Education and Development

Lecture by

His Excellency, President Olusegun Obasanjo

At the 2012 Graduation Ceremonies of University of Nigeria

Nsukka, Nigeria, January 26, 2012


This unique occasion of the 51st Anniversary of the University and this 41st Convocation presents us an opportunity to review our past, assess our present, and offer some views on the possible turns we can take to ensure that Nigerian education, especially the higher end of our training endeavour, remains one of the key drivers in realizing our national development goals. Education is the major agency for both personal and national socio-economic development. Investments in human capital development plays a critical role in long-term productivity growth at both micro and macro levels. The state of education in Nigeria continues to dominate our national discourse at all levels. The implication of the declining education quality at all levels has far-reaching implications on our moral, civic, cultural, and economic sustainability. It is important to realize that the discussion on education and its reform should gradually and systematically move away from a reactionary approach to more of a systems approach that appreciates the complexities inherent in proffering genuine and workable solutions for reforming our education system.

The history of Nigeria runs parallel to the history of Nigerian education, because of the realization by the early nationalists that the country could not develop without a proper grounding in a national education system that can guarantee the production of the desired high quality workforce without which national development is impossible. It is not surprising that the early nationalists were also educators, missionaries, and journalists. Our history as a people is significant for the reform efforts that have been undertaken, with varying degrees of success to get our people to address pressing problems of personal and social development. The current reform agenda and transformation programmes of the Federal Government of Nigeria are part of the historical attempts to direct public attention to necessary changes that must be undertaken collectively and separately to address our daunting challenges in public and private spheres, especially in higher education. More than 50 years ago, the visionaries who founded the University of Nigeria had no doubt about the transformative power of education and its contribution to national development. Unlike any other Nigerian institution of higher learning, the University of Nigeria was established to blaze the trail in the production of a Nigerian workforce equipped with a unique education tailored to address Nigerian problems.

The University of Nigeria occupies a special place among the 133 public and private universities in Nigeria today, not only because of its superior achievements, but also because of the peculiar circumstances of its founding by a rare group of leaders, who were operating at the regional level, but were driven by nationalist instincts. The Right Honourable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the then Premier of Eastern Region, was a visionary educationist and politician who had seen that Nigeria needed an indigenous education factory for the production of authentic made-in-Nigeria graduates, who would be catalysts for national development. His experience in the United States of America served him in good stead.

As a student in the United States, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe had seen at first-hand how much transformation and development that a good education could bring to individuals and their communities. He had vowed, following his characteristically qualitative education at Fisk University, Lincoln University and the University of Pennsylvania, that he would work towards the establishment of a highly qualitative institution of higher learning on his return to Nigeria. Although the University of Nigeria was formally launched on 7th October 1960, barely six days after our national independence, the origin could be traced to the Eastern Nigerian Government’s Economic Mission to Europe and America, which was headed by the Right Honourable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, and lasted from May 5 to July 11, 1954. The primary goal of the mission was “to seek the cooperation of Europe and America in the training and recruitment of technicians and to make arrangements for the training of Nigerians in vocational higher education” (Azikiwe and Ojukwu, 1955). An important result of the mission was the clear articulation of the idea for a genuinely African university charged with the responsibility of freeing the African intellect and serving as a bulwark against “colonial mentality”, which Zik felt was a major constraint to genuine development.

When the Mission finally recommended the establishment of a university, it was unequivocal that it should be full-fledged ab initio, and “should reflect not only the cultural values of the nation but should as well be different from the classical conception of a British university college by awarding its own degrees in all relevant disciplines and in vocational fields” (Ijomah, 1986, p. 4). It is to the credit of the Eastern Nigerian Government that the recommendation was immediately translated into action with the passing of the University of Nigeria Law on 18th May 1955 by the House of Assembly.

It is instructive to note that agriculture played an important role in the establishment of the University. The Eastern Nigerian Government had directed the Eastern Nigeria Marketing Board to set aside five hundred thousand pounds (GBP500,000) annually from December 31, 1955 to the end of 1964 for financing the establishment of the University. This provided the initial working capital of 2.5 million US dollars which the Provisional Council deployed in April 1960 for the construction of classrooms, office blocks, laboratories, and dormitories for the first set of 220 students who enrolled in October. It is instructive to note that, for five years, funds were set aside and accumulated for the establishment of the University.

