‘A cloudy but promising journey’

Every day, journalists wake up in search of news. The beginning of this journey is usually cloudy and uncertain. As unwavering optimists, however, journalists are reasonably confident that their day will yield positive results. At times this cloudy but promising journey ends, as does life, in unpredictable disasters and accidents. However, for those who survive the vagaries, the journey goes on.

I stumbled by accident one day onto the platform of University World News during one of my promising journeys without a clear-cut destination.

In the late 1990s, on the eve of the 21st century, I was sent to UNESCO headquarters in Paris by Jeune Afrique Economie, an influential weekly magazine, and Africa Numero Un, a pan-African francophone radio station, to cover the annual conference of the United Nations agency.

Over 150 countries were represented at the meeting. There, I met Stella Hughes, a speech writer for Frederico Mayor, then UNESCO director-general. She was also the Paris correspondent for the Times Higher Education Supplement, a ‘rival’ to the United States-based Higher Education Review and a supplement of The Times in London. Stella informed me that the Times Higher Education Supplement was in search of a correspondent in Nigeria. I accepted the offer and she put me in touch with David Jobbins, the editor in charge.

He demanded an article to test my writing skills and competence, which I passed, and he offered me a job as a stringer (freelancer). On one of my visits to London, I met David and other members of The Times crew. It was an exciting moment, but little did I realise that my stay with this supplement was to be short-lived.

Shortly after meeting them, I received a fax message – there was no internet yet – saying that for editorial and financial reasons the supplement was to be scrapped. I was disappointed to say the least.

A few months later I learned that a group of journalists who had left The Times were putting together an alternative. David and Karen MacGregor then contacted me to confirm the happy news that they had put in place an online weekly newsletter called University World News. No hard copy version was envisaged.

That was exciting. As the global editor, Karen wrote to me asking me to cover higher education in Nigeria and, if possible, West Africa because of my competence with English and French. I accepted, inwardly noting that it seemed that I was on another ‘cloudy but promising journey’.

I commenced writing for this online newspaper and have done so now for the past 10 years. Thus far, I have written and published almost 300 articles (see the University World News archives on Nigeria).

My very first article, dated 28 October 2007, was titled “State approves two new private universities”. Since then, I have written articles that could be divided into the following interwoven sub-themes: the state of higher education in Nigeria, conferences and seminars on higher education in Nigeria and elsewhere; and threats to academic freedom.

Over the past 10 years higher education in Nigeria has witnessed ups and downs. During that time I have tracked the progressive increase in the number of candidates who sit annually for the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board entrance examination to gain access into tertiary institutions, especially universities.

The number of candidates within that period has progressively moved from 200,000 to over 1.9 million. In response, the Nigerian government has given licences to private organisations, especially religious institutions, to establish private universities with a view to absorbing the increasing number of young people seeking access to higher education.

In some of my articles, I have covered the creation of private English-speaking universities in the neighbouring Republic of Benin for Nigerian students. This trend was also observed in Togo and Ghana where Nigerian students flocked for university education.

Education in Nigeria is both a culture and an investment. Before the recent decline in sales of Nigerian crude oil on international markets, British and North American universities organised annual education exhibitions and fairs in the country’s larger cities aimed at attracting young Nigerians to their universities. These fairs were relatively successful, but they suddenly dried up because the parents of candidates could not access the financial resources needed to sustain their wards in foreign universities.

During the past 10 years, I have attended higher education international conferences in Paris (France), Accra (Ghana), Cotonou (Benin) and Cape Town (South Africa) where stakeholders discussed, amongst other things, funding of higher education, a focus on the African continent. In my articles there was always a common denominator: higher education in Africa since independence has been underfunded.

The African elite did not consider higher education as a major priority. In Africa, the annual budget for education, including higher education, averages less than 6%, low in comparison with the Asian Tigers whose annual investment in this area is phenomenal. A major consequence of this tepid action, in my view, is that Africa remains a continent incapable of transforming any of her raw materials into finished, industrialised products.

I have also pointed out that the absence of a long-term vision and understanding of the role of higher education among Africa’s elite has led to a brain drain of Africa’s specialised skills and competence to Europe and North Africa.

In some of my articles I have addressed the issue of the recurrent industrial strikes in our universities. The main reason for the strikes is the dwindling resources from the state. Some of the strikes have lasted up to six months. It happened twice in Nigeria. Even when the state sent its officials to undertake detailed assessments of the decay on campuses, the state still failed to provide the necessary funds to tackle infrastructural decay.

I covered a major event involving the sacking of 13 vice-chancellors in one fell swoop. This was undertaken by Adamu Adamu, the current minister of education. There were hues and cries on the campuses because the unprecedented outright dismissal did not follow laid down procedures as spelt out in the laws establishing the universities concerned.

Relying on reliable sources, I indicated that the president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, summoned the minister of education on the matter and, in a laconic statement to the media, Femi Adesina, the president’s spokesman, announced that the president admitted that such dismissals had not followed due process. Yet, those vice-chancellors were not reinstated.

Corruption as a culture and industry surfaces frequently in the university environment. Some officials including vice-chancellors and registrars have been tried in a court of law and dismissed. Corruption has also been reported in the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB).

In recent rare and unbelievable cases, officials accused of corruption have sought to explain their misdeeds by blaming them on animals that swallowed the missing money. Incredible! Professor Ishaq Oloyede, the executive registrar of JAMB, has promised to clean the ‘Augean Stable’.

Among the most interesting issues I have covered, in my view, has been the threat to academic freedom in Nigerian universities.

Some university teachers from Cameroon teaching in Nigerian universities were detained earlier this year because they were accused by their country’s government of planning to destabilise Cameroon. They were accused of being part of a secessionist movement.

Their lawyers went to court, demanding their unconditional release. Before their case could be heard in an Abuja court, they were unceremoniously deported by air to Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, where they are still being held in protective custody ’awaiting’ trial.

Over the past 10 years, I have also taken time to read some of the articles written by other African reporters for University World News. These have given me insight into events and contradictions in other universities in Africa and elsewhere and I find it very rewarding.