“‘Full and Free Development’: The Case for Higher Education in Nigeria,” Yar’Adua Center Lecture by Jonathan Fanton
March 7, 2009 | Speech | Higher Education in Russia & Africa

I am honored to deliver this the 10th lecture in memory of General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, whose legacy continues to grow in importance for Nigeria and its young democracy.

His personal example, the sacrifices he made, and his electoral theme, “Neither North nor South, West or East but the common good,” still inspire as Nigeria moves forward, forging a nation that transcends regional and ethnic differences and finds common cause as a single people.

Throughout his career, Shehu Yar’Adua was dedicated to justice, democracy, and public service, values that resonate profoundly with the MacArthur Foundation.

Twenty years ago, when MacArthur began in Nigeria, the country still suffered under the burden of military rule. It was not easy for Nigerians to survive or for us to work. But we persisted because of our belief in this country’s importance and because of our admiration for Nigeria’s people. In 1994, we opened an office, now located here in Abuja. When democracy returned, we were quick to expand our program. To date, we have made 350 grants worth almost $100 million. Of the sixty nations in which MacArthur operates, Nigeria ranks second in the amount of resources invested.

Our approach is to work in partnership with government, civil society and universities and to focus on three issues: improving reproductive health, strengthening the rule of law and building higher education. Examples include: a review aimed at harmonizing laws with the Constitution; support for community policing; a large scale demonstration project aimed at reducing maternal deaths from postpartum hemorrhage; and a public school curriculum that teaches young people about their reproductive rights and responsibilities.

Two years ago, the MacArthur Board met in Nigeria — the first meeting outside of North America — and came away believing our money was being used wisely and well.

So I am pleased to confirm that the Foundation’s commitment to Nigeria is enduring. So is my own. This is my tenth visit to your country; I have traveled widely and follow events here on a daily basis. I understand the challenges of building a stable democracy, fostering economic growth, reducing poverty, improving health, education, and more.

It is true that there have been some frustrations and disappointments along the way, but like you, I have seen significant progress under the courageous and effective leadership of President Obasanjo, progress that continues as President Yar’Adua charts an ambitious course for your country.

Nigeria does not always get a fair hearing in the Western press, which often dwells on strife in the Delta, examples of corruption, and imperfections in the electoral process.

But I tell a different story when I speak about Nigeria to American audiences.

I challenge them to consider these facts:

First, Nigeria is growing. Foreign reserves are up; debts have been cancelled; GDP is rising; and the country is more fiscally sound than it has been in decades. This despite the world economic crisis that has set back all countries. I am confident Nigeria will rebound as its economy continues to diversify.

Second, Nigeria is developing. Infrastructure is improving, telephone coverage has expanded as has primary school enrollment, and the number of universities has tripled over the past decade. Key health indicators, such as the rate of HIV/AIDS, are moving in the right direction. Agricultural productivity is up.

Third, Nigeria is strengthening the rule of law. Through aggressive enforcement, the National Food and Drug Control Agency has restored the credibility of Nigerian-manufactured drugs. MacArthur is working with the CLEEN Foundation, the Network for Police Reform, and Access to Justice to improve police performance. And there has been concerted action against corruption through determined leadership, stronger laws and help from the private sector.

Finally, Nigeria is playing the role of international leader. Last decade, your government helped bring an end to the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone and peace to Liberia. More recently, your diplomats worked to resolve crises in Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, and São Tomé. Nigeria continues to lead UN and AU peace operations.

Nigeria has also stood up for accountability. At Liberia’s request, your government transferred Charles Taylor to the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. This brave action was a milestone in the quest for an effective system of global justice. Taylor was everything a person entrusted with power should not be: an international criminal, an exploiter of children, and a ruthless enemy of human rights.

Looking ahead, MacArthur’s Abuja office is designing an initiative to help strengthen the new African Court of Human and People’s Rights. We very much hope that Nigeria will be a leading supporter, so that human rights issues that arise in Africa can be settled in Africa.

I am an historian by training, so I naturally ask, “Where is a country in the arc of its history?” It seems to me that Nigeria has reached a point of extraordinary promise. The signs are encouraging: back-to-back elected civilian leaders, prospective educational reforms, an increasingly independent judiciary, economic gains.

There is much that engenders hope, but we all know that critical choices lie ahead. I would like to reflect with you about the future in one area of particular importance — higher education.

I think Shehu Yar’Adua would agree with this choice. I take you back to February 1992 and to Lagos City Hall where he announced his presidential campaign.

Hear his words: “A country which cannot guarantee the full and free development of its people, cannot aspire to greatness… because the people contribute the driving force with which meaningful development can take place.”

By this logic, national greatness depends on the ability of people to reach their potential, which means that national greatness depends on education.

The reasons are plain:

For individuals, education is the ladder of opportunity.

For communities, it is the base of common values that holds diverse people together.

