Wednesday, 21 May 2014

ASUP Strike:Of Government’s Ineptitude and Injustice

In the entirety of this piece, my case is simple: that there is no justification for the stagnation, misery, afflictions - all of which government cause us; that there is no rationale for government’s negligence, inattention and exclusion of a people whose rights ought to be protected by the same government; that danger is imminent when people are angry, neglected and totally forgotten by their own government. 

The Polytechnic/Colleges of Education students have been forgotten. The ASUP/COEASU industrial action has been one strike too long, yet it has never been considered a national mishap worthy of attention. It is disheartening to see that our government has been unconcerned and unsympathetic. Or should I say they lack the political and moral conscience to end the impasse. This is an unjust disposition and untenable sin with real consequences. If it did not rain no one would know that an ostrich has eight fingers.
In this we see the level of government commitment to the future of Nigeria. We see, more particularly, how Polytechnic education has been trivialized in Nigeria. This is not a sweet song to sing. The supervising minister of education, Nyesom Wike has in no small measure demonstrated an alarming degree of incapacitation to resolve the industrial dispute. And this is a demeaning picture of how grossly incompetent our leaders are. Elsewhere, to have students lose one whole academic year to strike action is enough to force a sitting minister to resignation. But our world is uninterestingly different. Obviously, Wike is not the kind of minister with a pricking conscience. This is not the kind of minister we want, certainly not an ideal government. We must understand that our experience today as a nation is not unconnected with our past actions and inactions; that most woes and quandary we face today are the inevitable fallout of avoidable cleavages and disconnection of people from their own government. It is the results of a deeply engraved greed and political savagery of an irredeemably incompetent government.

For some time now, both government and media agenda have been basically centered on the alarming insecurity in the country; the bombing, kidnapping, and the many killings. But the abduction of over 200 girl students from the Government Day Secondary School in Chibok is the one which has made our provocatively reactive government to ‘cry for help’. And so we have the attention of the world – for the wrong reasons. Consequently, advocacy has been progressively on to rescue our girls. A barrage of online media campaign has been effectively useful to this end with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. This advocacy and activism is apt and logical. It is not hard to see, how our systematically incompetent security structure has in many instances and occasions been flawed and exposed, a clear pointer, and glaring testimony too, to the sad reality that the entire nation is under threat.  And with the coming of ‘the world’, just as Gimba Kakanda puts it in one of his awakening pieces, “…Our Deaths Will Be Televised”.  But one of Gimba’s illusions is perhaps the fact that our future will also be forecast, and then the likelihood of future uprising. Angry people are perpetually bereaved of conscience. It all ends in three hurtful Rs: Riot. Revolt. Revenge. It is a language. There is no better form of expression for people who have been greatly shortchanged. But we can avoid all these if we let the students go back to school. The Nigerian polytechnic students need to be shown that they are part of the Nigerian nation.

I want President Jonathan to tell America, Britain, France and other Big Brother nations that have offered to help us find our girls that his Polytechnic and Colleges of Education students have been at home for more than 10 months, that current security issues are not our only pressing challenge. Like Chimamanda in her political canticle, “The President I Want,” I too, want the President to be equally preoccupied with the issues of steady and quality education, I want him to make sustained pragmatic effort and commitment to the future of this country by finding lasting solution to the protracted strike, and of course create a framework to forestall or at least curtail further industrial action especially in the education sector. I want both government and ASUP/COEASU bodies to learn to be responsible, to know that the future is largely dependent on the present. I want them to learn from John F. Kennedy, who said, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future”, and truly accept responsibility for the future by taking urgent measures to end the strike.

