Being Text of the presentation by Prof Biodun Jeyifo, Professor of Comparative literature and of African and African American Studies Harvard University, at the 14th Annual Wole Soyinka Lecture, Abuja, August 3, 2011.
Ahoy CB! Ahoy Capon of NAS! Ahoy Seadogs! Adolfi Barracuda of “Jolly Rogers 1 Deck” reporting! Salutations to our “lubbish” guests and compatriots!
Canaan in the Galilee
Canaan in the Galilee
Canaan in the Galilee
Where Jesus turn water into’gogoro!
I look high, high, high
I look low, low, low
I look high, high, high
I look low, low, low
I look high, high, high
To see anything good
But all I see is a seadog!
It is a great honor and a distinct pleasure for me to have been invited to give the 14th Annual Wole Soyinka Lecture of the National Association of Seadogs (NAS). I have not been active in NAS; indeed, I am neither conversant, nor up-to-date with the activities of NAS. Nonetheless, I am a salt-coated, tsunami-beaten seadog at heart! My experience on the Jolly Rogers 1 Deck as a seadog remains one of the most memorable and gratifying aspects of my life as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan in the late 1960s. It is on account of this fact that I chose to start my lecture with those two rousing pyratical songs so as to invoke the spirit of our “sayles” in those days which now seem as if they belong to another lifetime.
We had great, soul-stirring fun in the Pyrates Confraternity of that age and I shall forever remain grateful for that experience. It was wholesome, tension and stress reducing fun, and for this reason it was a great psychological tonic for the rigours of academic life and the crises that normally come with the transition from late teens to young adulthood. Some of our activities and pranks were no doubt silly and our publication, “The Bug”, was not exactly of the highest standards of undergraduate journalism. The articles it published did not always reflect discerning cultural taste and sometimes the social etiquette underlying these articles was questionable in maturity. But we were not sadists, not psychopaths or sociopaths. And most definitely, we were not cultists! We did not wantonly destroy human life and we terrorized nobody – neither our own members nor our lubbish colleagues. As a matter of fact, we were not entirely unaware of our shortcomings and this is why some of our critical and satirical firepower was directed at ourselves. This self-directed satirical practice is what you get in the second of the two songs with which I opened this lecture: “I look high, high, high to see anything good/But all I see is a seadog!”
I am sure that everyone among my listeners this morning knows why I am making these vigorous assertions about the wholesomeness of the quintessential pyratical experience of those bygone days. “Pyracy” on the campuses of our universities and polytechnics has fallen into terribly bad ways, so much so that pyracy as my generation and the generations before us knew it and experienced it finally left the campuses in 1984, seemingly for good. This was as much a momentous as it was also a portentous development and I shall return to this issue later in this talk. For now consider this fact: even though Pyracy, in its old vintage form and under the aegis of the NAS, left the campuses in the mid-1980s, there is still a widely held and deliberately promoted view that the roots of the violent, cultic and sociopathic “pyracy” that remained on our campuses were there in the beginning. In other words, this view holds that from its inception in the old University College of Ibadan, “pyracy” in the Nigerian university system was always already incipiently devilish and satanic. The greatest “authority” for this view is none other than Long John Silver, one of the legendary Original Seven that founded the Pyrates Confraternity. This Long John Silver is of course none other than Professor Emeritus of Physics, Olumuyiwa Awe, Founder and Pastor of the Fullness of Christ Evangelical Ministry [FOCEM].
