BETWEEN OBASANJO, AUTONOMY AND THE FUTURE OF NIGERIAN STUDENTS.
"There are two kinds of laws just and unjust laws. One has a moral responsibility to disobey an unjust law because an unjust law is no law at all. And any individual who disobeys a law which conscience tells him is unjust, and who accepts the penalty in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice is, in reality expressing the highest respect for law".
The above was Dr. Marthin Luther King Jnr, in his A letter from a Birmingham jail. But before I proceed, this paper will today talk on autonomy, which is the most quibbling and crucial issue that is about to wobble our universities. It is one of the prominent and restive features that the federal government, especially of Obasanjo's doesn't want us to nag at since the very day the protracted idea was introduced by her kith and kin.
Though from the beginning the reader may detect the irritating as well as provocative nature in my presentation of the word "autonomy", but I will try as much as possible to give it a gentleman's perspective. The gentleness is necessary as such, due to the profundity of the topic, whereas the provocative ness stemmed from the inextricable complexity of the ulterior motives behind the university autonomy. And this is not also unconnected with the government's systematic arrangements to crumble not only the universities but also educational system in the country.
Autonomy in a simple lexicon means:the freedom for a country, a region or an organization to govern itself independently it also means the ability to act and make decisions without being controlled by anyone else. But autonomy in terms of universities scale of reference as asserted by Prof. Adamu Baikie in his maiden lecture at the 10th and 11th convocation ceremony of ATBU, Bauchi, held on December 2002 that "Autonomy for universities is therefore a recipe for self control, discipline, creativity and innovation without which the university system may be incapable of sustaining itself let alone put autonomy into effect. Prof Baikie further said "autonomy is also a challenge to the survival of universities. Parents and students will, in future be very selective and discriminatory in their choice of universities to attend..."
Here, the observations that I would like to drive from Baikie's explanation, which I would want to put as a cardinal question is that since the whole idea of a university being autonomous; encompass among other things, the issue of funding and finance, how can parents and students cope with the outrageous tuition and school fees, not to even talk of being selective and discriminatory in their choice(s)? And while we are saying this, we should at the same time appreciate the fact that these universities are situated in a place where more than 85% of the entire populace are wallowing in poverty. We may not come to grip with the reality of the situation until a comprehensive package of government's meaning of autonomy is opened up. In his speech during the inauguration of the governing councils of the federal universities in May 2002, president Olusegun Obasanjo charged the members of the council to take full responsibility for the failure or success of the universities over which you would preside. For this reason you will be granted the much desired autonomy to shape the destiny of your institutions the best way you deem fit. In another related development, however, the federal ministry of education stated thus:
Autonomy for universities is defined in terms of their freedom to govern themselves, appoint their key officers, determine the conditions of service of their staff; control their student admissions and academic curricula, control their finances and generally regulate themselves as independent legal entities without undue interference from federal government. But as Baikie argued elsewhere that" this cannot thrive in the Nigerian university system if the administration of the university fails to uphold the principles of democracy". Not only this, there are still a lot of questions that we need to raise to both federal government and university administrators. For instance, under the current epoch and by virtue of the federal government's ambivalent attitude toward education, one should ask whether: the environment is well enabled for universities to assume absolute power when their entire budgetary allocation to education, is just a paltry sum of less than 5% of the national budget? Was this not the bone of contention that made ASUU and the federal government closed down universities for six month? If so, then we need to ask ourselves that if Obasanjo cannot afford to sacrifice certain-ample percentage to educational sector, how and where will the university administrators scout and get the money that would adequately cater for the survival of these universities when such autonomy is granted to them?
As somebody asserted that "there is a very important aspect of autonomy that is crucial and without which the sustenance of autonomy will be seriously impaired and that is funding. If a university assumes the status of autonomy would that absolve government from funding the programmes of the university?"
Article 17, of the Kampala Declaration on intellectual freedom and social Responsibility stated that:
The state has an obligation and a social responsibility towards academic and academic institutions. The state shall continuously ensure adequate funding for research institutions and institutions of higher education. Such funding shall be determined in consultation with an elected body of the institution". The Kampala declaration further stated "the state should continue to fund institutions of higher learning as an obligation in spite of the autonomous status of the institutions".
Now this brings us to one of the major themes of this analysis.
The issue of tuition and school fees:
As an ardent believer in Dr. Luther King Junior's school of thought, I always feel belittled whenever justice is accused, misrepresented and pauperized. But why I say so, was because of what Mr. President did, which I do not think, is done anywhere in the world.
