Education, as defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary, is the “action or process of teaching someone, especially in a school, college or university,” where learners gather knowledge, understanding, and skill.
This same knowledge, experience, and skill also formed the substance of education in Nigeria in the traditional (pre-western) sense. The society, from an early stage of its evolution, realized the vital role of imparting knowledge of established traditional moral values and norms, which has ensured its survival, growth, and progress on the upcoming generations. It was for this reason that the erstwhile ‘informal’ mode of education involved chiefly the acquisition of survival skills and those of social cohabitation. It also emphasizes the importance of becoming and growing—the process of striving to attain goodliness and living in harmony—essential to contributing to the betterment of society.
Hence, from an early stage in the individual’s development, he/she is tutored on how to become a productive and responsible member of society through familial indoctrinations, peer group societies, and guild associations. This way, from their teen years, individuals become incorporated into the community, developing a sense of place and directing their energies towards establishing themselves in their chosen occupation, and performing functions critical for the society’s advancement. Indeed, this will inform the Yoruba’s old poem composed by J. F. Odunjo while deploying the literal tool of a pun: “Ise loogun ise/mura si ise ore mi/ise laafi di eni giga,” translated: “Work is the antidote to poverty/work hard my friend/it is the key to greatness.” Thus, with this, following the well-tutored home training from birth till teenage years, in the absence of formal education, youths are enrolled in an apprenticeship school where they learn the advanced skills needed to earn them a living. By so doing, it is pertinent that moral upbringing is not enough, but life skills to keep them engaged and yield returns are as well a part of their education. This prevents them from being idle and becoming a nuisance to society, instead, they become valuable assets that stimulate the growth of their communities. This practicalizes yet another famous adage in Nigeria with the Yoruba version being: “Owo ti o ba dile ni esu ma n be lowe,” translated as: “an idle hand is the devil’s workshop.”
However, in twenty-first-century Nigeria, education (this very critical instrument for social cohesion and engineering) has been reduced to an afterthought. In a time when all around the world the pursuit of knowledge is hailed as a basis for the success of thriving societies and as a determinant of survival in this future of “knowledge economy,” Nigeria is engrossed in recurring debates as to whether it should invest in developing its educational infrastructure and capacity or empty the treasury on loan repayment and maintaining an expensive political culture. If that were not enough, some Nigerian leaders are more committed to fluke infrastructural development where they can award contracts, get kickbacks or siphon funds—resulting in what Nigerians popularly refer to as audio projects.
Even more unfortunate is the fact that academic union strikes that shut down the nation’s (public) tertiary institutions for long periods have become the Réspondez S’il Vous Plait (R.S.V.P.) or the rappel menaçant (a threatening reminder) to get governments to respond to calls to honour agreements previously reached between the parties. This raises questions like: does the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) realize the extent of damages their bickering and the accompanying striking actions wreak on the educational system in Nigeria vis-á-vis its contribution in national development? Do they appreciate that, in their unyielding heavyweight brawls, it is the students whose interests they allege to defend that suffer the pains of the stampede? Are they fully aware of the consequences of their actions on the student psyche; that it sums up to the most effective crash course in student’s disillusionment on the dividends of education? More personally, would they be okay if their own children were to be recipients of the kind of epileptic education they are meting out to other people’s children under their care? If they do, these incidences of reoccurring strikes say otherwise.
It is said, whenever two elephants are fighting, it is the grass that suffers. ASUU, in an attempt to force the government’s hand, halts academic activities, an action that puts the lives of students on hold. These striking incidences in Nigeria are so common that almost every Nigerian student at that level of education must have experienced it at least once. So much that, when those who eventually graduate reminisce about their school experience, they trade stories referencing them as battle scars. Unfortunately, however, these traumatizing episodes leave emotional/psychological scars, too, with debilitating impacts on student motivation, performance, and limiting their chances at gainful employment or future academic engagements in well-defined academic environments.
Psychologically, when a student’s plans are disrupted time and time again, as it is with the frequency of academic strikes in Nigeria, it hacks away at their confidence in the value of hard work. Suffering the outcome of actions they have no hand in creating, some students end up imbibing the victim mentality— imagine students who spend seven years at the university for a four or five-year engineering degree; they are hardly motivated and are easily resigned to “fate”—or seeking alternative opportunities. In some ways, this might be positive; in many others, it has to be negative. Both will be examined.
Worthy of note is the fact that the positive is still a compromise. Students who have been forced to stay at home for too long, especially those lacking the freedom to go out, begin to seek an escape route. Positively, they strive to keep themselves engaged. They start learning trades such as barbing, shoemaking, bag making, hairdressing, fashion designing, cake baking, etc. They brand these trades with prestigious nomenclatures: tailoring becomes fashion designing to make it attract some importance and relevance. While it remains true, this makes for positive thinking, a critical review will suggest otherwise. How many of these students, as children, when asked while in primary or secondary schools what their future ambition was and they raised their hands for any of these professions? Not even many wanted to become school teachers.
