Professor Tony Afejuku is professor of English in the Department of English, University of Benin, a newspaper columnist for more than five Nigerian media houses has over forty years as a scholar and is the author of three poetry volumes: An Orchard of Wishes, A Garden of Moods, and A Spring of Sweets. He told Victor Ofure Osehobo that Nigeria is in fragile times as the country appears to have stopped moving.
SOME NIGERIANS are apprehensive that the prolonged strike action by the Academic Staff Union of universities, ASUU is not about coming to an end. What is the real position of things since you are an insider?
Am a peace activist. ASUU is right 100%. It is the government that has ceaselessly been failing ASUU. You enter into an agreement you do not want to implement. ASUU means well. ASUU is fighting for the public. Don’t forget that we also have children in the Universities. If ASUU does not do what it is doing now till the very end, it will be the same story again. No that should not be. The last time Dr Festus Iyayi was killed. Everything ASUU says is right, am telling you. Unfortunately those in government, those leading us are failures. 89% of them are failures, who could not make it else where. Politics is their profession. This fight, if I should call it fight, should go on.Am in perfect agreement with the Union. The union is not fighting for personal gain alone or salary alone. Its not doing that. The members are not doing that. Give us a good environment to work in. In Ondo state even state lawyers are fighting- lawyers, their offices are no-go areas. The environment is not conducive. The medical doctors too. These are the very best of society. You know what it takes to become a Medical Doctor. Nothing is working. So ASUU is working for super drastic improvement in the Universities. Even those setting up the private Universities they do not have the personnel. It is from the public Universities that recruit staff to come and help them out and they are saying No, the lecturer should not be doing more than so and so jobs. Look at Tetfund, or Education tax fund. ASUU started it, that every company in Nigeria pay 2% of its tax into an Education fund so that Universities could be catered for. But today the politicians and civil servants grabbed it. They are now in control of what we proposed. ASUU propose solutions and they grab it. They say let them have their way we will have their will. What is happening our Universities have collapsed. Today there is no electricity in the while of the University of Benin. Look at the Covid-19, ASUU are problems solvers. Money for research is not there so we are handicapped. Now they talk of IPPIS and the World Bank, that ASUU should enrol in the IPPIS but ASUU came out with University Accountability to cater for the problems that are peculiar to the Nigerian Universities. It took ASUU N30-million to do that but the Federal government choose to spend billions of dollars on IPPIS instead. That is what they are saying that ASUU must enrol in it. Because they still want to continue milking and milking us dry. And ASUU told them years ago to set up visitations panels to Universities, to see what is happening. That many Vice-chancellors are remitting to those who cover them in the civil service and the political class to look at the other way. That is why for more than ten years now, there has been no visitation panel to Universities.
WAS this the picture you painted of Nigeria growing up? The country is now over sixty years old and some are worried at the turn of events?
This is not the Nigeria I dreamt of sixty years ago. When we were growing up, we had a very beautiful country. Yes I was far younger then but everything was moving. All parts of Nigeria. Hausa, Igbo, Esan, Benin, Kukukuru, Ijaw, everywhere and we did not know what we now know today as ethnic leanings. And our teachers in primary schools, they were from different parts. The headmaster of my primary school was an Ijaw man. I am Itsekiri. We had teachers from all parts of the country teaching us in the school. So we lived together as one. Food was so cheap. Infact tuwo which is popular in the Northern part of the country was available in Sapele where we lived. We had kunu. Everything was going on smoothly. Christmas was very colorful. We had Igbo people dancing to their own masquerade at that time of the year and it was very colorful. I mean all through my primary and secondary school days. Its not what we are experiencing now. I have grandchildren now. What they are experiencing, I never experienced in my time. They are experiencing what we call now Hard times. The times now are very fragile. We are living in fragile times. These children have no future. That is not the Nigeria we dreamt of! The green-white-green flag of our independence. My grandfather then had his own Nigeria flag which he personally designed. On his boat. He was using it on his boat. In the Niger Delta. On Benin river. I am just trying to be frank. The children are living now like there is no future for them. That is what I mean when I say they are living in fragile times. Greed, bad leaders and bad leadership as it were got us here. You have finished secondary school and University. What are the prospects of standing alone on their feet? When we were in the secondary school there were those who could not proceed further but they had jobs. Are the jobs there for University graduates today? Even with their Ph.Ds! What of those who have finished secondary schools? The schools