Nigeria's military rulers have eroded universities' freedom and funding, Tunde Fatunde reports
The iron fist of 15 years of military rule in Nigeria and the continuing unwillingness of the generals to surrender power have left an indelible mark on the country's university system.
Direct military incursion into the universities has hampered development of the sector whose main role is the production of highly qualified professionals much-needed in a developing nation like Nigeria.
Abubakar Momoh, who lectures in international relations in Lagos State University's department of political science, says the military has constantly eroded the autonomy of the universities because it perceives, perhaps rightly, that the campuses are real and potential agents of challenge and resistance against dictatorship. That is why, he says, the junta takes a deep interest in selecting vice-chancellors and external members of the universities governing council, many of whom pursue policies and make rules limiting academic freedom and creative research.
Dr Momoh, who chairs the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) branch at Lagos, says the military moved a step further in its ambition to control universities by appointing sole administrators to assume the role of vice-chancellors.
Four of Nigeria's 30-plus universities are headed by sole administrators. One is a retired general whose qualification is a BSc. This new regime effectively converts the campus into a military barracks with a chief executive who is answerable neither to senate nor governing council.
The union's zonal coordinator, Dipo Fashina, a philosophy lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, claimed that between 1994 and 1996, 52 of his colleagues were either dismissed or suspended "because of trumped up charges, which ranged from their leadership role during the 1996 ASUU strike, opposition to the use of sole administrators, membership of political associations, especially the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) and upholding the principles of university norms and statutes".
Dr Fashina said: "Our colleagues are victims of the same lawlessness from which innocent citizens were jailed and detained on trumped-up charges by the regime of the late General Sani Abacha. "Our colleagues have been victimised for exercising their trade union rights and right to free association and the right to dissent. They have been victims of wrongful political interference by government in the universities."
The vice-chancellors and sole administrators have their sympathisers within the universities. A senior official in the administration at the University of Jos, said: "To maintain peace and order on the campuses, we need to use all means at our disposal including the law enforcement agencies to deal with radical lecturers whose main goal, under the cloak of academic freedom, is the dissemination of foreign ideologies and subversive tactics aimed at destabilising constituted authorities."
The long period of military rule has also affected outside support for the universities. The annulment of the 1993 presidential election which the late Mashood Abiola was widely held to have won, and the execution of writer and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in November 1995, ushered in a series of limited sanctions against Nigeria.
Some of these sanctions still affect the universities. The consequence of European Union sanctions adopted in November 1995 was the "deprogramming" of about Ecu86 million (Pounds 59 million) for ongoing programmes and the freezing of Ecu220 million from the Lome IV accord. The most obvious effect was the closure of a support programme for the libraries of most Nigerian universities, which lost a contribution of 134,000 books as well as subscriptions to 450 publications.
The EU also suspended its aid for the expansion of Nigeria's telephone system, which would have brought immense improvements to telephone and internet services on the campuses.
It is an open secret that the military deliberately under-funded the university system, whose basic infrastructures - light, water, health, transport and research facilities - have crumbled.
The ASUU twice went on strike over funding during this decade. When the military authorities challenged the union to put forward ways to generate funds for the universities, its leaders suggested that 2 per cent of the royalties from the two million barrels of crude oil sold every day should be put aside to fund the universities. The request was dismissed, recalled Kunle Amuwo, head of the department of political science at the University of Ibadan. He added that the military eventually agreed to set up an education tax fund into which all companies had to contribute annually. An equivalent of $100 million accrued to the fund but we have yet to feel the impact."
During the Gulf war, Nigeria, the leading African crude oil exporting country, netted a revenue of about $13 billion dollars. The universities hoped some of the windfall would be used to repair their deteriorating buildings. The hopes were in vain. Suleiman Ahmed of the physics department at the Uthman Dan Fodio University in Sokoto, said that at the same time that Nigeria spent about $5 billion on its peace-keeping mission to Liberia, the university laboratories lacked equipment and chemicals.
Mismanagement of the nation's resources and the deliberate underfunding of the university system has led to an exodus of hundreds of university teachers to Europe, the Americas, and better managed African countries including Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The highest paid university teachers of professional rank earn less than $100 a month in a country that produces two million barrels of crude oil every day. At the same time,General Abacha was ready to fund a research chair for $40,000 a year for tropical medicine at the University of New York, a proposal which was turned down.
Other effects of poor-funding are non-recognition of Nigerian degrees by universities overseas and incessant campus closures.
The solutions to the lingering crisis of Nigeria's university system are intricately tied to the end of military dictatorship. There is a general consensus among students and lecturers that the struggle to end military rule would determine the future for Nigeria's campuses. Getting the soldiers to go back to the barracks would drastically reduce the huge military bill, and resources would be redeployed to tertiary education. The establishment of democracy, rule of law and an unfettered press would go a long way to creating a new university culture devoid of harassment and external interference and conflicts.