Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) announced the approval of $8.5 million for the evacuation of about 5,000 stranded Nigerian nationals (mostly students) from the war-ravaged country. Mercifully, our countrymen and women have since started arriving home on chartered flights. The prayer on every Nigerian’s lips today is that the evacuation exercise goes without a hitch until every Nigerian trapped in Ukraine and willing to leave it is back home in peace.
While we ponder this sad turn of events for the beleaguered people of Ukraine and our nationals who went there in search of their dreams, we must be thankful that the Ukraine evacuations happened at all. It could have been worse. Although it is a minimum global expectation for every citizen living abroad to be evacuated by his home government in the event of such catastrophe as war, we have become accustomed to the fact that being a Nigerian citizen nowadays commands no basic rights and privileges. After all, there are over 200 million Nigerians at home in Nigeria for whom the government apparently has no redemption plan. So, the signal from Ukraine is that all hope is not lost if you hold the green passport; there may still be a modicum of value attached to Nigerian life.
I am still embarrassed by the needless glee with which the FEC announced the monetary value of the evacuation plan. It is like a father who sees his child drowning in a pool and proceeds to carefully remove his expensive wrist watch, mobile phone and clean white cotton shirt before diving in to rescue his kid. Looks too much like exhibitionism, if you ask me. But I digress. I promised to let this one slide for today.
What deserves immediate attention, I think, is that FEC is not equally concerned and decisive about the fate of over 2 million Nigerian students in public universities across the country. By an uncanny coincidence, these many more “home based” students are currently stranded within our own borders on account of the ongoing strike by university lecturers under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
ASUU is striking because of alleged government failure to fulfill longstanding funding agreements reached since 2009 as well as the apparent reluctance of the authorities to migrate to a new payroll system (UTAS) customized for the Ivory Tower. ASUU has for years now kicked against the use of another payroll platform (IPPIS) which it says is unsuitable for the peculiar needs and circumstances of people in academia. The union has gone ahead to design and donate UTAS to the federal government, daring it to transparently and scientifically test the integrity of the two and adopt the superior one. The result of a technical committee to conduct this simple test has only just been made public – weeks into ASUU’s warning strike. Everyone can see government’s reluctance to eat humble pie.
It is sad that since the Buhari Administration, ASUU’s perennial upheavals have been managed almost exclusively by the Labor & Productivity Minister in the absence of his Education Ministry counterpart. Not to mention that FEC and the Presidency are often totally aloof to these parleys. It is as if this government desperately wants the world to take notice that it has zero concern for the fate of public tertiary education in Nigeria. And that winning an ego war against ASUU is more important than the fate of Nigeria’s next generation.
Perhaps this is because most officials of the government have their children studying abroad or in elite private varsities. Just as they procure basic health services abroad – following the example of the president himself. These ones run like clockwork. So, the rest of Nigerians who can’t afford to study abroad or pay through their noses at home can go jump in the lagoon.
Now, here’s the paradox: It is mostly the children and family members of privileged Nigerians (mostly, senior government officials) who were stranded in Ukraine. Not the children of lowly office clerks, bus drivers, market women, artisans and sundry Nigerians. And now, these “privileged Nigerian students” have been, rightly and deservedly, ferried home to safety at great public expense. A good friend of mine insists their privileged status helps explain why FEC quickly approved their sponsored evacuation.
In essence, the systemic imbalances of the Nigerian state just keep getting worse. The rich get richer at the expense of the poor and the state. And no one seems willing to even contemplate leveling the playing field or letting the goodies go round more equitably.
$8.5 million may look like a small sum for an emergency international flight operation involving thousands of Nigerians in a besieged foreign country. But it amounts to over 4.7 billion Naira at current exchange rates. What ASUU is asking FG to inject into our public universities is a total of N1 trillion at the rate of N200b each year for 5 years! Divided between approximately 100 federal and state universities, ASUU’s N200b per year wish list comes to a paltry N2b per university per annum. This is far less than what has been budgeted to fly home our stranded nationals from Ukraine over the course of a few days or weeks!
Since an agreement was signed to this effect in 2009, no federal administration has fully or substantially met its part of the deal for any year. This is why strikes occur almost every semester in our public universities, with attendant losses in academic stability, standards and global competitiveness.
If this government had been injecting regular tranches of $8.5m (or N4.7b) into our public universities since 2015, ASUU would almost certainly not be on strike today. And millions of Nigerian students won’t be stranded in their schools within their own country either. But then, this is Nigeria where people in power and public office prefer to let decay fester so that the gap between them and the led gets even wider.
I know that money doesn’t grow on trees and governments are sometimes more broke than their average citizens. But clearly, money is not the key issue here. Priorities are. This government just released N10 billion to the State House Clinic in Aso Rock which the President doesn’t even use. So the message is loud and clear: First, clinics used exclusively by senior government officials to treat minor headaches are more important than public universities. Second, foreign-based students are more important than home-based ones. Period.
The wisdom of Nigerian leaders surpasses all understanding.
Victor Anazonwu is a journalist and author based in Lagos.