From its earliest days, the University of Nigeria had a clear mandate to contribute to national development by being attentive to the problems of its environment. As the founding Dean of the Faculty of Education Dr. A. Babs Fafunwa saw the relationship between university education and solving national problems very clearly. In his words, “The immediate problem that confronts Nigeria today is that of relating her educational system to her own environment. No university outside Nigeria can help accomplish this; it must be done by a university located within Nigeria and not tied to the apron strings of a foreign institution” (See Ijomah, 1986, p.8).

At a workshop on Education for Development in 1989, I had the following to say on relevance of education, “For Nigerian education to become more relevant to our development process, it must seek to meet the following objectives:

a. It must train the individual for a better appreciation of his own cultural traditions

whilst at the same time equipping him with the ability to absorb new ideas, new

information and new data for resolving the constantly changing problems of his


b. it must train the individual to relate to and interact meaningfully with other

individuals in the society and to appreciate the importance of effective organization for human progress;

c. it must develop the creative ability of individuals especially in the cultural and

technological realms;

d. it must foster in the individual those values which make for good citizenship,

such as honesty, selflessness, tolerance, dedication, hard work and personal

integrity, all of which provide the rich soil from which good leadership is spawned; and

e. it must promote the culture of productivity by enabling every individual to

discover the creative genius in him and apply it to the improvement of the existing skill and technique of performing specific tasks thereby increasing the efficiency of his personal societal efforts.”

Since its establishment in 1960, developments in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, parallel the history of Nigeria in significant ways characterized by ups and downs, sometimes more downs than ups, but in spite of it all, the University has remained ever hopeful and stayed focused with its eyes on the prize of the ultimate target of achieving genuine and sustainable development through the power of applied knowledge and education to serve desired purpose. It needs to be emphasized that right from its conception, the University is meant to be relevant and responsive to the needs of Nigeria’s development.

Sometimes, it looked like the University wavered and was nearly consumed by internal strife and acrimony. I was an eyewitness in the second half of the 1970s. And so has the country too. With respect to the University, those of us who have followed with special interest, the developments more closely will recall the challenging experiences of the war years (1967 to 1970), rehabilitation and reconstruction (1970 to 1973), and the episodes of the nine Professors vs the Vice-Chancellor (from 1983 to 1986). More recently, there were student protests and demonstrations. These challenges have made the University more resilient and ever more focused on the national ideals that underlined its founding 51 years ago. My personal involvement in some of these events was both interesting and instructive.

At this point, I must commend the present administration, led by Prof. Bartho Okolo, for the transformation I have seen in the University. I compare this with the image I have from my previous visits and I can confidently say that if the trend is sustained and there is a critical mass of believers, this great institution will rise up to its true potential as a global centre of excellence.

Change, as we know and have heard often times, is not easy. There are people within us today that want to keep the old structures and orders for reasons best known to them. We all have our views on why some people expend so much energy in fighting any management policy thrust that will require more accountability and transparency. I know that from my experience in pushing some of the national reform policies in Nigeria during my tenure as President, which did not go down well with some people who wanted to keep the old order and frustrate the foundation of our national reform project, the same situation obtains here especially in an environment where many think they are smarter than the institutional managers. And yet, for me, leaders are ordained by God and, if so ordained, leaders must lead and be seen to lead but responsively and responsibly.

Speaking directly to the management of this University, I say to you, “you must have the moral courage to fight for the core values that have kept us afloat against the onslaught of corruption and misplaced personal and national priorities.” I encourage you to continue to push towards the vision I have heard the leadership share with such passion with the understanding that if the proponents of the old ways do not fight you at every step, you have not started working for the future of this great institution. As you think for legacy in every policy thrust and maintain the integrity of your vision and the goals of the founding fathers, you will notice a group of believers will begin to emerge that will lead to the critical mass needed to create pockets of change agents in all disciplines and functions in the University of Nigeria. The net results will be closer alignment of the activities of the University with our national aspirations, and an increased focus on realizing our national goals for development.