In the year 2003, there was a very widely read debate between Capn Blood (Wole Soyinka) and Long John Silver (Muyiwa Awe) on this claim that the inception of pyracy at the old UCI already had the seeds of the degeneration, the devilishness that would come later. It is not my intention in this lecture to go over the claims and counter-claims in this debate once again. Of course, I not only believe that WS/CB overwhelmingly won the debate, I also think any rational and objective person that reviews the debate will come to this same conclusion. But that is not the point. The point is this: Emeritus Professor of Physics and Pastor and Founder of FOCEM Muyiwa Awe was not in the debate to elucidate difficult issues of historical explanation pertaining to the origins and evolution of Pyracy in Nigeria; he was in the debate to do battle with Satan and to win souls for Christ. This means in effect that fundamentally, the “debate” was actually a non-debate: one disputant wanted to provide a rational, nuanced explanation for a very complex phenomenon; the other interlocutor wanted to win souls for Christ. Professor Awe is a distinguished physicist, one of the first generation of world class physicists that our country produced. But it was not the physicist, the scientist who did battle for Christ in that debate; it was the born-again, evangelical Christian minister.
For Pastor Awe, Satan and his workings are literal, perpetual and omnipresent and the born-again Christian must never let down his or her guard. Moreover, there are no grey areas, no intermediate moral and spiritual zones between Christ and Satan, between the forces of light and those of darkness and this chiliastic view of existence goes all the way back to the very beginning of creation. And if that is the case, how long ago after all was the 1950s from the 1980s that one could fail to see that Satan was already there in the founding moment of the PC in the small, seemingly insignificant acts of irreverent songs, heavy drinking, ribald carousing and “playful” intimidation of “land-lubbers”? Look at the pyratical song of “Canaan in Galilee”: Christ turning water into “ogogoro” – is that not the song of satanic minds and imaginations? Isn’t that a sure indication that pyracy was satanic in its fundamental spiritual orientation?
Incidentally, WS/CB who argued for rational, humanistic and secular values in that debate with Pastor Awe is not a regular, conventional or fundamentalist secularist. Even the most cursory acquaintance with his works and life would show that he is at heart and in sensibilities a mystic for whom spirituality matters profoundly. But in the debate with Pastor Awe there was no common ground, there could be no common ground between the two because the strain of Christianity vigorously proselytized by the former Physics professor cannot make common cause with the composite form of spirituality embraced and celebrated by WS – cosmopolitan, eclectic, and worldly but fundamentally rooted in Yoruba and African indigenous traditions. In these traditions of religion and spirituality, it is not uncommon to sing satirical hymns of praise in honor of a deity, something that is completely unthinkable in present-day fundamentalist evangelical Christianity converting millions to its fold in Nigeria and Africa.
But what is my purpose in going back to this now settled issue of the origins and evolution of pyracy on and off our university campuses? My objective is to use that nodal moment as a prism through which to explore some little known and barely discussed aspects of the perennial crises of higher education in Nigeria and Africa. At the risk of an over-simplification, here is what I am trying to put across in going back to an essential aspect of that non-debate between two of the founders of the PC: One side argued for rational, humanistic, secular and critical values that were calculated to rehabilitate and transform the Pyrates Confraternity; this side won the debate but took the PC off-campus into the country at large and indeed beyond the shores of the country to any place in the world where seadogs could find, consolidate and reinvent themselves as pyrates of a new era. Meanwhile, the other side essentially lost the debate, but in the name of a militant and fundamentalist Christianity, it radically rejected the PC and everything for which it had ever stood. But this side remained on campus to engage what it considered to be a battle for the soul of the nation’s universities, a battle that more or less translates into a battle for the nation’s mind. One side – the side that left the campuses – won the battle but lost the war. The side that stayed lost the battle but won the war. Or has it?
CB, Capon, seadogs, ladies and gentlemen, let me be clearly state that I am treating that debate between WS and Professor Awe as symptomatic of something much bigger than a controversy over historical explanation of the origins and evolution of pyracy on Nigerian university campuses. For another way of putting across the claim that one side won the battle but lost the war while the other side lost the battle but won the war is to suggest that the radical humanists and secularists have seemingly vacated the campuses of our tertiary institutions and the born-again, evangelical, fundamentalist religionists now hold sway in the hallowed halls of Nigerian and African academe. Let me remind you that concerning that debate itself, I remarked earlier that in Professor Awe’s positions the distinguished physicist, the acclaimed scientist was nowhere in sight; throughout the debate, the militantly proselytizing born-again pastor doing battle with Satan and his hordes completely subsumed the scientist.
