Aliko Dangote's recent revelation that six of the applicants to his Graduate Executive Truck Drivers' program were PhDs was certainly a classic PR stunt. It was intended to subliminally call attention to his employment scheme--and to earn him high praise from Nigerians in the process. But if it is indeed true that doctoral degree holders applied to be truck drivers, what should we make of that?
First, it is not, as many commentators have pointed out, an instantiation of the severity of unemployment in Nigeria. Yes, there is no denying that there is high-level unemployment in Nigeria, but PhDs are still in high demand in Nigerian universities. In an August 22, 2012 remark, for instance, President Goodluck Jonathan, using statistics from the National Universities Commission, pointed out that more than 60 percent of people who teach in Nigeria's public and private universities have no PhD. So the possession of a Ph.D. guarantees employment in Nigeria--or at least in Nigerian universities.
Second, poor pay in Nigerian universities can't be the motive behind PhDs applying to be truck drivers. Nigerian university teachers earn enough salaries to guarantee a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. I know I'm going to get a lot of flak for this from my colleagues in Nigerian universities, but the truth is that Nigerian university lecturers are some of the best paid in the world. A recent study, for example, showed that Nigeria has the 13th best paid professors in the world.
An April 2012 study of the salaries of university professors in public universities in 28 countries showed that Canadian university professors are the best paid in the world on average. Italy is second, South Africa is third, and India is fourth. The United States is fifth. The study, which was jointly conducted by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, showed that Nigerian university teachers fare better than their counterparts in such prosperous countries as Malaysia, Argentina, France, Japan, Brazil, Russia, etc.
I do not, by this, mean that Nigerian lecturers luxuriate in financial El Dorado. But I do mean two things: One, that Nigerian lecturers, especially those with PhDs, do better than the average Nigerian financially. Two, that if the salaries of university lecturers are still considered low in comparison with people in politics, IT, banking, etc., it is because people don't take to university teaching and research because of the promise of high financial reward; they do so--or should do so--because of their passion for knowledge production and circulation.
And this brings us to the Dangote doctoral drivers. If indeed such people exist, they are no more than the outward manifestation of a deep-seated malaise in Nigerian academe. Several people teach in our universities not because they are driven by the thirst to find and share knowledge, but because they had no other career options. The professoriate, for them, is just another job.
I experienced this firsthand when I taught briefly at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. Many of my colleagues didn't believe I could resign a position in the presidency to come teach in the university for less than half the salary I received in my former place of work. I lost count of the number of people who, upon hearing that I'd worked in Aso Rock, pleaded with me to get them introduced to higher-ups in the presidency for "better-paying" jobs in the federal civil service. That depressed me deeply. In retrospect, those are the kinds of people that would apply to be Dangote's truck drivers. They have no business being in the university in the first place.
The Ph.D. is an intensive and extensive investment of people's intellectual and even physical energy that takes years to complete. And, while there is no law of nature that prevents PhDs from being employed outside academe, research doctorates are designed to encourage people to cherish the virtues of teaching, research, and continual learning. That is why universities and research centers are--or should be--magnets for people with PhDs.
Nothing in what I have said is intended to suggest that doctoral degree holders are a special breed of people. They are not. They are a self-selected group who just chose a different career path. They chose to know more and more about less and less, as people in academia sometimes humorously characterize doctoral education. As I always tell my friends, a Ph.D. doesn't necessarily make people smart; it's just that many smart people tend to go for a Ph.D. But there are many stupid people with PhDs, and there are many smart people who don't have PhDs.
That is why it shouldn't surprise us that people who have invested years earning a PhD would opt to be truck drivers. It is, in many ways, a reflection of the cultural atrophy of Nigerian academe. A culture of crude mercenary pedestrianism has taken roots in Nigerian universities. Many university teachers no longer measure their worth by the quality and quantity of their scholarly productivity, but by the worth of their paychecks. Dangote's doctoral drivers are the extreme absurd of this culture.
Fortunately, there are still many lecturers and professors in Nigerian universities who are fired by the passion for knowledge creation and transmission; who brave tall odds to teach and produce high-quality research; who resist the crass materialism that has come to define life in Nigeria; who, while recognizing that they need "living wages" to survive and do the work they love, are not held prisoner by acquisitiveness; and for whom university teaching is a service to humanity rather than a gateway to material gratification.
Those are the people that fill me with hope for the future.