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The decline of radical scholarship in the Nigerian academia

Reuben Abati posed a timely question, “Where are the Public Intellectuals?” as a title of a piece published on 24 January 2016, to bemoan the sudden disappearance of informed, critical, and impactful intellectual engagement of socio-political affairs in the public space.

Perhaps, one simple answer to his question is that public intellectualism has suffered retrogression given the apparent decline of radical scholarship in the Nigerian universities, which used to be a primary driver of public intellectualism.

Indeed, there was a time in the Nigerian universities when a life of intellectual radicalism and activism fully existed, which vibrated not only the academic environment but also the corridors of power. This was the period that symbolized the epitome of critical scholarship and progressive unionism.

No one could have described it better than one of the major actors in that epoch, late Tajudeen Abdulraheem, who wrote in his emotional tribute to a giant figure of academic radicalism, late Yusuf Bala Usman, that those were the “periods when imperialism was called by its proper name not disguised under euphemisms like globalisation, Friends or partners!”

The global environment of bipolarity driven by the two competing dominant ideologies, socialism and capitalism, the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles at the continental level, as well as resistance to the brute military oppression at home in Nigeria, were some of the strong forces that kept that spirit of intellectualism alive.

It was the period when every student in the social sciences and humanities represented an encyclopedia of the essentials of Marxism, and also equated scholarship with Marxism.

Students never thought of absconding from lecture theaters after marking the attendance register (as obtainable in present times) as those radical scholars were always a delight to listen to as they fiercely and brilliantly deconstruct the Western modernisation schools. Clearly, this energized student radicalism and unionism.

Prominent figures in that era, which reigned particularly from the 1970s to the late 1990s, included radical scholars such as Yusuf Bala Usman, Yusuf Bangura, Biodun Jeyifo, Bade Onimode, Omafume Onoge, AB Zack Williams, Okwudiba Nnoli, Eskor Toyo, Attahiru Jega, Festus Iyayi, Abubakar Momoh, Said Adejumobi, Julius Ihonvbere, and a host of others.

Sadly, the modern university is a shadow of its former self. That culture of excellent and critical scholarship is now in total absence. The intellectual quality and discipline upheld by those scholars have now been overtaken by intellectual indolence, incompetence, and disguised scholarship.

“The universities are now graveyards of ideas. A civil service mentality has crept in as academics have now adopted the prevailing opening and closing time of the civil service,” writes Professor Francis Egbokhare of the Department of Linguistics, University of Ibadan, in his article, “University Decline and its Reasons: Imperatives for Change and Relevance.”

Not anymore do we read about robust intellectual debates and outstanding research. Rather, we are more inundated with embarrassing stories of sexual harassment, plagiarism, extortion and massive corruption in the academia.

For there to be a revival of that enviable culture of intellectualism, it is important we begin to reflect on this question: how did we lose that era?

Economic decline of the 1980s             

Nigeria’s economic decline in the 1980s, after the eventful age of extravagance occasioned by the 1970s oil boom, had a ramifying effect on the university. This was worsened by the infamous Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) thrown at Nigerians by the Ibrahim Babangida-led military regime in 1986.

The concomitant high inflation rate and collapsed Naira grossly reduced the worth of salaries of university lecturers and also skyrocketed the cost of academic resources (mostly sourced from overseas) needed to sustain the university.

At the same time, the government’s allocation to the university sector suffered a devastating decline of about 96 percent decrease, which set the stage for the gross under-funding of the Nigerian university.

According to Yusuf Bangura in his research paper, “Intellectuals, Economic Reform and Social Change: Constraints and Opportunities in the Formation of Nigerian Technocracy” published in 1994, “academics were traumatized” given the phenomenon. Their take-home pay could no longer take them home.

Therefore, there was an urgent need to source alternative means for survival. Many of them sought greener pastures outside the country. Some were lucky enough to get academic positions, while many others engaged in some non-academic ventures (including menial jobs) for survival.

Furthermore, university academics sought employment in the private sector, especially the newly established banks, which offered better salaries. Others lobbied for political appointments and, therefore, jettisoned their principles to support the government of the day.

This became the genesis of a mass exodus of academics in the universities. For example, a report by the Nigerian Universities Commission quoted by Bangura suggested that in a two-year period alone (1988-1990), a total of 1, 128 academic staff left nine universities. The university lost many of its radical scholars through this process.

Politicization of the University

Many have consistently suggested that the nature of politics existing in the university is as acrimonious as the one played by professional politicians.

Apparently, this kind of politics crept into the system following the interference of politicians in the running of the university in particular through the imposition of Vice-Chancellors (VCs) on the university communities. This makes appointments to be primarily driven by other factors beyond merit including political patronage, ethnicity, and religion.

A significant consequence of this, as argued by Professor Francis Egbokhare, is the emergence of VCs who are “often dictatorial, corrupt and misappropriate scarce resources. Because they lack popular support, they introduce ethnic and religious politics into university administration.”

What this produces are university authorities that completely lock the space for criticisms and meaningful engagements, which should be a trademark of the university.