A peoples’ story and the danger ahead
Now, I do not tell this story of the people from a distance. I am a Polytechnic undergraduate. I am one of them, and I write with both pain and fear: the pain of a lost academic session; of the things that has happened to us. But does anyone care?  When I went to the market the other day, I found some of us, these forgotten people, some of them now sell okirika clothes, some garri, some palm oil, some hawk break and the rest. They represent a picture, one that tells a story, a melancholic story of people condemned by an incapable and unfeeling government. They do this just to keep body and soul together; and so people who ought to be in the classroom, by some twist if events, found themselves in the market place, a strangely bizarre environment. But this is just the good part of the sad story. There are many, I believe, who the devil may have colonized their mind and turned them against the society. You call them the idle minds. But these are circumstantial victims, people sarcastically dubbed “leaders of tomorrow”. Uneducated leaders you say.
I write with fear too, for the danger that awaits the Nigerian people if these people sustain this pain and hatred for their government and country. They will be angry and irreparably cruel to the nation for denying them a chance for education.

When I remember how Jonathan was accused of training snipers and thugs against 2015 election, I think about these abandoned students. There is something painfully possible about the allegation. But let’s leave Jonathan alone. It is not just him. It is something these savage politicians have been doing, and will do even as the election time draws closer. They will use young people to perpetuate their unpopular agenda and play their ‘win-at-all-cost’ politics. And this is the danger in this lingering Polytechnic strike. Even as we lament our ordeal, they laugh over it in their relaxation camps, with bubbling glasses of champagne. They see in our tears and pain an opportunity to quench their insatiable desire to govern a people against their own will. And sadly, they are almost always certain to prevail. These young boys and girls may like to make some money for themselves. And these corrupt politicians are not ignorant of this, and so they employ their tricks – and soon the people become political thugs and ballot box snatchers. They will become gun carrier, guns with which they will eventually shoot themselves in the leg. It is a script by people we trusted to lead us - who we no longer trust but are conditioned to follow. But this will be an end someday. And how it will end? Only time will tell.

Media conspiracy and partisanship?
The Polytechnic/Colleges of Education strike has not received adequate attention and the media cannot pretend to be ignorant. This is why I too, have accused them of bias. I have asked, why haven’t the ASUP strike and the student’s plight filled the air? Why are we not talking about it with concerned and heightened voice? Maybe because it’s not ASUU and the University people - a people long considered ‘more Nigerian’ than their Polytechnic counterpart; or perhaps because it’s not the kind of stories that suffice banner headlines and with the tendency of popularizing the writer. But this is the story about a people whose case has been overtaken by events ironically considered more ‘national’ and important, and so one is tempted to believe that this is a conspiracy to keep the students at home, a confirmation of the unfortunate discrimination against Polytechnic institutions and its people. 

And for all the activists, those who have been championing the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, I believe that this is another opportunity, a reason to make history in the minds of a people now considered ‘second-class’ and give them some level of relevance. Let another crusade begin, another hashtag trend, maybe - #ReturnPolyStudentsToSchool. It is not a trivial or trifling to do. It is an imperative course.

By Ikenna Ugwu

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Nigerian Polytechnics must take its place

The Polytechnic is an institution of higher learning offering a range of professional vocational and technical courses. In essence, it proves a breeding ground for people who create and champion country’s vocational and technological development. Polytechnic institution is not just peculiar to Nigeria. There are polytechnics in many countries of the world. The difference, however, lies in the status and mandate it represents. The British higher education, for instance, started off as polytechnics. However, after the passage of the Further Higher Education Act in 1992, some of the polytechnics assumed the ‘university’ title, which means “they were made full-fledged universities and awarded degrees.” The designation ‘polytechnics’ was therefore less used. The result, however, was the dichotomy between the two educational institutions (university and polytechnics), just as it is here. The British called it the “Binary Divide.” Like in many countries, the major aim of polytechnic is to teach purely academic and professional vocational courses. This way a country diversifies the education sector; while the universities concentrate on research intensive courses, the polytechnic ensures the country thrive in professional vocational programmes.

However, the British people could not pretend to ignore the importance and impact of the Polytechnic institutions and sought to revert the ‘new universities’ and have them return to their original mandate and status. As a result, the Telegraph, by February 2009 carried a news story, “New Universities to revert to polytechnic format.” And that was it. The British government had discovered that the earlier reform was just a step backward, and ever since have sought to ensure that the polytechnic regain its place.
And this is where I think Nigeria should learn something; that the question is not and should never be what designation or status attached to an institution, rather the impact of such institution on the nation’s economy. Of truth, the social cleavage between the polytechnic and university institutions is apparently glaring: one is considered superior and the other inferior. Sadly, the unfortunate contrast is unjustifiably encouraged by government through its action and inactions.