In this respect, this was not an isolated event. A colossal tidal wave of a fundamentalist, literalist and anti-intellectual religiosity is washing over Nigerian and African academia whose battle for the souls of our campus communities is in effect part of a war for the mind of the nation and the continent. I shall presently be giving a sharper and more concrete profile of this phenomenon but for now let me simply observe that a great number of Nigeria’s and Africa’s intelligentsia has been swept along the ever-widening path of this tidal wave. The paths of this mighty wave of course stretch far beyond the shores of Africa, but in no other region of the world have its currents crashed into university campuses as forcefully and as triumphantly as in Africa. Prayer warriors now dominate the halls of academe and indeed their presumed victory in what is conceived as the war for the mind of the nation and the continent is daily trumpeted and celebrated. For at least the foreseeable future, this will be the ideological and psychological context for meeting virtually all of the crises and challenges facing higher education in Nigeria and Africa. This is the thing caught in Nte’s trap.
But who exactly is Nte and why have I chosen him and what he stands for to frame my reflections in this lecture on the crises of Nigerian and African education?
Nte is a folkloric figure that appears in Achebe’s fiction, most especially Arrow of God. He is a hunter, a trapper who one day finds that his trap has caught an animal that is so big in size and so unfamiliar as to be virtually unheard of. On seeing this trapped quarry, Nte is simultaneously gratified, perplexed and frightened. His dilemma is that while he is thrilled by the fact that this is the biggest animal ever caught by any trapper in his community, he is at the same time terrified and perplexed by the realization that the beast is far bigger than himself, his wits, his sense of his identity as an experienced, wily trapper. Since Nte belongs to folklore, this all happened a long, mythical time ago but to this day Nte is still rooted to the spot, transfixed into a state of paralyzing inertia by the dilemma posed by the thing caught in his trap.
A virtual state of near-total inertia is the pervasive context for all of the crises in Nigerian and African education. This point cannot be overstated. The crises are one thing, the contextual paralysis of will is another thing; together, they constitute the mega-crises alluded to in the title of this lecture. The crises are there and I shall presently give an outline of some of the most unprecedented, debilitating and seemingly intractable of their expressions and ramifications. But as unprecedented as they may seem, these crises can and should be separated from the contextual inertia whose primary cause I locate in the capture of so many of our professional academics by a virulently anti-intellectual and superstitious form of religiosity, the like of which we last saw in the medieval and pre-medieval modes of religious expression in the so-called Dark Ages in Europe. For this reason, I shall in this lecture give profiles of both the crises themselves and the pervasive anti-intellectual religious zealotry that provides the context for the crises. But since in the real world, crises are never really separable from their social and historical contexts, at the end of the lecture, I shall bring the two – crises and contexts – into the same frame of analysis and projection. First then, the crises themselves, rendered through both statistical figures and anecdotal materials.
