with campus cults replacing patriotic student unionism, and the culture of fearless inquiry by students and lecturers worn thin. Since then the tertiary education system has been on a downward slide to the extent today when in many cases, we have poultry sheds passing for state or private universities, and men of God who should be winning souls, diverting to exploit Nigerians in the name of university education. A number of them are so greedy that almost all their members who contributed the wealth that led to the establishment of this money spinning business, cannot afford the fees.
This was why I was stunned when I read about the Onitsha Catholic Province led by its Archbishop, the Most Reverend Valerian Okeke building a 1,200-room luxury hostel for students of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Amansea, Anambra State. The two-year old hostel with its own generator, is also being fitted with a solar energy.
The rooms, the report says, are fitted with flat-screen television sets connected to satellite dishes. The hostel with a gym and swimming pool is serviced with a 24-hour internet connection. Three air-conditioned Coaster buses ferry the students and lecturers to and from the university, while the students were fed free for the first five months before paying a token for feeding and transportation. All these for N40, 000 per session!
This is truly amazing as the Church is not even discriminating against the beneficiaries on the basis of religion or denomination. I have travelled a bit and I know that it is difficult to get a better standard of student accommodation in the world. This is a far better standard than the Ife I reminiscence about; in fact not in my wildest imagination could I have thought that a Nigerian student would live in such an academic and price-friendly environment. Yet the Church is not relenting as it wants to duplicate this hostel which is for women; it plans to begin construction of the men hostel from next year.
The Onitsha Catholic Province has demonstrated that another Nigeria, in contrast to the gloom and the wholesale theft and impoverishment, is possible. That as individuals and collectives, religious and social groups, political parties and civil society organisations, leaders and followers, we can in various ways cause positive, sustainable and edifying change. Father Okeke and his province solidify my belief that all is not lost; that Nigeria can still largely, be redeemed.
Another lesson in this project is that while the contractor had charged N5 billion, the Church through direct labour was able to construct this wonder for a little over N1 billion. I reflected that if the $16 billion the Obasanjo administration had wasted purchasing darkness had been utilized on such a rewarding project, we would have been able to build 2,400 such hostels, or if the $12.5 billion Gulf war oil windfall misappropriated by the Babangida regime in the 1990s had been used, we would have built some 10,000 of such modern hostels across the country.
But due to mismanagement and outright theft of public funds, our students in most cases live in places that are not even suitable for animals. It is in such environment we are producing our leaders of tomorrow; people whose tomorrow has been mortgaged. About two years ago, I was at one of our oldest universities, UNIBEN. The Ekosodin area where many are condemned to live is untarred, dirty, with many of the houses in different stages of disrepair.
The students in Ekpoma live under worse conditions while the under developed state of the Nasarawa State University stares you in the face. The Abuja University which still operates mainly from its temporary site is undeserving to be called a university. But like I said, another country is possible but not with those who destroyed our future at its head. That is why when I hear people who damaged our country talk about their constitutional right to ‘contest’ elections under a zoning formula, I feel insulted. Do you?