For nations, it is the engine of economic growth.

And for all who believe in freedom, education provides the moral foundation for democracy guided by respect for individual dignity and law.

Last year, in Addis Ababa, the African Union emphasized the connection between development and technology. The people of Africa are determined, it declared, “to banish poverty, combat diseases, improve public health, increase agricultural production, and achieve the Millennium Development Goals … [all this] depends on…an increased and sustained investment in science, technology, and innovation.”1

It is clear from this statement that high aspirations can only be met through the acquisition of skills that depend, in turn, on the contributions of vibrant universities. That is why it is essential to do what it takes to establish and maintain such institutions, because strong nations grow from great universities, and Nigeria belongs among the leading nations of the world.

But why is higher education so central to development? Consider the following:

Compared to their peers, university graduates tend to earn more money, enjoy better working conditions, have better health and live longer.2 They are more able to reason and communicate, their interests are broader, their ambitions greater, and their talents make the work force more versatile and productive. Their children are likely to achieve more in school and later to attend universities themselves, thus extending and multiplying the benefits of higher education.

Societies also benefit from the research that universities undertake.

I recall the challenge posed by President Yar’Adua to the University of Ibadan, at its diamond jubilee last November. He said: “Government is always mindful of the special role of the Universities in the upliftment of the socio-economic life of our country and this is why - we shall continue to give the necessary support to enable them to achieve the objectives for which they have been established. However, to whom much is given, much is also expected. The universities, on their part, [must strive]…at all times to be relevant as agents of development.”3

As this summons suggests, Nigerian universities are called to excellence, to produce graduates who can compete globally, and to fulfill the promise of a rising generation. MacArthur’s mission has been to help make that lofty vision a reality.

To this end, the Foundation supports faculty research, new computer centers, and more modern libraries and laboratories at Ibadan, ABU, Bayero, and Port Harcourt universities. Our purpose is to demonstrate that significant investment in universities will lead to technological advances in industry, communications, agriculture, and other areas. And we are pleased to see research from these universities contributing directly to Nigeria’s well-being.

For example, the University of Ibadan is embarked on a multi-year effort with Northwestern University to study the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS prevention services in rural communities. The University’s Institute of Medical Research and Training has earned worldwide praise for its study of parasitic diseases, and its Department of Virology is finding new ways to use Nigeria’s biodiversity for drug development, agro-forestry, and insecticides.

At Ahmadu Bello University, the National Animal Production Research Institute has bred poultry to resist disease and lay more eggs. New varieties of basic crops are also being produced, while the Institute of Agricultural Research is investigating seed-oil as an alternative source of fuel.

Bayero University’s new Faculty of Agriculture is working to increase rice yields and produce more feed crops for livestock. The university’s chemistry department recently discovered a new anti-malarial compound that may lead to locally-produced treatments. It is also studying the anti-retroviral properties of indigenous plants. HIV medications produced from local materials might create an export market; they will certainly reduce costs and save lives.

That is not all. In the heart of Nigeria’s oil region, the University of Port Harcourt is researching new ways to harness Nigeria’s wealth of natural gas and recover the crude oil in contaminated soils. Its biochemists are studying the sickle cells that cause anemia, and the College of Health Sciences is evaluating local herbal remedies for malaria.

Given these accomplishments, it should come as no surprise that studies show a direct link between improvements in higher education and a rise in national prosperity. Such gains are essential to help this country harness its most valuable asset: knowledge, a source of energy found not in Nigeria’s soil, but in its people.

So higher education is good for development. But what about democracy? How vital a role do universities play in building and sustaining a democratic society? This is a fundamental question.

There is, after all, nothing inevitable about democracy. Democratic habits must be learned, which means they must be taught. Bigotry, intolerance, and violence must also be learned. No one is born hating anyone else. We acquire this habit when the educational process is perverted and we are taught not how to think, but what to think — not to seek knowledge but to accept degrading stereotypes in place of truth.

The wrong kind of education creates a prison for the mind; the right kind empowers students to think independently.

That is why the best universities cultivate in young people a capacity for critical thinking, a comfort with complexity, and a commitment to civility. These qualities are essential to the democratic process and a bulwark against closed ideologies of all kinds.

As Shehu Yar’Adua said when announcing his presidential campaign, “Our vision is for a new Nigeria, with a common sense of purpose and a common destiny … dedicated to a common good for all.”

He understood the critical role of universities as a unifying force. They are a platform for preparing students to lead in government, business, and civil society — and to do so with a shared determination to bring down the walls that divide people and hold countries back.

All this provides good reason for countries to support their universities — even governments confronted by other pressing social needs. But this does not mean that governments should be the sole source of funds.

Although the public sector has a profound responsibility to public universities, so do private corporations. Businesses look to universities for the ideas, research, and talent they need to compete. That is why companies are right to forge close and supportive relationships with major universities. The good news is that many of Nigeria’s leading oil, banking, and other firms are doing precisely this.

