Professor Chukwuka Okonjo, the immediate past Obi of Ogwashi Uku in Delta State was an atypical personality. He must, to date, be the only traditional ruler with a background of being a philosopher and trustee of the radical nationalist Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU). How did that happen in a country in which most traditional rulers are so mindful of government sensibilities that they must stay far from having anything to do with a fighting organisation like ASUU? Intervention republishes a November 2005 interview with the late traditional ruler who gave a rare account of himself. The interview also extended to the equally late Prof Eskor Toyo who spoke in nearly the same terms with Prof Okonjo. Both interviews were conducted by Mr. Adagbo Onoja, our Editorial Associate who was then a Member, Editorial Board of Daily Trust where the interview was originally published as Why I am Different from My Daughter – Professor Chukwuka Okonjo, Nigeria’s Finance Minister’s father”. That was sometimes in November 2005 but, it is all like an interview conducted just yesterday. It is republished here unedited.
They manifest all the physical features of advance in age but the surprise is that their voices are strong, booming and, in the case of one of them, angry, rebuking and, in fact, snarling. I am referring to Prof Eskor Toyo and Prof Chukwuka Okonjo, two foremost Nigerian economists and elder academics. While Eskor Toyo is the enigmatic doyen of socialist politics in Nigeria, Okonjo is a foremost nationalist who once declared that the 20th century has been for most Nigerians one of colonial domination, made up of external (British) and internal colonialism.
The internal colonialists in his discourse refer to the 10 per cent of Nigerians who rule the country as against the ninety per cent who live on less than a dollar a day. This elite, said Okonjo, are catering for themselves instead of mobilizing the people for development. “They have, with the World Bank, thrown away the 130 million Nigerians outside of the elite circle. This elite, they are blacks but they think like Americans. So, they are solving the problems of white blacks-white men with black skin”, he told Daily Trust in an interview at Rockview Hotel, Abuja at the recently concluded conference on “Reforming the Nigerian Higher Education System”.
But he cautions the Nigerian elite: the Nigerian elite who run the government should remember that ninety per cent of the populace, that is over 130 million of Nigeria’s 140 million population exist and their needs have to be catered for”. The 10 per cent who rule should remember there are 130 million others in the country who do not have anything and the elite have to think of ways of mobilizing them for development, he added.
For Okonjo, the elite cannot mobilize the populace for national development unless they begin to think properly. Right now, they are not thinking properly the moment they use a concept like informal economy, for example. He says that there is nothing like informal economy but a domestic market economy. Calling it informal economy is trying to imitate Harvard, he declared, short of calling it colonial mentality. Linking this analysis to the crisis of university education in Nigeria, the elder academic suggests that the universities assume the character of the elite rather than being based on the domestic market economy oriented model of university capable of solving the problems of ninety per cent of the population.
So, for him, part of the problem is that there has been a linear expansion in the number of schools, including universities but without change in the structure and orientation. As far as he is concerned, the university of 1960s is the university of now. The only exception he grants is that instead of a bunch of white skinned officials and academics, you now see a bunch of black skinned but white thinking officials and academics.
Okonjo obviously thinks differently from his daughter, President Obasanjo’s Minister of Finance and World Bank worker, Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. He explains why it is not like father, like daughter: when she went to school, she had a father who sent her to Harvard and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ivy League universities in the US) and she worked in the World Bank for over twenty years. So, she would like to try the Harvard orientation. She is not a Nigerian in that sense in the same way that the other members of the elite are not Nigerians in their mental and ideological outlook but she loves the country and she is back.
So, doesn’t the father advise the daughter at all? The answer is crisp liberalism: she is my daughter, when I see her, we discuss family matters”. Prof Chukwuka Okonjo does not allow you to call him a professor. “Iam no longer a professor, he says. If you are not in the university, you cease to be a professor unless you are an emeritus professor. But here in Nigeria, you people award emeritus professorship to those who bring money”. When I reminded him that we have successfully Nigerianized the title of Professorship in terms of keeping it once you have been on one, he disagreed, saying that the idea of the university was not necessarily Nigerian.