The patriotic dreams of the founding fathers are being realized already, in spite of the challenges that the University is facing today. The University has remained like the Rock of Gibraltar – and it is even waxing stronger today than in 1960. There are about 40,000 students on three campuses today compared to the pioneering 220 students of 1960, in only two dormitories; there are more teachers today than the total number of students in the 1960s; UNN is now much sought after as a partner by international organizations, unlike the situation in 1960, when some doubted the viability of a university tucked away in the hilly countryside of Nsukka.

Looking back these 51 years, UNN can no longer be referred to as the Nsukka University. It is, and has always been, a national university. Now it is fast becoming a Global University. The educational experiment by the Right Honourable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and the supporters in the Eastern Nigerian Government has worked very well at the University of Nigeria, but our national experience with education as the engine of our development, to my mind, has not worked as well as with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

At present, our education environment and the outlook for education in Nigeria are bedeviled with many problems, some of which appear intractable and are like recurring decimals. From my vantage position as Military Head of State (Feb. 1976 to Oct. 1979) and as elected President (May 1999 to May 2007), I have been at the focal point for some of the enduring efforts at making education an important agent for positive change and development in Nigeria. No doubt, we have recorded many achievements, among which are:

a) Launching of Universal Primary Education (UPE) in 1977;

b) Creation of seven more Federal Universities between 1977 and 1979;

c) Launching of Universal Basic Education (UBE), in 1999, primarily intended to enhance life-long education for millions of Nigerian children from the age of six years, who had no access to early childhood schooling;

d) Election of a Nigerian, in 2003, as the 32nd President of the General Conference of UNESCO, which is the supreme policy-making organ of the world educational and cultural body and special science and technology programmes;

e) Increased Federal Government spending and private sector involvement in the rehabilitation and expansion of Nigerian universities;

f) Establishment of ten additional state universities across the country and twenty-two private universities during my administration as President of Nigeria;

g) Launching of National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN);

h) Empowerment of Nigerian National Universities Commission (NUC), which has been one of the principal agents for educational reform, more so through the sponsorship of “Autonomous Establishment, Administration, Management and Funding of Universities” bill to the National Assembly;

i) Significant improvements in the curricula of different schools, and new emphases on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); and

j) Establishment of Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, which is a world-class library devoted solely to the purpose of collecting, preserving and making available, transmitting and procuring the widest range of records of civilization for the most effective use by the society of which it is part.

During my term as President, I made concerted efforts to ensure that education and

health got special considerations in the annual budgets which, in 2004, saw the doubling of the capital allocations to these two important sectors (2004 Budget Speech).

My commitment to improved funding of the education sector is based on my strong conviction that the country develops only in relation to our achievements in education. The various reforms that have characterized our recent development – from reforms in the public sector, to the oil industry, to electoral reforms, and financial institutions, among others – are prefaced on an enlightened public that would appreciate the value of changes in their prevailing practices that they have grown accustomed to. Such a public is made possible only through qualitative education. My second term as President could easily be characterized by my familiar phrase “March of Progress” which was our mantra. Cognizant of the challenges of implementing our various reform programmes in education and other sectors, I had called on Nigerians to join in “facilitating our march to greatness” and in “our crusade for the march of progress.” Our robust investment in education is beginning to pay off, as evident in the huge harvest of nearly 12,000 people who are graduating from the University of Nigeria this week. These achievements notwithstanding, we are not out of the woods completely.

Reviewing our achievements and activities through the years, with regard to the contributions of education to our development, it is obvious that successive governments have appreciated the importance of a functional education system, without which we cannot meet our various development targets, especially the MDGs and Vision 20-2020. The assessment of our performance in meeting the MDGs shows that we are likely to miss the education targets. Although we now have more institutions of higher learning than at any other time in our history, we are still far from having adequate provisions at lower levels of study. Thus MDG4 – Education for All – is most likely to be unattained by 2015. The Federal Government is currently engaged in a robust monitoring and evaluation of the MDGs, and the results of this exercise are being awaited with keen interest by concerned stakeholders of all the sectors. Our development as a nation and the attainment of our targets for Vision 20-2020 will be impossible without better results from our MDG operations. Some of the reform instruments such as the Education Trust Fund (ETF), Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) and National Universities Commission (NUC) are veritable tools to help us address some of the perennial problems of the education sector.