MacArthur and other major foundations also have an interest in higher education. This is because academic institutions generate research and provide leadership in fields to which we are committed, such as the environment, community development, health, and human rights.

Yet another group has a stake: private individuals, including graduates. Behind every great university there are generous alumni who nurture and protect it. To encourage this, MacArthur has created the Nigeria Higher Education Foundation which in just three years has helped Nigerians living abroad to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the universities that gave them a start.

Finally I know that tuition is a controversial topic, but it needs to be considered along with a program of scholarships and low interest loans that protects those unable to pay.

In the days of dictatorship, higher education was neglected in Nigeria; that is no longer the case. President Obasanjo recognized the challenge and mobilized the country for change. And when I met with President Yar’Adua in August 2007, he declared his intention to increase significantly the federal allocation to universities.

Such leadership is making a difference. Since 1999, the number of students at federal universities has risen by more than forty percent, while the amount of federal investment, adjusted for inflation, has increased by two hundred and eighty percent. This is the right path, for it is how Nigeria’s base of knowledge and skill will expand, how the level of achievement will rise, how democracy will be strengthened, and national progress ensured.

So Nigeria’s universities are making steady gains. But as they do, and as the thirst for higher education grows, there are certain principles that should be kept in mind.

One is the value of diversity. Not every institution of higher learning can be a research university; it simply costs too much. If, as a former college president, I might offer some advice, it would be to seek differentiation. The ideal system of higher education should include some universities that primarily serve undergraduates; some that are more comprehensive, offering graduate courses in certain fields; and some that are full-fledged research institutions. As a centerpiece, a National Science Foundation would be valuable, helping to nurture advanced research through competitive grant making.

A second principle is to set achievable goals. The desire to excel in every discipline is praiseworthy, but impractical. Each university should consider carefully where its comparative advantages lie and where additional investments will do the most good. Universities that are recognized as centers of excellence in particular fields will more easily secure top-notch staff, attract private sector support, and further improve their flagship programs.

A third principle is to understand that quality teaching is indispensable to quality education. All learning depends on it. And the alarming truth is that, in Nigeria and across Africa, there are too few professors of the highest rank. Of these, far too many are approaching the age of mandatory retirement. It would help to raise the retirement age to 70. But that is a short term remedy. Effective strategies are needed to recruit and retain a new generation of academics. However, these policies will only succeed if the environment for teaching improves; this requires a reasonable teaching load, time and support for research, modern facilities, and the chance for sabbaticals abroad.

Post doctoral fellowships can keep recent PhD’s at universities in Nigeria and help them resist the temptation to work in other professions.

A fourth principle is to use technology to improve access. There is thirst for higher education in Nigeria: 1.2 million students take university entrance exams every year, but only 300,000 are admitted, even as the number of universities is multiplying. (High quality) distance learning can expand capacity quickly at low cost. The University of Ibadan already enrolls over 12,000 students in its distance learning program.

A fifth principle is to understand that universities cannot thrive in isolation from the surrounding society. Great universities recognize and respect a creative tension between the purely intellectual and the practical, between what the faculty may want and what the country requires. A university should be in constant conversation with local and national leaders and with the private sector; it should foster both a spirit of civic mindedness and a set of entrepreneurial skills so that graduates will not only find jobs, but also know how to create jobs after leaving the campus.

Finally, international partnerships can help universities rise to world class standards. MacArthur is offering such an opportunity. With Columbia University we are creating a network of universities to pioneer a new master’s degree that will train the next generation of specialists in development. The new degree will involve intensive internships while adding science and technology to the traditional social science curriculum. We hope one or more Nigerian universities will participate.

You can tell that I am passionate about higher education and Nigeria. I also hope that I have not been presumptuous in offering suggestions. MacArthur approaches its work in this country as a partner, always eager to listen to new ideas, to learn and do better. Our commitment to progress is unshakeable.

Years ago, Shehu Yar’Adua wrote a letter from prison to his son, Buhari. In it, he said: “I want to leave for you something you can be proud of — a legacy of public service and sacrifice which will influence our country for good.”

The MacArthur Foundation can imagine no higher goal than to build on the legacy of this great man. We join in his vision for a Nigeria that guarantees freedom and opportunity, that serves as a leader and example to Africa, and that takes its rightful place among the democratic beacons of the world.

On a personal note, my term as President of MacArthur ends in July. I have made many friends here from whom I have learned much about your country and about life itself.

I want to express my appreciation to you all for deepening and enlarging my view of humanity, raising my sense of the possible, and firing my hopes for a world more just, peaceful and humane than it has ever been.

Looking ahead, you can count on MacArthur to stay the course as Nigeria fulfils its destiny, and you can rely on me to be your advocate and friend. This is my last official visit to your country, but you may be sure that I shall return.

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