The mess African leaders have made of African universities

John Otim
John Otim: Editor of Nile Journal, Poet, Novelist, Critic.




Once seemingly on the threshold of a grand breakthrough African universities are sliding backwards. To the casual observer this may not be apparent. The occasional brand new edifice on campus, many often the result of donor money, the trim lawns college administrators have perfected the art of keeping, the fashion obsessed youths, book bags on their backs, smart phones in their palms, present the image of a normal campus.

But normality is the furthest thing on the African campus. All across the mighty land students are voting with their feet. They are running away from; the run down facilities, the underfunded programs, over burdened professors, outdated curricula and for women, oh! the sexual harassment. The list can be endless. Those who can are finding their way to campuses overseas.

For those who can America is the destination of choice. The European Union and Australia are not far behind. China and India, and newer destinations in Malaysia, in Turkey and Israel are coming up. Canada ranks with the United States as a Mecca for African seekers of higher learning. African students are more than welcome abroad; they add color and vibrancy.

But higher learning overseas, very good in itself for our young people and great for the experience comes at a price. It is reported that Nigerian students in European universities and American colleges spend on the average 500 million dollars annually in tuition fees alone. Even for an oil rich country this is a significant capital outflow. In the year 2006 it represented 70% of the total money that the Nigerian government was spending on higher education in the country.

Ironically the stampede from African campuses is happening at a time when university growth in Africa is experiencing a boom and when Africa is touted globally as the land of opportunities and it is true. According to the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian colleges,  Nigeria has a total of 128 universities, not a great deal by American standards perhaps, but this is up from a mere 40 something barely two decades ago. Many African countries boast similar growth trends.

But there is a problem. Many of the new campuses are in severe needs and lack adequate and appropriate facilities. And there are not enough qualified teachers to go round. As you visit some of these newer campuses the word you hear is glorified high schools.

Continentally South Africa is in a league all its own. Its grand well manicured campuses, the inheritance of apartheid, are much sought after by many African students. Not just on account of costs and proximity but because they are considered value for money and with good reasons. In the 2013 Webometrics's list of 10 best universities in Africa 8 are South African. Apartheid respected learning even while it ruthlessly denied education to Black kids. And it made headways in certain areas of research and development. Think of transplant surgery.

Ironically it is those African students whose parents and godfathers have made a mess of the continent that are fleeing to universities overseas. They are the ones that can afford, but they are blind to the irony, often condemning their less privileged brothers and sisters as simply lazy and dormant. To be newly rich and privileged in Africa is to be supremely ignorant and mercilessly insensitive.

The Ivy League colleges in the United States are filled with sons and daughters of Africa’s nouveaux riches; offspring of presidents, top clerics, cabinet ministers, the top military brass, and the big business men and women linked with the ruling clique in the corruption game that keeps the continent down and its people poor.

The mighty and the powerful are constantly on the plane visiting sons, daughters, girl friends at Harvard or Oxford or Princeton. While coming from a depressed continent, many African students abroad live a lavish lifestyle and are among the richest students on campus.

Gone in Africa are the days when African universities though few in numbers were competitive with the best in the world and stood on the threshold of great and far reaching research. The Institute of Agric Research at the Ahmadu Bello University in northern Nigeria used to be a leader in the field. The Medical School at Makerere University was notable for its work and research in tropical medicine and diseases. The University of Ibadan had produced some of most distinguished Chinua Achebe.

Gone in Africa are the days when African youths from ordinary families could find their way through competitive scholarships to universities overseas. Today all available scholarships, state, cooperate or private, are cornered by the children of the well to do and the well connected. In Africa money speaks as never before. Money always carried weight but corruption in Africa has given money a voice on a scale it never had before.

In a number of African countries money can buy you a seat in parliament. If you are already in the State House, money can guarantee that you remain there.  If you are the type and cared enough money can earn you a PhD and set you on the road to a flying academic career. The thought of such a man or such a woman on the corridors of learning!.