Professor Okonjo trained in Mathematics and then in Logic and Scientific Method in his first degree. Then he got two masters degrees, one in Mathematics and the other in Economics. He then did his doctorate in Mathematical Statistics. When he sought employment at the University of Ibadan, he was employed simultaneously in the Departments of Economics and Statistics. Today, he is one of the three Trustees of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, the others being former President of Nigerian Labour Congress, Hassan Summonu and Professor Eskor Toyo who also spoke to me at the ASUU conference in question.
Eskor Toyo started life as a member of the first generation of anti-colonial nationalists. The pains and pathos of that struggle shaped his outlook. Thus he prefaces all his public statements with how great Nigeria would have been if it were Zik, Ita Eyo, Herbert Macaulay and Aminu Kano that were ruling Nigeria. Nigeria is having problems, he said, because independence was handed over to people who were not interested in it, people he called uncle Toms – chiefs, educated elite, lackeys, the colonial army and tribalists. He described the tribalists as those who are saying now that Nigeria does not exist beyond a collection of tribes. “Aminu Kano knew Nigeria existed. Zik knew Nigeria existed”, he moaned. Zik, before he died, said Toyo, had complained that two things would explain his death. One is old age and the other the loss of Nigerian independence. Toyo insists that Zik knew what he was saying.
He exemplified the loss of independence in what he calls a copy-copy-copy mentality. While most private universities and research centers in the advanced industrial societies were established because big businesses wanted manpower while the traditional universities were pursuing truth, the people establishing universities in Nigeria are doing so as fashion. He went into a resume of the idea of the university: Initially, universities were home of elite bodies of scholars. Both the students and the teacher could come from anywhere and the objective was the pursuit of truth for its own sake. They needed a charter to pursue such objective unmolested which is how come the idea of university autonomy.
When the socialists came on the scene of history, they insisted on democratization of access to university education and, by implication, truth. Then the Americans came in with their commercialism, making universities to produce purchasable commodities in the interest of commerce and profit.
Eskor’s understanding of the crisis in Nigerian university system is that Nigeria can synthesize the three ideas of the university above. It is not a task he believes the present elite can accomplish in Nigeria but he believes that what the Germans are doing now in this regard should be instructive. There are some costly researches that have to be funded and it is not possible for democratic (public funded, mass based) universities to do this. So there have to be ‘elite’ universities. In his opinion, this is not something to be afraid of as a critique of socialist democracy.
Eskor Toyo should know this, being a leading intellectual force behind the Academic Staff Union of Universities, (ASUU), which has been waging struggles against commercialization of education in Nigeria. It has been a multi-faceted struggle and varied experience for the Nigerian academics leading the struggle, like Eskor.
Dr. Abubakar Momoh, the fire-for-fire Political Scientist from Lagos state University and a member of the ASUU War Cabinet (Negotiation Team) in 1993 told the story of how he and the other young turks in the team used to inflame Eskor by tactically denying him breakfast on the days they suspected that negotiations would be tough. They had discovered that Eskor was angrier if he was hungry and the angrier he was, the more ferocious he dealt with members of the government team, subduing them with overwhelming debating advantage based on versatile statistics, impeccable logic, the comparative breath of his judgment and the power of his overall analysis. This was partially how ASUU won liberal concessions from the IBB regime in 1993, but which the subsequent government resorted to the doctrine of imperfect obligation to try to annul.
In apparent response to the usual argument that the government lacks resources to adequately fund education, Professor Toyo says the problem of the Nigerian government regarding funding education has nothing to do with lack of funds. Rather, it is a matter of ideology, citing how much poorer countries like China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, etc, had provided free and meaningful education for their citizens from the kindergarten to the university level, only three years after the revolution, in the case of China. The problem, he said, is imperialism, the ambition of very powerful investors in West Europe, North America and Japan to control the world through control of native governments via Foreign Direct Investment, (FDI). “So, if they have a government like that of Obasanjo, they don’t need to have District Officers or Resident Officers here anymore. Obasanjo will do all that for them”.
