After 15 years of military rule, Nigeria has a chance for democracy. John Morgan and Michael Omolewa call on academia to play its part
There are high expectations in Nigeria as the transition to democracy continues with the election of former general Olusegun Obasanjo as federal president.
The mood in the universities is much more cautiously summed up in the frequently heard comment on Obasanjo: "Once a soldier, always a soldier."
The military administration has, however, pledged that democratic rule will be reinstated fully on May 29, when the soldiers should return to barracks.
Nigerian universities are, like the country itself, in a very weak condition. However, the death of General Abacha and the decision, under internal and external pressure, of his successor, General Abubakar, to restore democratic government provides the opportunity for a new beginning, even though the result of the election is being challenged.
The Nigerian academic community has proved its integrity and worth in defending what it could of academic freedom, most notably during the strike of 1996. It now recognises the part it must play, together with students, in providing the country with intellectual leadership through the restoration of the universities.
A democratic and prosperous Nigeria is the key to peace and security in West Africa, while the international academic community must recognise that in the defence of Nigerian scholars lies the protection of its own values.
These objectives can be achieved through partnerships at all levels: individual academic contacts, joint research projects and institutional links and exchanges. These should not wait on high-level political decisions as the condition of Nigerian universities is critical.
The 15-year period of military rule introduced frightening pressures of centralisation. These led to arbitrary and often brutal decisions forced on university administrations and to the corruption and neglect of the education system in general. Vice-chancellors and their university councils were subject to state military administrators, themselves the blunt instruments of an anti-intellectual military junta that was motivated by nepotism and ethnic preference.
Regional states competed to establish new universities, even though they lacked the fundamental conditions necessary for effective teaching and research.
Academic staff complained persistently of their inability to work in such an unsatisfactory learning environment: electricity supply is erratic, pipe-borne water is risky, student accommodation is squalid, teaching rooms inadequate and crowded, research grants and conference funds are scarce, publication is difficult and often means a monetary commitment, while pay is low and uncertain. To this catalogue of woes must be added the impact of the nation's political instability and endemic corruption.
Certainly, the rapid increase in the number of universities and of students, at a time of equally rapid decline in resource allocation to higher education, has led to a general fall in academic standards. Stickers displayed on the backs of the staff's dilapidated cars read: "Our take home pay cannot take us home".
Strikes and other industrial actions have paralysed much of academic life, as lecturers and professors attempted to defend themselves. The 1996 strike lasted more than seven months.
Students have also suffered and are often divided. Lives have been lost as a result of the emergence of "cultism" in many institutions. There has also been a surge in religious intolerance between Christians and Muslims, together with the stirrings of latent ethnic prejudices.
Many students now have access to guns, including sophisticated automatic weapons. As a result, people are being shot on campuses, just as homes are broken into. This alarming situation caused J. F. Ade Ajayi, former vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos and emeritus professor of history at the University of Ibadan, to say that it was not surprising if some vice-chancellors were afraid of their own students. Disruptive students, he said, have the backing and influence of corrupt parents and live in a society in which respect for social and ethical principles hardly exists.
Many students draw their own conclusions, as "merit" is thrown overboard, giving room to "contact" and "influence". As Professor Ajayi observed:
"When the government itself undermines the process of law and order, what do you expect of our youths?" International understanding of its problems and support in its endeavour is essential if Nigeria's transition to democracy is to become permanent.
John Morgan is professor of comparative education and director of the Centre for Comparative Educational Policy at the University of Nottingham. Michael Omolewa is Unesco professor of adult education at the University of Ibadan.