But the reality of the Nigerian situation—meager chances of gainful employment plus frustrations from perennial strikes from the unions—has redefined their dreams from that of grandeur to that of survival. Not especially when a bachelor’s degree holder with a second class upper is literally begging for a job of N 30,000 per month in an economy where ten cups of rice costs N1,000. You add the usual spending on airtime, data, house rent (if living independently), fashion (hair making et al.), general upkeep (cream, soap, medications when the need arises, et al.), and you ask yourself what is left? Mere thoughts of these, coupled with ASUU’s perennial strike, have made many youths result in cybercrime, prostitution, or for the ‘thoughtful’ ones, starting businesses.
To start with, defrauding people, mostly foreigners, through the internet, popularly known as “yahoo yahoo” or “yahoo plus”, is not a new trend in analyzing common vices rampant in some youths. However, the prolonged break from academic activities, especially for those unable to continue to receive ‘pocket money’ from their parents, has taken many students trotting down the thinking lane—spurring the innovation in them, albeit engendered by a feeling of what could be. Sadly, just as there is no shortcut to success from a moral perspective, there is an easy way to ‘success’ for idle hands—fraudster. Youths everywhere in the world are at a developing age where they are subjected to peer pressure, the need to feel wanted, buy the latest in town, take their lovers on a date, among other things. This peer pressure, coupled with staying at home doing nothing thanks to ASUU v. FG brouhaha, breed a different animal instinct in them. The same goes for those who start prostitution, albeit coded as they would want to believe. A typical allusion to this is the #Benefit boys’ trend of July/August where a skit was made of secondary school students who resumed school only to bully their teachers with expensive cars and what have you. While it might have been an ordinary comedy skit to many, the thought process that informed the skit is a reality check—an insight or, better still, a mirror of what the society is currently experiencing, and a foretaste of the worse to come. Ladies similarly want to make the latest braids, Brazilian hairs, Peruvian wigs et al. Indeed, as hitherto referenced, an idle hand is the devil’s workshop. ASUU and FG should take note. The current struggle is not only ruining lives, but it is also effectively destroying the future of the country by breeding more irresponsible citizens and inducing more vices while most of the good products get sick of the poor state of the country and willing to evacuate at the slightest chance. This leaves the country with the rotten eggs, albeit eggs produced by the society itself. Perhaps, this serves to explain why there has been tremendous growth in a downward slope when analysing Nigeria’s development. Truthfully, I can unequivocally state that the future looks very bleak with a continuation of this detrimental and unproductive struggle. Do we even need to talk about the fact that many of these students who have been away from the learning environment for almost seven months would have forgotten a lot, or shall we turn a blind eye and deny many young ladies have gotten pregnant within this period? Those would be critical questions for the powers-that-be (ASUU and the Feds) must answer. But do they really care?
Oh! I mentioned many have started businesses out of rational thinking. Many young undergraduates, as well as unemployed graduates, now engage in entrepreneurial businesses such as selling or making bags, shoes, phones, fashion shades, wristwatches, clothes, and all kinds of accessories. Do not get carried away by the perceived ‘innovative’ minds of these youths to try to do business, or by the variety of available options. Business start-ups failing in Nigeria are no news anymore, especially owing to a lack of sustained capital. Away from that, the major problem in this is too many sellers are involved. Put differently, the selling market is saturated to a point you ask yourself who is doing the buying when so many are doing the selling? The high competition only means there are fewer buyers, hence slower sales, therefore discouraging dividend return, and consequently, a negative psychological perception of the business. When sales are slow, youths that ought to have enterprising and budding minds start getting weary, feeble, discouraged, and eventually frustrated. Gradually, they go out of business. They could even lose interest in everything else and might even slip into depression. They may blame themselves as the reason for their business failure, lose self-confidence and unwilling to make another business adventure mostly when they record losses by not making sales. These potential unproductive minds—having experienced significant failures at a very tender age—tend to become liabilities rather than assets to their futures, and to the country at large.
Thus, it is 100% apt to assert and affirm that the psychological impacts extend to the areas of motivation, that is, lack of motivation as another devastating outcome of interrupted school calendars. In this case, academically, students lose interest in the actual learning process. Having lost so much time already, they are only eager to get the certificates, graduate, and go. They have lost belief and trust in the system; they are faithless and disastrously uncertain about the future. Students, who have been at the receiving end of the outcome of so much disagreement, soon no longer feel valued and are focused on graduation as an escape route and a respite from all the uncertainties of life. An uncertain future is one of a geometric progression to doom.