In spite of the achievements of our education sector, four serious problems still persist in thwarting our efforts. These are (1) Access – In spite of more institutions, the problem of access still persists at all three levels of education. With regard to technical education, the situation is very critical as the middle-level technical human capital necessary for industrialization is grossly lacking. (2) And for Quality – this is a serious problem that compounds the poor access. The quality in some of our schools is deplorable and we now face the specter of ever poorer performance in national examinations even with more money spent on schools. (3) And so also with Purpose or education for what? And here we are, confronted with the pervasive poverty of applied problem-based approaches that should contribute to national development and national unity; for example, building more schools has not yielded the expected results all the time. (4) Relevance and here beyond purpose of functionality – There is relevance to our culture, orientation, core value and the future.

More on Access – The problem of access to education informed the efforts by governments, the private sector and religious organizations to establish new schools and expand existing ones. But as the numbers of people who cannot be offered admission by JAMB shows every year, access is a perennial problem that afflicts all three levels of education in Nigeria. My Administration established the National Open University of Nigeria to address this, and I, in my own small way, established Bells University of Technology, which is one of the 45 existing private universities in Nigeria today. Actually, it is the first private University of Technology in the country. These efforts notwithstanding, we have barely scratched the surface of the problem and more hands must be on deck to improve on greater access to education particularly tertiary level education by the generality of our people who can benefit from that level of education.

More on Quality – If when access is assured, and the quality of instruction is not high, we will not have redressed the situation. There is now a pervasive feeling that the products of Nigerian education are no longer as good as they used to be. The blame should rightly be laid at the feet of all stakeholders. As part of the reform agenda of recent governments, we have established quality control mechanisms through the National Universities Commission, professional registration boards, and supervisory departments of ministries. But until the users of the products of our educational enterprises get more actively involved, there will be problem with quality. The problems of access and quality are compounded by the lack of serious attention to the purposes of our education.

More on Purpose – What should be the purpose of education? This is a question that has agitated the minds of teachers and policy makers all through the ages. For me, the purpose of education in Nigeria must be national unity and development. This has informed many of the reform programmes of successive Nigerian governments. In recent times, we have come up with initiatives on nomadic education, technical skills development, professional enhancement and continuous education among others. The best education is one that opens our minds to think critically, our hearts to embrace all even when we disagree, and our hands to be practical in all endeavours. The ongoing challenges of security and national unity can only be solved through a purpose-laden education that is desired by all.

More on Relevance – If the purpose of functional education for development is catered for, the relevance of character, core value, ethical standard and orientation will be easily addressed.

With improved access, better quality, purpose-driven and greater relevance in our educational endeavours, many of the problems of these times will begin to disappear.

An objective assessment of the problems and solutions of Nigerian education in the context of dev elopement shows that proffering solutions has never been a problem. Many solutions abound, but the crux of the matter is LEADERSHIP. Leadership to see solutions through to logical conclusion without policy somersault. In other words, we need consistency and continuity.

LEADERSHIP is not authority or elected office or a top administrative position, as many of us often think. Nor is it a domain left only for CEOs, government officers and elected politicians. Many of our popular notions of leadership are not helpful in addressing some of the challenges we face today, especially in the education sector and similar areas. The complexity and diversity of the issues require that we redefine leadership beyond the simple concept and idea of the “commander on horseback” or “the big man at the head showing the way.” No doubt, we need visionaries, as in the days of the Right Honourable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and the members of the Eastern House of Assembly which brought this institution about. But more importantly, we need Real Leadership.

Real Leadership, as Dean Williams of the Harvard Kennedy School has explained to Nigerian civil service leaders is “not about having convictions and imposing them on the group. Nor is it about amassing followers and showing the way forward.” Rather it is about “mobilizing people to confront their predicament and solve their most pressing problems. The focus is not on getting people to follow but on getting people to face reality and think and act responsibly, thereby enabling their organizations and communities to address their toughest challenges and make meaningful progress.” Today, more than ever before, Nigeria very badly needs REAL LEADERSHIP in all spheres of our corporate existence, but particularly in the education sector, where skills, attitudes, and performance abilities are acquired. No development is possible without these. And talk of transformation will only be sloganeering. Leadership by example reinforces Real Leadership.