Before giving a profile of the crises, perhaps it is necessary to give a word of caution. Like a terrifying disease or pandemic contagion, some of the symptoms of these crises of education in Nigeria and Africa are extremely debilitating and stupefying. Now, we all know that a frightening disease for which no name, no diagnostic identity has been given is doubly terrifying. But as soon as a name, a diagnosis is made, the disease becomes less frightening and possibly treatable. I suggest that this is equally true for the morbid, debilitating symptoms and expressions of the crises of education in our country and our continent. The figures, the expressions are usually trotted out without giving a name, an identity to the symptoms and their impacts. A failure rate of 95% among secondary school leavers in Nigeria: how in the world could a country record, consistently, a failure rate of over 95% among its school leavers? Are we breeding cretins, a generation of congenital oridotas in our country? Or take the following statistic: among the top ranked 2000 universities in the world, there is not a single Nigerian institution. I shall soon be stating more figures, statistics and anecdotes along the same lines, some even more alarming. Before doing so, I wish to suggest here and now that there are names, there are theoretically sophisticated and descriptively apt designations for these symptoms and we should bear these in mind as we confront the crises. One name, one designation that has been used a lot in many parts of the developing world is the development of underdevelopment: as a poor, looted and misruled nation in the Global South sinks more and more into wretched conditions, the development process itself becomes the basis, the object of underdevelopment. A cognate term, “maladjusted development” has also been used, but the one I personally prefer over all the others is regressive neocolonialism, perhaps because it is my own coinage! In this form of postcolonial state and society, independence and sovereignty often take extremely costly and extremely bizarre forms as the alliance of local and foreign forces in control of the nation’s vital resources prove vastly inept before the challenges of development and modernity. Every step forward comes with two or three steps backward, so much so that the colonial period of total foreign control actually begins to look like a golden age. This is why, in regressive neocolonialism one must expect morbid and perplexing symptoms as a prevailing expression of reality. Thus, as I begin now to identify some of the most perturbing of the symptoms and expressions of the educational crises in our country and our continent, I ask you to please bear in mind that there is nothing natural, nothing preordained and nothing beyond redemption in these crises precisely because regressive neocolonialism will one day come to be a thing of the past in our country and our continent. The basis of this hope, this utopian belief will be briefly discussed at the very end of the lecture. On that note, let us now move to the crises themselves, together with the forms and expressions that they characteristically assume.
Nigerians of all political camps and ideological persuasions like to think of our country as the giant of Africa and the hope of the Black race. Ladies and gentlemen, the index of educational standards is most decidedly not the place to look for evidence of this patriotic, idealized view of Nigeria. In the last twenty years standards have more than plummeted; they have gone far below ground level and settled at the bottom of underground caverns in the rankings of the tertiary institutions of our continent and the world. I have remarked earlier that no single Nigerian university is ranked among the top 2000 universities of the world. Well, consider the following statistic: of the highest ranked 100 universities in Africa, only 8 are Nigerian institutions and not one of them is among the top 30 African universities. Now, juxtapose this extremely poor ranking of Nigerian universities within Africa with the fact that African universities are very scarce among the highest ranked 500 universities in the world, there being only two in that group of the world’s top universities (University of Cape Town and University of Witwatersrand, both in South Africa). The grim fact is as undeniable as its ramifications are inescapable: Nigeria lags far behind the standards obtaining on the African continent; the African continent lags far behind world standards.
It must of course be stated clearly that the business of ranking the world’s universities in regional and global hierarchies of excellence is not exactly a straightforward and uncontroversial affair. But that does not mean that it is a redundant and diversionary affair, as some African university administrators defensively claim. And indeed, for the most part, most Nigerian and African universities are indifferent to the generally very low ranking of our continent’s universities in the world. The general feeling is that there is very little that Nigerian and African universities can do to remedy the situation. Moreover, beside the loss of prestige for older African universities like Ibadan, Legon and Makerere for being so lowly ranked among the world’s universities, there don’t seem to be any direct consequences for our scholars and students for being in this situation. But Africa is part of the world and the world is not that far from Africa and being out of the charts in the world ranking of universities has consequences in Africa itself. Which is why, for at least the last two decades, Nigerian parents who can afford it have been sending their children to South African and Ghanaian universities and in Nigeria itself potential employers of our university graduates have been complaining that a high percentage of those who pass through our institutions of higher learning are so poor in quality that they are either downright “unemployable” or have to be reeducated and retrained in order to meet the demands of the market and the professions in all fields: science, technology, engineering, administration, medicine, law, business.