we attended were very efficient. Everything was there. Our teachers were not selling vegetables in the classrooms. They never sold tomatoes or oranges. I went to a public school. How many of them are good today? How many public schools are worth their names today? My children, all went to private schools as it were. In our times there were private schools by the Roman Catholics. They had the best schools. They finished. What are the prospect’s? Even those who are working today after they left school, are they paid rightly? Are they paid correctly? What is the minimum wage? It is nothing to write home about! Their take home pay cannot take them Home! Anybody in primary school now today has dreams about tomorrow. During my time, those who could not proceed, after primary school they worked. Some were messengers in the office. And those who could not proceed from there due to one form of family problem or the other they stayed at home, worked, took courses at home, privately to advance themselves. And they rose on the job. We have cases of businessmen who did not go to school but made it in our time. So what am saying is that then and now are not the same. When we had independence, it was beautiful. Everybody was happy. But it was political independence. We are now in what we call a post colonial state, where nothing is working. The economy is bad. There was a time in this country, my first time of going to Britain the Naira was very strong. It was stronger than the dollar. And the Naira was at par with he British pound! Is that the same thing today? No. So nothing is working. In my time a candle stick lasted for many days., weeks or months. Put up a candle light now that there is no light. 10 or 15 minutes, its gone. Even match sticks. You have to try it many times before it lights up. You try it. There is no good public secondary school today. None. There is none. No public secondary school that is working today. This is not the Nigeria we envisaged at all.
YOU have been inside the country all these years. How did the country get to where it is presently judging by your own assessment?
Our leaders have been progressively bad. Number one, those who gave us independence wanted the British to leave quickly even before they could wear their shoes. And barely five years after independence there was war. As it were everybody wanted to be the supreme power in their respective regions, then. Ahmadu Bello was what he was in the North, where he did so much, so to say for his Fulani people. Azikiwe in the East held sway there while Awolowo was in the west. But of the three leaders, Awolowo seemed to be the best in terms of achievement, though there were those in the Midwest who said he oppressed us. They were far and far better, looking back now…100 times… 500 times , a thousand times, better than those who succeeded them. Of course the military put us where we are today. They became very very bad. So progressively, un-progressvely, If you look at it, the military took over – we had good and bad military men. Gowon was good for sometime after they removed Aguiyi-Ironsi who was accused of trying to promote centralism or central government instead of promoting Federalism. But when they took him out of the place what they accused him of doing is what they started doing. Today we are in a new system. No more federalism. So very the years any military that succeeds one military government tries to be worse. After Gowon, Murtala Muhammed took over. He was removed. All and all until we got to the stage of Abacha. Some say the military created more states in answer to the yearnings of the people. What has the creation of states done for us today? The military just created States for those who were in power to become new power-men: people who know how to use power very well. These are the political class. They are worse than any military government Nigeria has ever had, from what we are seeing today. A politician, either at the state or federal level gets millions of naira every month and they cannot give or pay N30,000 minimum wage in many states. The point is that our leaders have been very bad. They have all the resources. They have all the money, they have amassed and stolen, nobody is checking. They just use juju and marabouts and babalawos. When we were growing up things were never like this …what we seeing now. The military should have just allowed civil rule to continue. If they had allowed it to continue things would not have as bad as they are today. They were exemplary. Awolowo for instance, the Yoruba keep talking of him. He is their hero. They see him as a god. He gave the West, the first TV station, at a time France had no TV station. Look at his free education policy, look at Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, look at the tallest house,the Cocoa House! Awolowo did not put anything in his village, Ikenne. He could have put the University at Ile-Ife there but he did not do that. Look at Azikiwe, he could have put the University at Onitsha instead of Nsukka. Ahmadu Bello did not put the University in his village he put it in Zaria. Today, he is still regarded by people of the Northern parts of this country. Even Anthony Enahoro, from Esan did his best for his people. Is have seen the past and now and yet to see the future of Nigeria but for now there is no such future, if things continue like this. We don’t need a narcissistic President to move Nigeria forward. Jonathan who we gave all kinds of names would probably have fared better.