Challenges of the Future: This country cannot continue to wobble along like a stalked and wounded lion, walking to its death. We have immense resources – There were 37.2 billion barrels of proven oil reserves in Nigeria as of 2011, ranking the country as the largest oil producer in Africa and the 11th largest in the world, averaging 2.28million barrels per day in 2006; solid minerals in barites, gypsum, kaolin, talc, diatomite, bentonite, limestone, clay dolomite, bismuth, molybdenite, granite, magnesite, marble, feldspar, mica, phosphate, fluorite, lyanite, quartzite, silica sand, gold, coal, bitumen, considerate, iron ore, lead, zinc, manganese, limenit-rutile, wolframite, lithium, tantalite, and silver, all located in different parts of Nigeria; renewable energy from solar, wind, water/hydrogen, sea, biomass and geothermal; and, most of all, the growing size of our population, 170 million today. This will be an asset ONLY if we start now to work seriously and assiduously on how this large population will be the quality, united and purposeful workforce associated with such countries as the US and South Korea. United Nations projections show that we are on course to be the fourth largest country, in population, by the turn of the next century. Without commensurate growth in educational access, quality, purpose and relevance, we will be ill-prepared to take advantage of this demographic opportunity which can easily turn catastrophic indeed, in the absence of real leadership. Now I want to conclude by offering some solutions to the challenges we face. First of all, we must accept that government alone cannot provide all the solutions to our problems and challenges. Government must provide conducive environment, act as vanguard, mobilize, encourage and prevent unwanted disabilities, disempowering and destructive tendencies. In short, there must be good governance.

All over the world, it is now widely accepted that governments alone cannot provide sustainable development. The example of developed economies where education is an engine for development shows that individuals, religious groups, communities, and businesses must contribute in important ways to provide education that leverages development. I have given the example of Bells University of Technology, Ota, in the best traditions of private higher education that is geared towards true community engagement and development.

This is an era of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) in all fields of development, including education. In fact, the term PPP originated in the US practice of “joint public-and private-sector funding for educational programmes” and then in the 1950s was used to refer to similar funding for utilities (Yescombe, 2007, p. 2). PPP in Nigerian education today must go beyond mortar and bricks, and extend to shared services, entrepreneurial development, and reform ideas. I have been in government, and have also been in the private sector. Believe me, when I say that one needs the other. In education, government needs the full support and partnership of individual Nigerians, business and non-profit organizations, and community associations.

In addition to joint partnerships in education, we must institutionalize systematic performance reviews and assessment of all key areas of our education system. The annual lamentations about poor performance in WAEC and NECO examinations will remain empty and futile until we have reward and punishment systems to encourage improvements among students, teachers, administrators, schools, and communities. The Kenyan system of publicly announcing the ranked order of performance for candidates and schools is worth adapting here so that we can celebrate excellence and condemn poor performance. I believe that salaries paid to teaching staff and administrators in education institutions must reflect the performance and grading of such institutions on the national scale as provided by an independent monitor and quality control organization.

Our education institutions turn out annually thousands of employment seekers. The time has come when employment creation must be the main focus of these institutions and must begin to turn out employment creators. That will enhance employability.

I cannot conclude without reiterating the value of education in leveraging national development and how the small Nsukka field experiment by the Right Honourable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in establishing the University of Nigeria in 1960 has contributed immensely to Nigerian development. The University of Nigeria has led in the production of much-needed human capital in atypical disciplines such as Architecture, Estate Management, Journalism, Music, Nursing, Physical/Health Education, and Surveying. It has also recorded innumerable scientific feats that include the first-ever cholera vaccine production in Africa, and the open-heart surgery at the Teaching Hospital, among others. There is no doubt that it will continue to contribute to Nigeria’s development in the years to come, judging by the quality of the students, staff and teachers today, and the eagerness with which many JAMB applicants make it their first choice. It is with a great sense of responsibility that I personally associate myself with the philosophy of the University: To seek the Truth; To teach the Truth; To preserve the Truth, and thereby To restore the dignity of man. Yes, we will get there.

I thank you all for listening.


Some valuable references:

Azikiwe, Nnamdi. 1961. A Selection from the Speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Fafunwa, A. Babs. 1974. History of Nigerian Education.

Ikejiani, Okechukwu (Ed.). (1964). Nigerian Education.

Ikeotuonye, Vincent. 1961. Zik of New Africa.

Taiwo, C. O. 1985. The Nigerian Education System: Past, Present and Future.