These are extremely sobering facts and conditions. Why are Nigerian universities so poorly ranked, not just in the world at large but in Africa as well? Why are South African and Ghanaian universities preferred over Nigerian institutions now by rich parents who surmise that if they cannot afford to send their children to American and European universities, they can at least send them to institutions in other African countries that presumably do much better than Nigerian universities in educating our young people for the modern world and the global economy? And why is the term “unemployable” so widely and freely bandied around with regard to the quality of the products of our universities? As I have observed earlier, we like to think of ourselves as the giant of Africa and the hope of Black people everywhere, with the projection in the so-called “Vision 2020” that by the year 2020 we will be one of the leading and biggest 20 economies in the world. A big player in the world without world class universities, indeed with universities that lag far behind the universities of many other African countries?
Some thoughtful comments are necessary here. Nigerians, both from our home institutions and those trained in foreign universities, tend to do very well in graduate programs of study in European and North American universities. As a matter of fact, Nigerians tend to do comparatively much better than Africans from other nations of the continent in such programs. And in North America (United States and Canada) first generation children of Nigerian immigrant parents outscore and outperform the children of nearly all other national immigrant communities from Africa and other parts of the developing world with the single exception of India. This, in effect, means that the “problem” is not something in us but in the entire institutional order of higher education in our country. One big factor here is the fact that education in general and tertiary education in particular, is greatly under-funded in Nigeria and Africa. This has led to the much-discussed phenomenon of the “brain drain” as droves of some of the most gifted scholars flock to the well-financed centers of international scholarship. [Obviously, I have been a part of the “problem” here!]
These are all very important factors in the precipitous decline in the quality of higher education in Nigeria in the last two or three decades, but in my personal opinion, the single most important factor is the extremely rapid rate of expansion of the tertiary educational sector in the same period as scores of both publicly financed and private universities emerged to stretch the capacity of the system as a whole to expand without severely depressing standards beyond minimal limits. From a single national university at independence in 1960 we moved rapidly to six, then to twelve, then to twenty-four. It was at that point that we began to hear talk of first, second and third generation universities. These were initially all publicly financed institutions, but they were later joined by private ones. As of now, no one knows exactly how many universities are in Nigeria and the figures we hear range between 130 and 150. Universities are not kindergarten schools, they are not primary schools and there are limits to the rate at which you can create new universities without fatally crippling the system as a whole. Nigeria in particular and Africa in general long ago crossed these limits and mere certification has massively replaced the dissemination and reproduction of the unique kinds of knowledges traditionally purveyed by universities. There is grandiosity in the system, but it is grandiosity in the production of mediocrity, a mediocrity not natural, not unalterable but systemic, determinate and therefore changeable.
In talking of mere certification having replaced true learning and the production of mediocrity on a grandiose scale, I am talking not only of the students produced in our tertiary institutions, but of the teachers themselves, the whole body of the professoriate, so to speak. This is the most delicate but at the same time the most salient point of all my observations and reflections in this lecture. The professional and intellectual quality of the teachers, the lecturers and the professors has plummeted calamitously and this the bottom line, the nadir of the fall in standards and quality in tertiary education in our country. Because this is such an explosively controversial point to make, let me be as clear as possible on what is entailed in this observation, this claim.
As I have said earlier in the lecture, outside the Nigerian tertiary educational system in some of the world’s most highly ranked universities, Nigerians do quite well and are indeed highly competitive as a national group. But because of the monumental collapse in the system within Nigeria itself, Nigeria as a nation is not competitive at all in the world of international scholarship and world class university teaching and research. Let me drive this point home as vigorously as possible: if there was ever a chance – and there was once – that we could become an important scientific nation, that chance is gone now, at least for the foreseeable future.