Recently, Obasanjo called all the Nigerian Vice-chancellors and gave them one-man quadruple decisions. One out of those decisions states "hence forth, the students accommodation fees should be charged at N10, 000.00 per bed space". And that very soon the federal government will release certain amount of money to all universities, and once that money is released, each university can go ahead to either source or charge suitable fees from students that it deem fit for the running of its affairs. And this is just a prelude to overt withdrawal of its commitments and responsibility.
Already, there is fear and uncertainties inflicted in the minds of students and parents that by next session the federal government may decide to ask all the universities to charge between N40-50, 000.00 as tuition fees, plus the N10, 000.00 bed space which when put together stands for N50-60, 000.00 per student!
At this juncture, I have no choice than to base my argument within the legal and constitutional framework so that in the end everybody can picture and judge for himself.
Chapter Two section 18(1) of the 1999 constitution stated, "Government shall direct its policies towards ensuring that there are equal and adequate educational opportunities at all levels. However, the same chapter section 18 (3)(a-d) stated clearly that every Nigerian is entitled to: free, compulsory and universal primary education; free secondary education; free university education; and free adult literacy programme".
Therefore, I do not know what precedent the president used in arriving at such inimical sum of N10, 000.00 accommodations fee. And I would live to ponder and ask my self over time that are our law makers really aware of the serious implications and dangers involved in allowing such a unilateral law decision making; or are they just sitting idle at Abuja warming chairs; watching "prophet Obasanjo" manning Nigeria unilaterally? I suppose it is the duty of the federal ministry of education, House committee on education, the Nigerian University Commission, Vice- chancellors, Students union bodies, Labor unions, SSANU, NASU and ASUU that are much more closer to students affairs vis-?-vis; welfare, tuitions, accommodations, academic matters etc. But definitely not Obasanjo!
If this single-decision making act is allowed to continue, however, then definitely the end results are unprecedented multi dimensional problems. What is even quite disturbing here is the way students will be forced out of school unnecessarily due to the inadequate resources to meet up with this 'fee of a thing'. For instance, according to ASUU, BUK chapter" 70% of Nigerian students cannot afford to go to school because of autonomy".
Actually, what this unwholesome idea implies is that if a student is not ready to pay, then he/she should just give way. And those that feel can afford, which I believe, are the sons of the most influential peoples at Abuja, do not know anything much in the academics. It is very astonishing to note with dismay that the students who cannot afford, are the brilliant ones, whereas those who can are the dullest. On the other hand, if a student wants to go and rent accommodation outside campus, this also has a serious implication to especially our female students. Because once you subject them to environments where the atmosphere is not conducive for learning, due to either congestion and/or other social vices, then they will definitely become much more vulnerable to danger. For example, taking ABU as a case study. Once you allowed your daughter to rent a house at either Samaru, Gyallesu or Rimin tsiwa environs, you have just succeeded in exposing her to social attacks, due to the fact that such environments are not unconnected with certain undesirable elements, who will always utilize that as an opportunity to either rape or engage your daughter in prostitution etc. Hence their security is not ensured. And this has greater negative effect to our socio- educational savvy. Alas, parents and students must know that by next session, they either settle the N10, 000.00 score with Obasanjo or face the wrath of the sin they never commit.
But the fact of the matter is that Nigerian students, parents and human rights groups can successfully challenge this via a competent court of jurisdiction by seeking order of certiorari and/or mandamus that will force ?"president Obasanjo" and his proponents from implementing such unconstitutionally diabolical decision. Though it doesn't cost a blind man to know that the standard of this country's judiciary has reached its nadir, but I am confident this can be challenged. And this is very essential to the sustenance of our educational etiquettes. Also most importantly, by virtue of what is happening, the federal government may not continue to fund universities not to even talk of increasing their allocations. The options left to the universities and us are very crucial to our educational emancipation. As Prof. Baikie cited sometimes last year that "The culture of paying tuition fees has not been allowed to gain roots in universities and we are all familiar with the dangers inherent in mentioning the idea let alone introduce the payment of tuition fees in our tertiary institutions: Incidentally I am sure some of you saw the demonstration of British university students on the DSTV against the proposal to introduce what is described as "top up fees" over and above the one thousand pounds( f 1, 000. 00) about (200, 000 Naira) now being paid by students. Prof explained that "The British universities said that they would need ten Billion pounds to rehabilitate themselves and bring their universities to the level of American universities. The British Government is in no position to provide that level of funding and the idea of "Top up fees" was suggested and that led to the demonstration by students".