In 2013, The Telegraph also published a study which suggested that “restoring the old polytechnic name in a major revamp of higher education would help raise the prestige of vocational qualifications. And I ask, is there any form of prestige accorded to our polytechnics or graduate and undergraduates from it? No. Conversely, ours is practically different and the difference is clear: the British considered it a ‘major revamp’ restoring the polytechnic name and the name certainly goes with practicable mandate and funding. Here, what we have is the name, just name.  See? The effect, regrettably, is that polytechnic is often seen as ranking below universities in the provision of higher education because it lack degree-awarding powers, concentrate on applied education for work and has less research programmes than the universities, and because the qualifications necessary to gain a place in it is lower than that for a university. And so a HND holder cannot grow beyond level 14 in the civil service. This is stigma, and I think government has a lot of work to do, and fast too, in the interest of the nation.  

For Britain, bringing back the name jettisoned in 1992 “would be a mark of vocational excellence, sending out wider signals about the importance of vocational learning,” says report by a think tank. “It would declare that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system.” This is a country that understands and values the role of polytechnics; that appreciates the effect of vocational and technical education. This is not the same with us: the signal here says vocational learning is worthless; that university education is the gateway to heaven.  But I think we can learn. I mean we should learn. The dichotomy, the social stigma, the divide between Nigerian polytechnics and universities is something more than binary. If we raise the standard and reputation of polytechnics in Nigeria and show that, truly “the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status” in our system too, then we could dream of correcting the wide disparity between the two sister institutions.

John Denham, the British Secretary of Universities in 2009 was quoted in The Telegraph to have said, "There is going to be a greater flexibility in the way we deliver higher education." Flexibility means diversification, that polytechnics must first concentrate on attracting students who wish to learn practical courses. But in our case here, it is unthinkable that one could be attracted to a polytechnic in Nigeria today. You only go there when you have hard time scaling through the Jamb huddle into a university, and so it is that the polytechnic continues to play second fiddle.
In most countries, polytechnics are nation’s institutions of vocational and technological boast. But our own world is different. Sadly, here, the polytechnic is reduced both by government and the people to a dismal and derogatory state. No more institutions that boast of vocational and technical buoyancy but a ‘dumping ground’ for students who have hard time making Jamb or could not afford university’s financial demands.
The polytechnic institution and its students are both disparagingly and unjustifiably neglected and disregarded; and this is what the staff union is fighting; this is why students in Nigerian polytechnics have lost one whole academic session and still losing; and nobody seem to care, not even the government. All we hear is negotiation, negotiation… If our government is intelligent and responsible enough, it should know that the fight against Boko Haram, even if successful, will not guarantee enduring peace in Nigeria. Industrialization is critical. Employment is essential. But all these will result from quality education. Education is the key! Do we not observe the words of Victor Hugo, that “he who opens a school door closes a prison?” Government must pay adequate attention and accord full priority to education in the country; and more particularly, the polytechnic must be repositioned through adequate funding and monitoring to assume its rightful position and status.

The principal aim of any education system must be to endeavour to train people so that they make a living and improve their lives and nation. Yet, it is a misconception or rather a mistake often made to imagine that only the graduate - the university graduate - with his assumed high IQ who can perform duties involving mental ability or high creativity. And this is where we have derailed, to refuse to believe or neglect the fact that polytechnic student and graduates are just as intelligent and creative or perhaps more. And the school leavers? You can’t afford to ignore or neglect people. Civilised nations have places for all levels of people and that makes a great difference.

Nigerians are gifted, graduate or non-graduate. But then, they would have to depend on the government for enabling environment. There has to be a robust platform. This is the only reason you will not buy shoes made in Aba. You would rather buy Italian. But we must understand that the difference is not the brains but technology, and that is made possible by government that recognise and appreciate vocational and technical education. If the Aba Boys had the same technology as Italy and Spain, then the world would come to us.

