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Gov. Obi

For months running, state universities in the South Eastern region of Nigeria have been shut. Reason is that the Academic Staff Union of Nigeria Universities (ASUU) in this region has gone on strike. They are said to be collectively demanding the payment of enhanced salaries and conditions of service as approved by the federal government.

According to reports, part or whole of these recommendations had been implemented by both federal and state universities throughout the land with the exception of schools in the South East. We also hear that the strike by the universities did not come as any surprise to the authorities and governments in the region, as adequate information were made available by the lecturers on their intention.

Since the beginning of the strike, we have heard of so many efforts made to resolve the problem so that the schools may reopen and learning which essentially is the reason for the existence of these universities in the first instance, to recommence.

We also have heard of the grandstanding from both sides, including the tear-gassing of professors and lecturers who were making their legitimate demands. We have read of the rudeness of some lecturers who walked out on a committee of respected elders assembled to find a way of breaking the impasse so that the education and academic future of our kids are no longer toyed with.

To keep the records straight, the creation of state universities in the South East region of Nigeria had educational, political and marginalization origins. In the early seventies and through the mid-eighties when most of the state universities in the region were set up, the zone which statistics showed produced the largest number of potential university students, suffered a great deal of neglect, discrimination and marginalization.

Because the Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB) was highly quotarised then and even now, most qualified candidates from the zone couldn't gain admission into most of the universities outside the zone. It was because of this that the founding governors of the region went all out to set up state run universities in order to redress the marginalization and lopsided admission policies of most federal universities, admission-wise, against students from the south east.

The policy as at then and even now, was hailed by every right thinking citizen of the zone. And that too was the reason why everybody made sacrifice to ensure the schools succeeded. Aware that the costs of running these institutions were astronomic, the founding fathers, most of who lived in rented properties and drove tokunbo cars, spent the last naira in the budgets to make the new state schools work. The result was that most students who went to these schools made do with whatever teaching materials that was available, as the professors, parents and lecturers chipped in their widows' mite in form of personal and financial sacrifice, to help. As we write, most of the early products of these universities have gone on to become the best they could in many professions and almost all fields of human endeavor.

Unfortunately, it appears that present day governors and even the students, the lecturers and administrators of these wonderful inheritance from foremost nationalists and trail blazers of yore such as Chief Sam Onunaka Mbakwe, Chief Jim Ifeanyichukwu Nwobodo, Chief Evan Enwerem, Sir Chukwuemeka Ezeife, think and reason differently.

Pray, what will history record for the present crop of politicians and chief executives of the states of the SE region? That they presided/supervised over the liquidation of a once upon a time enviable and thriving educational system and thereby eroded the only area, the people of the SE had, had long standing comparative advantage over other states of the Nigerian federation? It now appears that the efforts of SE heroes past are being consigned to the dustbins of irrelevance. Why?

The reason could be multifarious. But one outstanding of all the reasons why school managers in the SE with their governors are letting SE-pride go to the dogs is the apparent erosion of the initial selfless zeal which was the hallmark of our past leaders; the trampling and ignoble repudiation of the SE-pride and the dwindling fortunes of personal sacrifice that motivated the founding fathers. Now, our leaders would rather amass the peoples' wealth for their individual and personal aggrandizement to the exclusion of the people for whom the wealth of the region ought to have belonged in the first place.

Now, some of the governors particularly since the 4th Republic, are taking pride in the pursuit of white elephant projects instead of people-oriented ones, as exhibited by their present nonchalant attitude towards good and solid university education for the citizenry. Now, there is a preponderance of lack of commitment and personal sacrifices on the part of the governors, lecturers, the administrators and even the students. It is very amazing that in an election year, a subject matter as sensitive as the education of the sons and daughters of the electorate are swept under the carpet.

I do not know if the governors and their handlers know that mass anger could be transferred to the polls come election day? Or that political opponents could capitalize on this obvious insensitivity towards university education on the part of the governors to woo voters on their side? Or could the lethargy towards education be that the governors have taken the voting power of the electorate for granted, conscious of the fact that whether or whether not they would win election? Are they sure that things could not change if opponents latched on the yawning vacuum created by the strike to strike?

More shocking is the loud silence of parents, guardians and students - most of who would vote in the upcoming elections. Does their silence mean that they agree with both the lecturers and government or a complete lack of interest and total amnesia, since majority of students in the state-run universities are the children of the akara sellers and palm wine tappers of our region? This type of docility is indeed troubling. I am amazed.

It is heart breaking to note that for months, students in these universities who ought to be focused on learning and the pursuit of knowledge have been forced to stay at home. The impact of this, both on parents, students and the overall educational development of the region can only be imagined. Perhaps, we need to point out at the risk of being repetitive that when the sequence of learning is needlessly broken or altered, the level of assimilation of knowledge is dislocated. Is there any wonder then that products of the obliterated curriculum of schools from the SE are no more what they used to be?

Is there any wonder that discipline has gone to the dogs in most of these schools? Is there any wonder that because an idle mind is the devil's workshop, kidnapping, cultism and prostitution have taken the place of rigorous academic exercise? Is there any reason why seasoned and talented lecturers would not emigrate to other countries of the world even Ghana and Togo in search of professional fulfillment? Is there any reason to wonder that when lecturers are not adequately and handsomely paid, we have brain drain, we have divided loyalty, we have the imposition of unauthorized levies and the selling of watered down hand out to students. Is there any more reason to find out the disturbing reason why education standards have badly fallen in the SE region?

This must not continue to be so. The governors must, as a matter of first-class priority immediately, begin to address the problems of SE universities with all the attention they deserve. Education is very important, but it is also very expensive. This is so, if the zone expects to keep maintaining its lead in the field of education - an area which is a leveler. An area which the zone would no longer cry marginalization, except it chooses to marginalize itself.

On the part of lecturers and administrators, it is high time a more creative approach is adopted towards the running of the universities without depending much on the governments of the zone. Lagos State University has a very thriving Consultancy Unit. Unilag has one, ABU has one; even Ambrose Ali University has one too. Why can't the universities in the SE region be proactive and practice what they teach? Why can't they go all out to look for endowment funds? Why can't the universities make their law faculties as self-sustaining as those of the Universities of Lagos and LASU? Where are the alumni of state universities from this once educationally blessed zone?

• Offoaro writes from Havensgate,Owerri.