However, one thing that has to be made clear here is that, even in the developed countries, there are Non Governmental Organizations who offer free grants and scholarships that can allow one to settle tuition and registration fees. Now the question is how many such organizations do we have in Nigeria that offer free grants and scholarships? How many well to do Nigerians can make financial contributions to universities? One might be tempted to reflect on the oil companies like Shell, Chevron, Mobil etc, that gives scholarships to the citizens. But we should know and appreciate the fact that these companies only gives scholarship on the basis that they are exploiting our National wealth. And even if we agree on that, the question still remains, how many are they in number, compared to the NGO's abroad and also compared to the majority of Nigerian students? Let us therefore call a spade a spade. We should not take America or Britain as a case to our own.
Back to my earlier assertion, the issue of 'Autonomy' distinct from academic freedom:
Here, the role of Ahmadu Bello University on 'Autonomy' is commendable.
Due to this vague and polemic idea, the ABU community constituted a committee to study the implications of federal government policy on autonomy. And their findings is stated thus:
"Autonomy means allowing the academic and administrative organs of the university, established by law and statues, and in pursuit of the educational, research, and man power development policies and programmes set for them by these government. The university would be totally terminated of arbitrary directions and interference ?from the presidency, the National University Commission (NUC), the federal ministry of Education and other ministries and agencies".
But this view is diametrically opposed to the ABU Committee's belief, which concluded that:
"The reality on the ground is that the federal government owns the federal universities and shall continue to largely finance them. It has together with the local and state governments, heavy responsibilities in the area of education which it has to shoulder".
Nonetheless, many flows were detected in the government's version of autonomy by ASUU. ASUU detected a total of 103 flows full of unconstitutionality, human rights violations, negation of agreement's previously entered with government, funding etc. ASUU concluded that the bill is inimical to the interest of universities. Hence it was out rightly rejected.
Whereas government and its cronies are advocating an ill - version of autonomy others see it as a complete departure from academic freedom. This reminds me of a certain personality, who is currently a minister in Obasanjo's cabinet. The man being an ardent believer of autonomy declared: that he has more than 10 children who are schooling, and he can always sponsor them all. His only prayer is that let there be autonomy. But when he was asked on where he got the money, he could not answer. And don't forget that this was the same man who once told his students in the university that when he was young, he could not see a Television set in their house for over 11 years due to his parents' abject condition. But as destiny have it; this man is now on the helm of affairs, and instead of him to reflect back to his moribund status quo, he was very far from it. What a pity!
Therefore, these kinds of people should know that their own meaning of autonomy is a direct reproach to academic freedom.
Academic freedom according to the Accra Workshop of 1972, "Is that freedom which should be interpreted to mean the liberty of the university to determine course content and curricula, what to teach and how to teach; it must embrace the liberty to do research, publish and disseminate knowledge freely without let or hindrance. This is the fundamental freedom which African universities must defend at all times".
However, the world university service defined academic freedom as "the freedom of members of academic community, individually or collectively, in the pursuit of development and transmission of knowledge through research, study, discussion, documentation. Production, creation., teaching, lecturing and writing".
Ideally, this is the definition of academic freedom in absolute terms, which is supposed to live with autonomy as husband and wife in perfect harmony. But the way Obasanjo government has completely defined these two (academic freedom and autonomy), is not different from academic slavery and educational segregation between the rich and the down trodden. What they want is a situation where education would be left for the sons of the richest vocal few individuals. This is also not different from mortgaging Nigeria's educational sector to private hands. The systematic elimination of the public schools from the scheme of things is Obasanjo's prime target. But one irony here is this: more than 90% of all the government machineries, which are occupying one position or the other, were product of public schools. As a result I found it very difficult to believe whether our policy makers are not suffering from "schizophrenic overzealous ness". Whenever it comes to matters of national importance, one will definitely sympathize with Nigeria on the way things are happening nowadays. One may even have the guts to say that nobody respects law in Nigeria.
Finally, whether we like it or not, funding of universities will certainly remain a major issue that the federal government must continue to shoulder as a responsibility. Obasanjo should know that education is our births right not a privilege. We must therefore be given as such. I therefore urge all the student union bodies ASUU, SSANU, NASU, Labour union, parents and every stakeholder. To please take it up as an ample responsibility and ensure the fear of God, that provided we are alive, this act must not be allowed to happen. As Dr. Bala Usman had it that "We should not be afraid of pursuing our rights to the fundamentals. We should not also be afraid of being analytical as long as we are guided by patriotic commitment. We can make mistakes but we can as well learn, if we are genuinely committed. We should not allow any one to throw 'experience' and 'ideas' at us and make us incoherent and mental and emotional clients. These are absolutely essential for any meaningful activity whether it concerns natural or social phenomena. There is no conflict whatsoever between this and action; that is action committed to and directed to meaningful goals are inseparable. We cannot have one without the other. What is wrong. useless and should be avoided and exposed is talk hot air jargon".
Surely, these acts must not be allowed to survive.