There is the ongoing debate as you are aware by a cross section of Nigerians that things may begin to look different if the country is restructured. Are you not thinking along these same lines?
This is a matter that is is dear to my heart. When we were together as regions like Midwest region we lived as one. Later we became Bendel and now we became Edo and Delta. We never had it so bad. This is an Ishan man, He is a Benin Man. He is a Ijaw man. Yes you could say the state creation was for infrastructure development but the person to person development has collapsed: Itsekiri man living happily with an Benin or Kukuruku man is not there anymore. Even within Edo state we have infighting- you don’t belong here, you cannot do this and so on. I travelled from Warri and Sapele weekend and I looked at the road. It is terrible. The road is bad and somebody says it s a federal road. The types of accidents you have on the roads these days,we never had them. Our drivers used to obey road signs at all times. They knew what the road signs meant. So are we civilized? Nothing is moving. But things should move between when we got our independence till now. Sixty years in a man’s life is no joke. That’s a very long period in a man’s life. In many places, a 60-year old person is an elder. So when you talk of restructuring, it is not our problem in Nigeria. The problem of Nigeria today is the problem of Leadership. Achebe said it before: our leaders are bad. If our leaders were good, doing the things they should do we won’t be talking of restructuring today. Why are we singing restructuring? Those who are talking about restructuring want empires. Once they get their empires, I tell you another picture of restructuring will resurface. Restructuring in Nigeria means different things to different people: those who want some measure of power, of empire clamour for restructuring. In itself it could be good but once those who are clamouring get their empires they become more terrible. But generally speaking if we have an exemplary leader who can say I give very region every state every group every community what it deserves try as best as you can for the people. California, Texas are States in USA which are ten times bigger than Nigeria in land area and population too. What we should be clamouring for is the right leaders in Nigeria. Restructuring will not solve anything. The human being is a very complex animal. But if there are people who mean well for Nigeria, they will not let them get there. That’s the problem with Nigeria. The moneybags will not allow it. Let me use the example of Edo state. Oshiomhole who said he was anti-godfatherism, what did he not do? He used all the expletives in the world to demonize and demolish the late Chief Tony Anenih – its a pity that Anenih was not alive to see Oshiomhole’s disgrace and fall. The fact is we should keep on exacting the unexpected. The unexpected leader will come who will lead Nigeria aright. He will come. The leader will come. He can come now. Who says he cannot come any moment?
What do you think of the recent recent #EndSARS protests by youths across the country?
The #EndSARS protest was not a protest against the Police. But the Police unfortunately became the symbol that the youths planned to protest against the very very very, I must say bad government in Nigeria today. Against unemployment, poor education that they are getting. The Schools have not resumed since. The Universities have not resumed. The government for example is not interested in Education. It is those in government who own the private Universities so they are not ready to fund public Universities. They have made so much money from whatever means to establish private universities So if public universities die they hope private universities will thrive for their benefit. How many people in Nigeria today can afford private Universities? The private university is elitist. That is why ASUU is saying, No we should fund public universities so that the poor can have access to University education to turn the country around. A nation is a good as the education the people have. And the federal and state government are not funding education and the youths are seeing this. These were part of the reasons for the protests. And talking about the protests many of them have also been negatively employed. In our days a students’ union government was a students’ union government, fighting against all kinds of ills in the society. But is not so today. The police they protested against we know that they are not well catered for. Even the military are they well paid. Its the political class who are the bloody thieves. Many of them are ritualists. Look at young boys, they say yahoo-yahoo. Why do they go to yahoo-yahoo, no jobs. No good example to follow. And we speak the mothers of these boys have an association of yahoo mothers’ association. So they are not happy. There are many things to talk about. It’s not finished yet. I read in the papers that the CBN was freezing accounts of some protesters. Is that not the point the youths were protesting for? This is not a sincere government. They threaten everybody. They think they can buy everybody! I just hope they do not change their path and be bought over!.