Nigeria’s next government needs to strengthen and unify the country’s trouble-ridden university sector and harness its potential for development.
When Nigeria’s outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat to his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari last month (31 March), many in the country drew a sigh of relief regardless of their political affiliation.
With challenges ranging from the flagging oil prices to terror group Boko Haram facing the country, they were happy that election-related unrest was not added to that list.
“Nigeria’s next government needs to strengthen and unify the country’s trouble-ridden university sector and harness its potential for development.”
In the coming months, president-elect Buhari will be pondering who to appoint in his administration, and on 29 May he will be sworn in as the head of state of Africa’s largest economy. Among other things, he needs to make sure he leaves the country’s science, technology and innovation policies in competent hands.
His choice for who to head the federal briefs for science and technology, as well as for education and youth development, will be crucial to mending the country’s stumbling university and research sectors. And it won’t be an easy feat for whoever gets the job.
Nigeria’s large and youthful population is a resource that could work either in its favour or against it. But in order to benefit from the demographic dividend, the country needs to improve its educational system.
Nigeria’s university sector, although one of the biggest in Africa, is in poor shape. Some of its more than 100 universities — a mix of federal, state and private institutions — date back to before the country’s independence in 1960. A key example is the University of Ibadan in Western Nigeria, which was formally inaugurated in November 1948.  Others are newer creations such as Benue State University, which was set up in 1992, and the Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurun, established in 2007.
After independence, Nigeria’s universities enjoyed a golden age in the 1960s and 70s. However, for decades Nigeria’s universities have suffered from financial and political neglect. The publicly-funded universities, in particular, have seen their support dwindle as enrolment numbers have shot up, putting pressure on facilities and lecturers.
When Jonathan came to power, much was made of his academic credentials. A PhD holder in zoology, he had lectured at the country’s River State College of Education before entering politics. In 2007, he was appointed vice-president by Umar Musa Yar'Adua, a fellow science graduate who died in office in 2010, leaving Jonathan in charge.
A culture of non-action
But these hopes were not fulfilled during Jonathan’s five years in office. Although he oversaw the development of several initiatives that might have improved the lot of universities, few were implemented in practice.
A revised national science, technology and innovation bill, approved in 2012, paved the way for the creation of a new national research fund. However, three years on this is still not up and running.
Even initiatives that were carried out — such as the creation of 14 new universities in the country — received some criticisms from those Nigerian academics that thought the money would have been better spent on existing institutions.
“Given the good blueprint in place for change, Buhari should refrain from placing his most ambitious career politicians in the driving seats for science and education. Rather, he should choose pairs of steady hands who understand the sector better than he does.”
Speaking to the weekly African science funding bulletin Research Africa in January this year, Musiliu Ahmed, an agro-economics lecturer at Lagos State University, said it would have been more effective to have spent the money on upgrading existing institutions. “[Building new universities] is not enough ground to earn my vote,” he told the bulletin. .
This lack of action riled the country’s academics. In 2013, lecturers at publicly-funded universities went on strike for seven months after the government failed to fulfil funding promises. 
The strike brought teaching to a standstill for most of the academic year, harming students most of all.
Many academics have welcomed the change in the country’s leadership despite 72-year-old Buhari’s limited involvement in higher education.
Their goodwill is mainly rooted in the hope that he signals a fresh impetus to political action in their sector. But Buhari won’t have to be in office long before he too faces the fury of the academics if he is seen to drag his feet on addressing seething dissent in the country’s universities.
Given the pressures involved, and the dire situations that many universities find themselves in financially, Buhari’s new science and education ministers won’t have time to start from scratch. And nor should they have to.
The science, technology and innovation policy adopted in 2012 is a good blueprint for investing in the university sector . Its national science fund should help restore academic competitiveness in the country, and encourage more young people to take up careers in science.
The policy also champions closer collaboration between universities with the private sector, with a strong focus on fostering innovation and entrepreneurial activity. This will be essential to create the jobs for Nigeria’s youth once they graduate.
Given the good blueprint in place for change, Buhari should refrain from placing his most ambitious career politicians in the driving seats for science and education. Rather, he should choose pairs of steady hands who understand the sector better than he does, and whose sights are set on effecting lasting change, not in climbing political ladders.
Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.