But he warns that the power of imperialism has been enhanced and is turning into a global fascism of mighty firms. He blames this global counter-revolution on Gorbachev whose ideological stupidity, he said, had forced the world into a crisis. Eskor says that what Gorbachev could not handle was the same reform the Chinese communists were accomplishing beautifully and intelligently.
However, unlike at a previous occasion when he delved into what he now considers as the mistakes of the early socialists in Nigeria, he almost refused talking about that at this interview. They have been making mistakes, he said and observed a break, which is quite unusual of him. Then he said that if you failed to spell out a programme concretely, you ran the risk of shouting above people’s heads, adding that not many people knew what capitalism or socialism meant, “even among the professors”.
But he disagrees that we are lost, giving the example of how he has been trying to explain the various concepts, including democracy, “which nobody understands, hence the Americans can come and pull wools over people’s eyes about democracy”.
I asked if he had delivered on the mother of all books he promised to write on Structural Adjustment Programme, (SAP). He said he had but it was not launched. He only called a news conference on April 10, 2004 on the book as far as it concerned the correctness of his position twenty years ago that SAP could never work. And that he is a better scientist than those who said it would rescue the Nigerian economy.
It was all very interesting sitting in one place for two days listening to the woes of the university system in Nigeria, a country where first class universities should be taken for granted. Instead, the fear expressed by an official of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, CODESRIA, which organized the conference jointly with ASUU is that the crisis is moving from brain drain to students drain. He said he could understand seeing many Nigerian students in South African universities but not the too many of them he saw in Ghana. At that rate, he was sure there would soon be no students available to go to Nigerian universities soon.
But the management of modern universities is where the Nigerian State is completely lost on what to do. Fabian Osuji who came straight from EFCC detention to open this particular conference offered nothing that can be considered original or serious even by the standard of an informed conservative, much less patriotic position. He said the state hadn’t got the resources to fund education adequately, that there was the challenge to reduce the pressure on universities probably by creating a half way measure for some who did not need a university degree. The Emir of Kazaure, Alhaji Najib Hussaini Adamu, who was on the chair asked him where he had been. Osuji refused to answer when he took the microphone to speak. Osuji has been accused of being a bad influence on education in Nigeria. He dissolved the governing councils and thereby removed that modicum of check on the excesses of the other levels of the system. The man who had 55million naira to bribe legislators without battling an eye was pursuing privatization of hostels faithfully, even though he knew that, by world standard, Nigeria is educating only 5 per cent of her education seeking population, something that the minimum should be 15 per cent. According to Education administrators, OECD countries provide 45 % while it is between 85-90% in the United States.
The Nigerian government says it has pumped more money into the universities but the value is much, much less than the figures they are comparing with. In any case, a bulk of the money goes to pay lecturers. Even then, Nigerian lecturers earn much, much less than the African standard. A great number of the lecturers are obsolete themselves because the poverty of the universities means that most of them have stopped doing what makes anyone a scholar.
When Munzali Jubril was Executive Secretary of the National Universities Commission, he came to the conclusion that somehow, fees have to charged to supplement government allocations to the universities. Now, he is convinced that it has become impossible to re-introduce fees.
My chaotic collation from the statements and summaries suggested that hot on the emerging issues from the conference included key global trends and the impact on knowledge production; lack of common perspective by the stake-holders viz funders, the state, parents, academic staff, senior staff and students, competing visions of relationships viz state versus universities, varsities versus society, varsities and the market; rebuilding university culture; the possibility of strategic renewal; the restoration of civic culture being that the university is a site for the construction of civic identity, not cultic violence; the crisis of funding strategy, the ICT revolution as it affects curriculum-its all downloading and no uploading from this end; gender equality within higher education in terms of access, harassment and discrimination suffered by women.