Will presidential candidates deliver on their HE promises?

On 25 February 2023, Nigeria will hold its seventh general election since its return to democracy in 1999. Analysts say this is one of the country’s most highly anticipated elections in history, with more than 93 million voters enlisted to vote, according to data by the Independent National Electoral Commission, the country’s electoral umpire.

The election is scheduled in two phases, beginning with the national elections (presidential and federal legislative) on 25 February and then the state elections (governorship and state legislative) on 11 March. There are 36 states in the country.

Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired military general, cannot seek re-election as his maximum two tenures of four years each wind up on 29 May, the very day he will hand over to the next elected president at the capital, Abuja.

Eighteen candidates covet the country’s highest position, but only four are leading: Bola Tinubu of the ruling All Progressives Congress; Peter Obi of the Labour Party; Rabiu Kwankwaso of the New Nigeria People’s Party; and Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party.

The first three are all former governors while the last served as vice-president to former president Olusegun Obasanjo, the first democratically elected president who was in 2021 appointed by the African Union as High Representative for The Horn of Africa.

Never-ending HE problems

Higher education is considered a top-tier issue in Nigeria’s presidential elections and the various stakeholders in the sector look forward to having a president with an all-encompassing and implementable blueprint for the present and future of higher education in the country.

The Buhari government has had what some believe as a not-so-stellar accomplishment in higher education for reasons such as his tenure being marked with elongated seasons of brushes with members of academic unions of higher institutions, particularly the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).

In 2022 alone, ASUU went on strike for eight months over poor funding for the revitalisation of public universities, decreased university autonomy and non-payment of earned academic allowances and promotion arrears.

ASUU called off the strike only after a court order. Yes, the strike was called off; but at a huge cost. The Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) identified one of the biggest impacts as being the high rate of emigration of Nigerian academics and students to countries overseas.

“Yes, by a manipulative stratagem that placed the striking lecturers in confrontation with the might of the judiciary, lecturers were forced back to their classrooms in an orgy of involuntary servitude that only reminds one of the era when the enslaved were compelled to produce under the lashes of the slavemaster’s whip,” CDHR National President, Dr Osagie Obayuwana, said to the online newspaper Sahara Reporters.

“At the same time, the issues raised by the striking lecturers bordering on the salvation of Nigeria’s tertiary educational system remain unaddressed,” Obayuwana pointed out.

He is probably right. Since the beginning of this year, ASUU has been protesting against the government’s decision to withhold lecturers’ salaries during the eight-month strike. What’s more, rumours of a fresh strike are spreading.

Buhari has less time to address the lecturers’ concerns. In October 2022, University World News reported that his government oversaw the fractionalisation of ASUU, a 45-year-old union, by registering the Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA). This is a problem that analysts say his successor will have to deal with.

The president’s successor will also inherit other issues facing the higher education sector – deplorable facilities in institutions, paltry funding for research, insecurity, poor welfare for lecturers and disrupted academic calendars, among others.

Candidates’ plans for HE

Tinubu, the presidential candidate from Buhari’s party, the APC, says he plans to restructure higher education institutions if elected president.

In his 80-page manifesto dubbed ‘Renewed Hope’, Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos State, says his administration will rationalise the governance structures, funding and compensation structures of tertiary institutions.

He also says he will institute a pilot student loan regime. A bill on this initiative was passed by the federal legislature in November 2022, but President Buhari has yet to assent to it.

In addition, Tinubu says that, through new legislation, his government will establish a special education fund consisting of zero-coupon federal bonds.

“Through various mechanisms, bonds will be sold in tranches to private investors or purchased in market clearing exercises by the CBN [Central Bank of Nigeria]. This will help fund the universities while reducing the per capita tuition cost increase felt by the average student,” he says.

Obi, Labour Party candidate, in his 72-page manifesto, tagged, ‘It is possible’, promises to remodel all higher education institutions to serve as centres for research, development and commercialisation of ideas for the quick industrialisation of Nigeria. The ex-governor of Anambra State in South-eastern Nigeria says his government will ensure the availability of funds to meet the needs of higher institutions.

During other public outings, Obi vows that, if he is elected, lecturers will never go on strike and that universities would not be closed as the trend has been with previous governments.

Atiku, the PDP presidential candidate, cites all the known problems facing the higher education sector – inadequate and irregular funding, decayed infrastructure, outdated learning materials and curriculum, and persistent industrial action by the academic and non-academic unions of tertiary institutions.

He promises to address the issues in his 74-page manifesto titled, ‘My Covenant with Nigerians’.

Kwankwaso, the NNPP presidential candidate – in his 162-page manifesto titled, ‘My pledges to you’ – promises that, if elected, his government “will work with all stakeholders to arrest the rot and the decay in our tertiary education institutions and ensure that the perennial industrial action by staff unions is brought to a permanent stop”.

The former governor of Kano State, in Northwest Nigeria, says he will improve funding for research and innovation and establish a special ministry for higher education.

Kwankwaso also promises that his government will expand the places for the training of medical personnel (including physicians, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, laboratory science technologies, and so on) in all tertiary institutions with a view to narrowing the manpower gap in the healthcare sector.

Implementation concerns

Professor Emmanuel Osodeke, ASUU president, has been around long enough not to trust what politicians say.

“Really, our problem is not with what they [presidential candidates] have in their manifestos. It is about the ability of [whoever emerges as] the president to do what they promised,” Osodeke tells University World News.

He says from experience that, when candidates are campaigning, they make all the promises, but they hardly implement them when they get into power. “That is the fear we have,” Osodeke says. “Promises are cheap, implementation is the key thing.”

The ASUU president says he has learned not to take to heart any candidate’s promises for the HE sector, going by happenings with the current administration.

“During his campaign, incumbent President Buhari made a lot of promises for the university system and higher education sector in general. Even the minister of education [Adamu Adamu] spoke a lot about how the system was underfunded and made promises to create a turnaround. However, this is perhaps the worst government when it comes to funding the higher education system,” Osodeke says.

“Meanwhile, one of the leading presidential candidates has said he will pay the backlog of salaries if elected; another says he will ensure that university lecturers don’t strike again. But, when they win, will they implement what they promised?” he asks.

Despite his distrust in politicians’ words, Osodeke says ASUU will reach out to whoever wins the presidency and present to them what the union believes is best for the system.

Ramoni Alani, a professor of educational management at the University of Lagos, also raises concerns about politicians implementing their promises.

“Many of the candidates have been saying they will do this and that for the higher education sector, but oftentimes they make the promises just to get votes,” he tells University World News. “What I have learned is that politicians will always promise heaven on earth, but at the end of the day, they will do nothing.”

Alani advises whoever is elected president to devote funds to higher institutions.

Meanwhile, the National Association of Nigerian Students has said the student body will only support a presidential candidate who can prove beyond reasonable doubt that they have the interests of Nigerian students and the education sector at heart.

NANS’ south-west zonal coordinator, Adegboye Olatunji, deputy coordinator Alao John and the union’s public relations officer Awoyinfa Opeoluwa said this in a recent co-signed statement.