I do not of course wish to be misunderstood in so vigorously emphasizing this point. In historical terms, the expansion of the system of higher education in our country was not only inevitable, it was also necessary and even socially and culturally progressive. At independence and right up to the end of the first decade of the post-independence period, the few universities had places for only an infinitesimal percentage of qualified members of the total applicant pool. And there was and still is a universal yearning, a universal clamor for higher learning in our country. In that respect, the rapid expansion of tertiary education in our country is understandable and ought, for instance, to be differentiated from the clamor for state creation in Nigeria. But the expansion was unplanned, chaotic, and immensely opportunistic in creating cadres of teachers, lecturers and, especially, professors that moved into positions for which they had overhasty and inferior preparation.
Mr. Chairman, compatriots, ladies and gentlemen, as we all know, there is a lot of talk in Nigeria about the quality of education that students get in our universities. There is a lot of talk about the extremely inadequate level of funding of our universities, the desperate insufficiency of equipment, tools and facilities necessary for instruction in a modern university. There is talk of strikes all the time by ASUU, there is talk of the time wasted over the incessant closure of universities due to these strikes. There is talk of the hellish living conditions of students in many of our campuses, as well as the terrible state of disrepair in classrooms, laboratories, libraries and offices. These are all true enough and this means that the problems and crises that tertiary education as a system faces in our country are not mono-causal but have many causes and effects. In this context, I wish to place on record here that the concentration on ASUU, strikes and incessant closure of our universities is extremely reductive and ignores all these other problems, quite apart from the fact that ASUU is about the only body connected with tertiary education in our country that has been consistently patriotic and far-sighted in its views and positions about the crises in Nigerian tertiary education and how to tackle them. I was once the National President of ASUU and I m very proud to have been associated with the organization.
I say all this in order not to be misunderstood or quoted out of context when I claim with great emphasis that the rapid, unplanned and opportunistic expansion of university education in Nigeria has produced a body of teachers, lecturers and professors that occupy positions for which they had overhasty and inferior preparation. There is nothing peculiarly Nigerian about this situation since the same haste and chaos would have produced the same results anywhere in the world, including countries in which universities have much longer histories of the evolution. What is peculiarly Nigerian is that the matter is hardly ever discussed and indeed is considered too delicate, too “sensitive” to take on. Hence, it is much easier to talk of how “unemployable” the students produced in our universities tend to be, just as it easier to talk of the terrible conditions of the living, teaching and learning environments of virtually all of our campuses except the brand new ones. But what of the teachers themselves, the dons and professors that have been produced by a terribly flawed process? If we cannot say that like the students that they produce they are themselves “unemployable” we can at least invoke the famous injunction of Karl Marx that the educator himself must now be educated.
There is no lack of awareness in the Nigerian academic community that our lecturers and professors need constant re-education and retraining. But this awareness does not seem to go beyond the normal, routine awareness in academia everywhere in the world that academics have to do periodic research and have to be given the tools and the funding to do that research. There is, I contend, a general reluctance, a general paralysis of will to address the fact that so many academics in our tertiary education system have been produced and are still being produced by an overhasty and inferior preparation. This lack of will, this inertia, you may recollect, is the environment that I metaphorically called the thing caught in Nte’s trap at the beginning of this lecture, saying that this inertial environment is a product of the capture of large segments of our academic community by tidal waves of a fundamentalist, anti-intellectual and militant form of religiosity that now more or less dominates the mind of the nation in the name of saving souls for God or, as the case may be, Allah. In the following closing section of this lecture, I now return to this subject by taking up the complex issue of the historic connections between religion and higher education in world history.