Strikes disrupt student’s performances too. In public universities in Nigeria, the tradition is to rush students through the syllabus—after a long time absence from school— in an attempt to salvage some time from an almost exhausting year. In this arrangement, the lectures become long and crowded; the continuous assessments and exams are not adequately spaced; therefore, students are expected to cram such a semester’s workload in a few weeks and deliver essays that are considered to represent their capabilities and potentials. In the end, the standard of education is compromised. The outcome of such a process produces some of the ‘half-baked graduates’ anyone criticizing the performance of Nigerian students so eagerly choruses. Indeed, I boldly assertively repeat, should this not change, the future is gloomy and bleak. The light is fizzling, and hope is fast becoming past tense.
Interestingly, this situation of delay and disruptions is not limited to students at the undergraduate levels alone. Postgraduate students and other independent researchers from both within and outside Nigeria who depend on Nigerian university facilities for their research or somehow affiliated are also affected as the strikes ground most (except for the private universities) tertiary education activities to a halt. This not only brings about untold hardships to researchers by extending the research period and funding requirements, but it also results in the questioning of the reliability and character of Nigerian universities.
We might be aware of the numerous dynamics concerning employability in Nigeria. Age and experience make the top of this list. Among other things, these strikes make the number of years of study longer. Hence, instead of an average student to garner more experience working, they gain more experience studying. Did I just say studying? They gain more experience learning to struggle, survive, rather than productive. It is a common belief that a hungry man’s first thinking would be how to murder the hunger slowly killing him, rather than of how he can grow himself and become useful to the society. You don’t call four years of compressed studying intercepted with several breaks amounting to two years, making for a total of 6 years “more of studying.” It is a strenuous psyche-affecting exercise. It is more unfortunate when you consider the fact, which is very unfortunate because employers don’t care about how many years it took you to get a degree. What they care about is how young you claim to be, how vibrant you seem to be and how many years of service can be extracted from you. This unnecessary delay at universities further intensifies financial strain on parents who have to provide for feeding and shelter for a more extended period. It is even more deadly for the communities where these students reside.
One other thing that both the union and the government need to be concerned about is the increasing disillusionment of Nigerian youths with the profitability in education. As it stands, a large percentage of Nigeria’s young are not enrolled in school. There’s another large group which has been denied admission due to issues touching on excess applications, affordability, and lack of interest. If the government and other stakeholders appreciate the importance of education as a socio-economic driver, they will not present Nigeria’s growing number of disillusioned youths—mostly the undecided and those at the cusp of choosing—with even more concrete reasons to distrust the system and to seek other avenues of occupation—which are not always profitable to the country in the long run.
The talk of people with missing certificates occupying the highest offices in the land and other issues surrounding merit in university admission and employment procedures is already casting huge doubts as to the relevance of education beyond the ability to read and write. Stories are already being paraded around about people who either never made it to the four walls of a classroom or who dropped out of college, becoming successful without degrees to wave around. The poster boy for the latter is the American Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, who is famous in Nigeria not just for his wealth and philanthropic contributions, but also as the billionaire who didn’t graduate college. If Bill Gates is a far reach, Nigeria’s Wizkid—Ayodeji Balogun—famous singer and multiple award winner with staggering millions as the net worth is a dropout of Lead City University. Not even graduate singers, professors, medical doctors, lawyers, or all engineers can boast of what he can stand on the same platform with him, let alone dream properties he possesses without needing. What mythology!
When this is combined with the teeming number of qualified unemployed graduates roaming the streets, the hundreds of millions paid to uneducated performers like football players and musicians, it makes a strong argument against the importance of having an education (degree) in Nigeria. Hence, strikes and other forms of administrative interruptions to schooling should be resisted. Not only do they serve as an enabler of this disillusionment, but they are also antithetical to the wellbeing and growth of this country—the giant of Africa whose last show of unchallenged greatness perhaps would be in the 20th century when the nation led Africa in nearly every area of development. The time has come for Nigeria to wake up from its decades of slumber, from its one hit and ten misses, and prioritize the significant growth and development of the educational sector as key to its socio-economic development.
The contents of artistic expressions such as music often reflect the state of mind of its consumers. In Nigeria, the most significant proportion of its young population subscribes to the local hybrid music “Afropop,” which is especially famous for its use of catchphrases such as, “who you epp” meaning whom did you assist and others like “school na scam” which translates “education is a con.” This and other such lyrical contents have become popular with young people in Nigeria, suggesting a complete subscription to such ideas.
My plea, once again: The Academic Staff Union of Universities and the federal government must devise different means of settling their disagreements, which must not involve temporarily decommissioning (public) tertiary institutions of learning for a seasonal face-off. This narrative must change! We must not risk an irreparable damage to the psyche of our youths. If you are not bothered that our youths are maltreated, it may be bigger for my mouth to say that you are a bunch of irresponsible adults, and I won’t dare to say so.
University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities
Chair The University of Texas at Austin