NIGERIA: Oversea seminars for legislators slammed

Academics at Nigerian universities have once again condemned the use of public funds for Nigerian lawmakers to attend university seminars in the US. This comes after a seminar offered by Kansas University to Nigerian legislators became embroiled in charges of financial irregularity involving the university, a Nigerian-born staff member and top Nigerian presidential officials.

The seminar, titled "Legislators and democratic values", offered to Nigerian legislators by Kansas University, Lawrence, has attracted controversy due to financial "improprieties" involving a Nigerian national employed by Kansas University and two top Nigerian presidential officials. While the story ripples through Nigeria's universities, academics are chiefly debating the usefulness, financial implications and ethics of the seminar.

Last year, Nigerian academics successfully rose against a similar seminar scheduled for 36 governors of the Nigerian federation. Besides the current controversy, they are once again contesting the wisdom, appropriateness and ethics of channelling public funds overseas when, they maintain, Nigerian universities have the necessary expertise and capacity to offer their legislators governance education.

The university community in Nigeria got to know of the matter by sheer chance.

The Nigerian online weekly tabloid, SaharaReporters, published an exclusive story about the forced resignation of a Nigerian-born professor, Aminu Ibrahim Gusau, from the Department of African American Studies at Kansas University. Gusau's resignation was allegedly due to meddling in the implementation of a contract for a seminar on legislation and good governance aimed at Nigerian lawmakers.

SaharaReporters published information, soon more widely circulated in Nigerian print and electronic media, about a petition by Gusau to Nigeria's anti-corruption agency - the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission - against Cairo Ojuogboh and Abba Aji, top officials in the Nigerian presidency.

In this petition Gusau alleged that Kansas University authorities had accepted the offer by these Nigerian officials to organise a seminar for 20 Nigerian lawmakers at a total cost of US$60,000, with each of the legislators paying US$4,000. The seminar took place last January. But in the petition Gusau alleged that the two presidential officals remitted only US$20,000 to Kansas University, scamming the university of US$60,000.

Recently, Jack Martin, deputy director of communications at Kansas University, publicly apologised on behalf of the university to the two Nigerian presidential officials over what he described as the unauthorised actions of Gusau. The university representative also expressed regrets "if the unauthorised actions of Gusau had in any way tarnished the image and reputation of these two Nigerian officials".

The reactions of Nigeria's university community to the affair were mainly directed at the wisdom of holding such a seminar abroad. "Here we go again. The Nigerian government spends taxpayers' money to sponsor a seminar on good governance in a foreign university. In this country, we have university experts on the same subject matter.

And the Nigerian elite prefers to finance such a project outside the shores of this country," declared Shetima Abubakar, a political science lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Northern Nigeria.

Stephen Owoh, a lecturer in comparative constitution at the University of Port Harcourt, recalled that his colleagues in several Nigerian universities had been approached by government officials to organise similar seminars for lawmakers in Abuja, Nigeria's federal capital. "I am amazed that the Nigerian presidency has chosen to arrange such a project in a university abroad. This leaves a sour taste in the mouth," he said.

He recalled that with the collapse of socialism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s seminars on the rule of law and multi-party democracy were organised on various campuses in Nigeria, with the outcomes of such seminars being published. Nigerian experts on democracy and the constitution have been invited to other African countries to participate in drafting the constitutions of those countries.

"It is unfortunate that the Nigerian elite is not making use of its experts. When this elite is ill, it goes abroad to the best hospitals, where they are treated by Nigerian medical doctors trained in Nigerian universities," he declared.

Most of the university academics spoken to appealed to the Nigerian government to look inwards and capitalise on local talent. They pointed out that the general elections were approaching, and various organs of the Nigerian state would soon commence a campaign to sensitise the electorate and the political class.

"The Nigerian state has a duty to make use of Nigerian university teachers in the sensitisation programme of the electorate. Foreigners will not build Nigeria; only Nigerians can build this country," declared Bisi Akin, spokesperson for the National Association of Nigerian Students at the University of Ibadan.

With regard to the "resignation" of Professor Gusau, Akin is of the opinion that he should be sent back to Nigeria to assist the anti-corruption agency with further investigations into the nature of the financial transactions between the Nigerian presidency and Kansas University on the seminar matter. "There may be more to this than meets the eye," she suggested.