Therefore, the radical scholars whose scholarship is hinged on a radical change of the status quo are often frustrated by the system and eventually thrown out.

In his opinion piece, “True and Lasting Solutions for Nigerian Universities”, Dr. Said Adejumobi, formerly an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, Lagos State University, lamented that, “Many vice-chancellors have become demi-gods and have built fiefdoms for themselves; a merit-based reward system is lacking in the system; what matters for professional mobility is not sound academic prowess, but proximity to the vice chancellor and his cronies. A George Bush mentality reigns in the governance of many universities – ‘you are either with the vice chancellor or against him/her.’ Intellectual discourse, critical dialogue, ideas contestation and vibrancy of knowledge production have become anathema to university culture in Nigeria.”

Apparently, this has been a major contributor to the demise of radical intellectualism. Many of the radical scholars, given their principled character and scholarship, would rather leave the university than get trapped in a bastardized system.

While those that choose to remain in the system are victimized to such extent that their voices are effectively silenced. Dr. Adejumobi further noted that “Those we can regard as scholars in the Nigerian university system today have become few and marginalized; they are lonely but unpopular voices in a wilderness in which political academics, academic traders/contractors, and academic bureaucrats are the lords of the manor.”

Ethnicity factor

In addition to the politicization of the university is the problem of ethnicity system fast killing critical and excellent scholarship in the system.

The moment ethnicity and kinship affiliations became a major factor in the appointment, promotion, and distribution of benefits in the university; the system increasingly got irritating to the radical scholars who believe only in merit.

Besides, the radical scholars are consistently excluded in the system because their intellectualism is no more a useful criterion for upward mobility and relevance within the university. Before their eyes, they have seen their grossly incompetent colleagues rise to the leading positions, and as recipients of humongous funds to execute unproductive research projects or programs.

Professor Peter Okebukola, a former Executive Director National Universities Commission, averred in his report, “Fifty Years of Higher Education in Nigeria: Trends in Quality Assurance”, that, “Some, such as dean of faculty or head of department got to positions on the basis of ethnic affiliation or religious disposition rather than through merit. Hence you find a ‘son of the soil’ lecturer grade II with low management capacity but with high local connection superintending over a department with senior colleagues including professors who are not indigenes.”

Political and public service appointments

Since the university provides a reservoir of useful ideas and knowledge for national development, politicians have always found academics beneficial to build a reputation for their regimes. Unfortunately, this has been detrimental to the university as the brightest scholars appointed to different positions usually find it difficult to either return to the classrooms or regain their productivity in the system.

Unfortunately, this has been detrimental to the university as the brightest scholars appointed to different positions usually find it difficult to either return to the classrooms or regain their productivity in the system.

Although there have been remarkable cases, such as the record of excellence earned by Professor Attahiru Jega at the INEC who voluntarily resigned his position to return to the university at a time when he was mostly celebrated, there have been some worst cases where the hitherto renowned radical scholars get de-radicalised, and not only enmeshed in dirty politics, but end up as a major accessory to the corrupt practices and social injustice they supposedly spent their academic lives challenging.

This group of scholars, therefore, lose the moral credibility to continue to offer constructive criticisms even after their sojourn in public service. 

Unemployment and the making of circumstantial scholars

The increasing unemployment rate in the country has forced people with little or no interest in academics to invade the universities. They are individuals who would have preferred to work in the private sector to earn a living. However, their inability to secure their desired jobs compelled them to look in the direction of the universities. Thanks to the meteoric rise in the number of universities both public and private and the ethnicity factor in appointments and mobility in the system.

However, their inability to secure desired jobs compelled them to look in the direction of the universities. Thanks to the meteoric rise in the number of universities both public and private and the ethnicity factor in appointments and mobility in the system.

Radical scholarship is affected by this trend because there is no reproduction of the old generation of radical scholars. This generation of academics are more business-minded and seek shorter routes to rising in the system.

Most fail to develop in the system notwithstanding the number of years they have spent in the academia. They will rather pay, or squat with their productive colleagues, for publications. They are more visible in predatory journals.

According to Professor Okebukola, “A crop of professors had started to emerge within the last ten years that would hardly merit a lecturer grade 1 position in any of the first generation universities in the 1960s and 1970s. The claim to research and publications by these charlatan ‘professors’ is found in ‘roadside’ journals and self-published, poorly-edited, largely-plagiarised books.”

The way forward

The fact that the presence of radical scholars meaningfully contributed to scholarship and national development shows its critical importance. The revival of the lost culture of scholarship cannot be overemphasized, particularly in this crucial time when the country is in dire straits.

One good way to resuscitate the life of sound critical scholarship is a good mentoring system. The surviving radicals, despite their frustrations, have a huge role to play in this regard. They need to show some interest in mentoring the younger scholars and build their scholarly strengths so that they can have the capacity to fill the widening missing space.

A major complaint of the young academics is that they are left to wander in the darkness without being shown the way by their senior colleagues. Therefore, we need to re-embrace that tradition of scholarship for us to have a return of the good old days of intellectualism in the Nigerian academia.

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