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How hope has turned to woe for Nigeria’s researchers

After two years in power Muhammadu Buhari’s corruption-busting administration has done little to help Nigeria’s ailing universities.

When Muhammadu Buhari beat Goodluck Jonathan in Nigeria’s March 2015 polls, academics had high hopes that the tough-talking ex-general would clean up the country’s finances—and use some of the windfall to prop up their ramshackle universities.

However, a little over two years on little has changed. Nigeria’s universities remain overcrowded and underfunded. Research money from the government is hard to come by and allocated through murky mechanisms. Buhari’s strict controls on money entering and leaving the country has stifled research funding from abroad, as well as slowed down imports of research materials.

From universities in the north, to the east, south and west of Nigeria, the story is the same: Cries of hardship, salary cuts and a lack of motivation are the order of the day. When Research Africa asked academics to comment on Buhari’s first two years in power, the main feeling was one of neglect: that the government makes promises but fails to keep them.

“All we hear is the information we read on the pages of newspapers that the government is planning a whole new structure to upgrade the university system. And yet we see nothing,” says Anthony Makun, head of research and development at the Federal University of Minna in Niger state, in Northern Nigeria.

Empty promises

It started well. In June 2015, shortly after his election, Buhari told a convocation at the University of Port Harcourt near the Niger Delta that he understood the challenges facing Nigerian researchers.

“This admin­istration will continue to support the Nigerian uni­versity system in ensuring that learning, teaching and research facilities are con­stantly upgraded and up-to-date, so as to make the institutions globally competi­tive,” he said.

But it soon became clear that nothing was going to happen quickly. Buhari took six months to name his cabinet. His final pick for the science portfolio, Ogbonnaya Onu, a chemical engineer with a PhD, was one of the “round pegs for round holes” that Buhari had selected for his cabinet, and his credentials were welcomed by Nigeria’s research community. But since then, there has been little substantive change for the better for the country’s academics.

In fact, many changes so far have squeezed universities further. There’s been no big funding boosts. Last year Buhari sacked and replaced the head of the country’s biggest funding body, the Tertiary Education Fund (TETfund). But the fund remains unchanged except for the removal of its ‘special intervention fund’ stream over fears that it was being misused by universities. Buhari has also been perceived to be meddling with university autonomy, sacking a dozen vice-chancellors in a shock move in 2016. They were later reinstated, but it damaged trust.

There’s been some sparks of activity. Last month the government hosted a well-attended science and innovation fair in Abuja, where it once more made positive noises about the importance of science and technology to the economy. Minister Onu is meeting international partners to negotiate research and innovation partnerships. But the reforms and funding boosts promised by Buhari at the start of his tenure are not forthcoming. A slouching Nigerian economy is making matters worse.

Low morale

Buhari’s failure to fulfill his promises has led to a drop in motivation levels among university staff, leading to a slowing down of research and discoveries, says Makun. At his Federal University of Minna, lecturers still receive 80 to 90 per cent of their salaries, but he says that at other larger institutions, such as the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, salaries have been slashed by up to 50 per cent.

“At the moment academics just wait until the end of the month to receive their salaries, which the government keeps slashing. There is no training, no funding for research; academics are drained. Un-motivated academics have a negative impact on students and the system as a whole,” Makun says.

Ibidapo Obe, the University of Lagos’ former vice-chancellor and a senior Nigerian academic, says he is fearful for the future. “How will universities and researchers cope [with the cuts]? Your guess is as good as mine,” he says.

He believes some researchers will survive through their international relationships. “But the majority will wither,” he warns. They will “throw up their hands” saying there is no money for research, and in so doing condemn Nigerian universities to a future as “glorified secondary schools”.

There are those who still harbour some hope that matters can improve. Afam Ituma, former head of research and development at the Federal University of Ndufu-Alike, Eastern Nigeria, believes a simple cash incentive based on performance could improve morale among researchers. Such incentives could reward publications in internationally rated journals, thus boosting publication rates and furthering Nigeria’s academic reputation, he says.

But with President Buhari leaving Nigeria this week for another bout of medical treatment in the UK, fuelling rumours that he is gravely ill, it is far from clear that such suggestions could be implemented, even with government backing.

The strength that got Buhari elected—his determination to personally oversee the rooting out of corruption in Nigeria—has turned out to be his weakness. Strongman tactics work only as long as there is a strong man in place to uphold them. Now the fate of Nigeria’s universities rests on the failing health of a frail old man.

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