For the greater part of the long centuries of the evolution of the modern university, religion was the main institutional order for founding and running universities. Some of the greatest and most prestigious universities were founded under the seal and approval of the Church. This happened in England and Scotland, Italy and France, Holland and Spain. Even in the United States, some of the prestigious Ivy-league universities had their origins in the religious institutions. And in the Arab world, the great universities thrived under the patronage of Islam. In this long period, things were not always smooth between religion and knowledge production in the universities and the Church had to tread a careful and delicate line between giving knowledge its due and keeping the Word and Law of God supreme. This tension increased tremendously when learning and research considerably helped in the exploration of the heavens, the seas and the four corners of the earth and when new discoveries aided diverse areas of life like commerce, manufactures, warfare, and the arts and practices of healing. No pope, no bishop, no matter how powerful and full of reverence, wanted to be regarded as an enemy of knowledge. As a matter of historical fact, many priests were in the very front ranks of the production and dissemination of knowledge. These were the kinds of priests that founded and ran the legendary denominational secondary schools of colonial and early postcolonial Nigeria: CKC Onitsha; Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti; St, Gregory’s, Lagos; the “Ionian” Grammar Schools of the Southwest of the country.
For good or ill, the professors-turned-evangelists of contemporary Nigeria at the front ranks of Pentecostals in academia are nothing remotely close to this venerable order of priestly champions of educational enlightenment that more or less built the foundations of the university as we now know it. Where mere certification has replaced true learning, mediocrity reigns supreme, employers grumble endlessly that the graduates produced by our tertiary institutions are “unemployable” and foreign universities worry about the certificates borne by our graduates seeking further higher learning in the great halls of instruction and research of the world, born-again professors feel absolutely no inclination, no pressure to separate the search for knowledge from the salvation of souls, they have no qualms whatsoever in being militantly obscurantist and anti-intellectual. As an illustration of this observation, let me share with you the anecdotal evidence of something that happened during the Vice Chancellorship of Professor Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe at the University of Lagos (2002-2007), an account of which I read in a detailed and vivid report on the pages of The Guardian.
The event was a well attended mass prayer meeting to exorcise demons and evil forces that were allegedly laying a spiritual siege on the University. This Pentecostal prayer vigil was led by Dr. Daniel Kayode Olukoya, an alumnus of the University and the General Overseer of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry. The newspaper account contained a quotation from Dr. Olukoya in which he identified by names the half dozen demons he had cast out of the grounds of the University during the prayer vigil. According to the good evangelist, some of these devils resided on land, some in the waters of the lagoon surrounding Unilag, and some in the air or the ether above the grounds of the Institution. Moreover, this newspaper report also contained testimonies from both faculty and students about how wonderful and revivifying the exorcizing prayer vigil had been. The Vice Chancellor in particular was quoted verbatim as saying that this vigil of exorcism was the single most fulfilling event of his entire career and experience at the University of Lagos including both his days as an undergraduate at the institution and his years as scholar, teacher and administrator, inclusive of his position as Vice Chancellor.
As the sarcastic saying goes, I was both “flabberwhelmed” and “overgasted” by this newspaper report. I thought: “this is the 21st century, not medieval Europe, Africa or Asia!” The section in the report about the actual names of the devils and demons exorcised by Dr. Olukoya could have come straight out of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, written and performed in 1610, except that in Jonson’s play, the whole matter of demons and devils is treated as a canard, a joke whereas in the newspaper account in Nigeria in the first decade of the 21st century, exorcism and the devils exorcised were treated with the greatest seriousness and solemnity. This was why upon reading this account I was so stupefied that I drove to my friend, Femi Osofisan’s house on the campus of the University of Ibadan to discuss my agitation with him.
Well, he had some surprises in store for me. Hardly had I finished narrating what I had just read to him than he asked me to hold on while he went into his bedroom and came back with an official news bulletin of the University of Lagos. This was a special bulletin. In it, the Vice Chancellor had ordered every high official of the University to be present at the prayer meeting. He had not specifically mentioned the casting out of demons and devils, but he had made it plain that the institution was being besieged and plagued by destructive, evil forces and this prayer vigil was the answer to these forces. On reading this bulletin, I went into a metaphoric reverse gear: instead of rushing forward to a simple dismissal of this event as an aberration, I realized that I needed to retrace my steps to an investigation of where it all began, where it could have come from.