Thursday, 1 May 2014


I read with astonishment Chimamanda Adiche’s opinion on the anti-gay law from a post a friend shared on my facebook wall. “Chimamanda, chekwa ezigbo echiche,” he simply commented atop the story. I think it was a sensible reaction to the now controversial and yet shocking disposition of the literary ace on the anti-gay law that recently got a presidential sanction. Chimamanda titled her story “why can’t he just be like everyone else?” And in answering the question she named the character in her perfectly crafted short intro fiction to her controversial opinion “Sochukwuma,” only God knows! “We don’t know”. The long and short of Adiche’s view on criminalising homosexuality was carefully and technically subsumed in the short anecdotal fiction in her story. Her submission was explicit and unequivocal: “Sochukwuma” was not and could not be responsible for his sexual disorientation; he could not have chosen a lifestyle as such; it was congenital. She called it ‘benign difference.’ Clearly, in the case of Sochukwuma, Adiche has not absolved him for his disorientation; but she believes he cannot be condemned for what he “don’t know”. 

Even if we go with Adiche and support Sochukwuma’s purported innocence, there will still be a need to criminalise homosexuality. The anti-gay law, obviously is not just about Sochukwuma and his likes – there is still the case of people, those who as President Museveni wrote “become homosexuals for mercenary reasons” or rather have directed their homosexuality for mercenary purposes. The Ugandan president believes such people should be “harshly” punished.

 It is not difficult to be influenced by Adiche’s perfect narratives, and concur that Sochukwuma should be exonerated and thus not be discriminated or made to suffer for what he “don’t know” why. But there is more to the sodomy law than painted in Adiche’s narrative. I could not toe her line of thinking. “Sochukuma” is only a character in a well crafted fiction, and Adiche, I know is an exceptional literary pundit. ‘A writer is like a small god,’ my mentor once told me, ‘he creates men and things, and have them do whatever he wishes; sometimes he sees through their heads and thinks for them.’ Adiche, no doubt, presented a beautiful literary piece there. But this is not about literature or imaginary things or people; it is not about sentiments and compromise; it is about people, societies, government and what they stand for; it is about preserving a sane, value-conscious and morally dignified society. Sochukwuma should have real human and not fictitious face or identity. And only then shall all of us, including my literary friend, begin to see and discern the deeper truth – that sodomy truly is a forbidden and abominable act, at least in Africa, and more particularly in Nigeria. It is possible that Adiche, through her Sochukwuma story have attracted a bunch of rigid fellows. They nod their heads as they read the story and say ‘yes, it is true.” But the truth, remember, has many sides.

I see Adiche as a friend and a model too. But I am stunned at her surprising disenchantment for true African values. She called our government “a failed democracy” not for many other reasons that truly bedevil her, but because it criminalises homosexuality, because it does not protect the right of few value and morally dissenting fellows. She said the anti-gay law is “a strange priority in a country with so many real problems.” But this too, dear Adiche, is one of such real problems that has the capacity of denting our cultural identity as a people; and am shocked at your punctured value consciousness as an African, a Nigerian and most importantly Nwafor Igbo. The biblical Sodom and Gomora was not destroyed because it had a bad or irresponsible government, it was because of their vain orientation and moral disenchantment. Loss of value precedes loss of identity. But no, Adiche does not think this way. Let me quote the Liberian President, Sirleaf Johnson in a joint interview with the British prime minister, Tony Blair: “we have got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.” This is what we are talking about, dear Adiche, that sodomy is alien to African culture, that we are different from America and other countries that condone homosexuality. If my 75-year old father kissed his wife in the public, he loses credibility; if your daughter wears a skimpy dress or clothes that left her cleavages bare in Nsukka she is tagged wayward or even prostitute. But this is not the story in America and many European countries. 

Now, I believe my friend (Precious), who said “it takes patriotism and determination to be an AFRICAN in a WHITE land.” But I have always seen Adiche as a true African identity and thought little of her susceptibility.