In Uganda, the small relatively new Kampala International University recently awarded 42 PhDs in a single day in a single graduation ceremony. Within the last 2 years it has awarded altogether a total of 66 PhDs. The University had neither the facilities nor the required number of professors to supervise and examine graduate programs on such a massive scale. But the Vice Chancellor of the Institutions defended the awards vigorously.

With their children, wives and relations enrolled in good universities in foreign lands, the ruling elite of Africa, while obsessed with academic titles (they call themselves Engineer this, Architect that, Lawyer this, etc.) see no need in investing in education in their own countries. A well educated and well informed population, the basis for growth and development in the modern global world, is seen as a threat. From the Arab spring African leaders learned the wrong lesson and it confirmed them in their beliefs.

The movement that overthrew corrupt Arab regimes in North Africa and that continues to rock Egypt were inspired and lead by young people who had found their voice, who had discovered in twitter and in facebook and other social media, a perfect tool for mass mobilization. These were and are students and recent college graduates.

This is the nightmare that stares many African rulers in the face. The thought of a well educated, well informed body of youth, well versed in the new technologies, networked, aware of their rights as individuals and as citizens, and prepared to do something about it. Soon after the events in Tahrir Square, in Kampala and in Harare, city parks and other large open spaces in the city were closed to the public. The words of the prophet are written on the subway walls.

Yet African leaders once passionately embraced education and actively promoted it. Quite a few of them had been teachers themselves. They had faith in their young people and saw in the youth of their countries the future of Africa. Where colonialism curtailed access to education to a mere trickle they expanded it and created opportunities for many young people go to school and to universities.

In Nigeria within the space of five years from the day of independence, the scale of educational expansion was enormous. On the average the government was spending 40% of the national budget on education. Compare this with the 2% the government spends on education today.

What has changed in Africa in the intervening years?

In Nigeria the civilian leaders that brought independence remained in power for a mere six years, before the military kicked them out. The air of relative freedom that is the basis of a sound education was against everything the military stood for. The civil war that they inspired and prosecuted with a ruthless abandon, worsened the situation.

After three years of fierce fighting (1967-1970) Nigeria emerged out of the war with the culture of the Regiment that demanded unquestioning obedience. It emerged with an economy geared towards the service and the needs of the military.

The fact that the oil boom in the country came precisely at this moment, opened the floodgate to corruption and corrupt practices on a scale not before known on the continent. The military head of government boasted. In Nigeria money is no longer the problem, but how to spend it. Civilian institutions were downgraded and starved out of funds.

The military saw in academia a competitor for prestige, for power,  for women and for the good things of life, and it acted to eliminate the threat. It became a fashion for a Nigerian military officer to have as a wife a woman from the university, preferably one that had a PhD and was teaching there. Over the next thirty years of military rule corruption and regimentation became the new norm.

On campus professors, now more than won over by a mixture of perks and threats promoted order and obedience over and above learning and discourse. On campus, grades, admission, promotion and appointment became negotiable. It was a new campus culture in which girls and young women became soft targets.

One after another the universities invented what became known as the Dress Code. At the formerly top class Ahmadu Bello University, huge posters appeared on campus billboards proclaiming: Decent dressing is an edict from God. And another declared: As you dress so will you be addressed. This was a threat, and on a campus where rape is not uncommon, it was music in the ears of the rapist. He could do as he pleases sure that no one will stop him much less hold him to account.

to be witch-hunting students on the ground of how they dress turns the university into a police state

It was by no means clear what in the world decent dressing meant. In the climate of impunity that emerged on campus Dress Code became a byword for the harassment and the victimization of women. Everything was arbitrary. It was useless to complain and to appeal was worse. All pretense on campus to standards and the pursuits of learning disappeared. So it was and so it is that the words of the prophet were written on campus billboards and whispered in the sounds of silence.