I should of course state that Professor Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe is a very distinguished mathematician and civil engineer. He is in fact the current President of the Nigerian Academy of Science. He is also a first class omoluabi who is both an amiable acquaintance and a distant relative of mine. I say all this to show the complexity of the subject of this lecture. Professor Ibidapo-Obe was not just a Vice Chancellor who confounded the norms of modern academia by organizing and sanctioning a medieval ritual exorcism of devils in a 21st century African university; he is also a modern-day, highly trained and distinguished scientist and university administrator. So, what does it mean for a mathematician, a scientist to foster and encourage the belief that there are devils and demons to be cast out from our minds and psyches, the belief that devils and demons are indeed the metaphysical arrowheads of a crippling spiritual siege on our tertiary institutions and our countries? I do not exaggerate at all when I assert here that I have wrestled for many years now with this enigma of learned mathematicians, engineers, scientists and humanities scholars that are apparently completely untroubled by their literal belief that devils and demons prey on both the souls and the bodies of the nation’s communities, peoples and individuals.
On nearly every campus of Nigerian universities and polytechnics, one sees huge billboards enjoining students to say no cultism, the presumption being that cultism is running rampart in our tertiary institutions because of a nefarious spiritual siege by satanic forces. Entire faculties and departments in our universities and polytechnics are dominated by Pentecostal lecturers and professors. Scores, hundreds of our academic physicists, mathematicians, geographers, demographers, sociologists, literary scholars and theatre practitioners are born-again Pentecostal evangelists. The conventional, old-time mainstream Christian denominations like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Methodism have been effectively Pentecostallized. The ultimatum to all of them has been: become Pentecostal or lose your congregations and sink into a spiritual wasteland. Of course this is happening not only on the campuses of our tertiary institutions but everywhere in the land and the continent. But here, I am focused specifically on the ramifications of this shift of Christianity to an overwhelmingly fundamentalist and literalist form and expression in our tertiary educational system. This, I suggest, marks a decisive turning point in the history of the connection between religion and education on our continent; moreover, it is now the terrain, the environment in which the great, crippling crises of tertiary education will be resolved one way or another.
Increasingly, tertiary education in contemporary Africa is falling under the sway of evangelizing zealots. A great number of the new private universities in Nigeria and other parts of Africa are being founded and run by both Christian and Islamic denominations. More portentously, many of the controlling forces of the public or state-financed tertiary institutions are in the grip of the evangelical zealots. The form of religion is overwhelmingly superstitious and chiliastic, this in a social space of rampant and degrading poverty and insecurity for an overwhelming proportion of the citizenry.
This is still an inchoate and evolving religious and social phenomenon. It is wedded to evangelical capitalism and media consumerism. Its clergy, its pastorate is largely self-trained and resolutely anti-intellectual, even when the actual persons concerned are present or retired professors. A large part of its gospel deals with prosperity and feel-good, self-help boosterism. And as I have remarked several times in this lecture, its theology is driven by superstition, literal-mindedness and fanaticism. And for all its undoubted successes, it is still a long way from complete conquest of the terrain, academic and national.
The world of international or world class scholarship is replete with Nobel laureates in the natural and social sciences that are devout, practicing Christians and Jews able to successfully combine their rigorous dedication to science and learning with their belief in the divine and the miraculous. Our professor-pastors, our born-again university dons should borrow a leaf from the example of such Nobel laureates. But we should not place all our hopes in this plea. If a robust, muscular and critical secular spirit returns to our campuses to take on the dominance of the proselytizing religious zealots, we might actually begin to see the coexistence of relevant, impeccable scholarship with the worship of God and the salvation of souls. This, in itself will not provide immediate solutions to the myriad of crises we have identified in tertiary education in Nigeria and Africa, but it will have finally devised a way to deal with the thing caught in Nte’s trap – the inertia, the paralysis of will that prevents us from taking head on these crises. To God be the glory and to science, learning and enlightenment be the means to checkmate and maybe even defeat regressive neocolonialism!