opinionBy Boco Edet
When World Bank Vice-President Makhtar Diop paid his first official visit to Nigeria, his first port of call outside of the bank in Abuja was to a university- African University of Science and Technology. His visit to a university resonates with many other respected world leaders who have visited Nigeria.
These leaders, from Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron to billionaire mobile communications entrepreneur Dr. Mo Ibrahim, after shaking the hands of Nigeria's political elite, stopped by universities to interact with the academia.
In America, staying in touch with the academic community is a very huge part of politics. George Bush was at an elementary school in Florida listening to seven-year-olds reading when his Chief of Staff told him of the 9/11 attacks. In the heat of electioneering campaigns, candidates take their manifestos to universities to explain the rationale behind certain policies - especially controversial ones in the hope of winning the intellectual community.
In Nigeria, the relationship between the academia and politicians is built around selfish interests. The politicians need the universities for honorary degrees and the universities need the politicians for their much needed cash and political favours. The only event where the who is who in society turn out in their numbers on a varsity's turf is for convocations where they have been scheduled to receive awards.
But why is this so? Former vice-chancellor of the University of Jos, Professor Sonny Gwalen Tyoden, said there is a disconnect between our leaders and the education system. "Education is not among their range of priorities," he says. The former vice-chancellor also accuses Nigerian politicians of not being "education friendly".
He said, "Educated people are highly critical and this could explain why our politicians shy away from universities, they are running away from criticisms. It is possible they are scared."
The world is now operating a knowledge-driven economy and world class universities are helping to unlock and harness new knowledge. If for example, Nigerian universities could contribute a quarter of the nearly 60 billion pounds (2007-2008) by universities in the United Kingdom to the economy of the country, wouldn't the politicians respect them?
Tyoden flips the coin and berates Nigerian universities for living in isolation. "To be relevant, an education system must address problems in the society. When they do these and partner with society then they would be taken seriously."
Bothered by this 'disconnect' between society and the academia, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) is proposing a national summit on education. President of the union, Dr. Nasir Faggae said, "It is high time we opened up and talked to ourselves."
Faggae agrees that Nigerian politicians do not place premium on education. "Our universities are where knowledge is produced and plays a key role in the development of human resources. It is a matter of perception, if leaders are convinced that education should be given premium, they would pay attention to it."
He said the poor attitude of the country's leadership has resulted in none of Nigeria's universities ranking among the top 100 in the world.
"Vision 20:2020 is seven years to the deadline. We must begin to take education seriously and particularly pay attention to universities."
The ASUU president accuses leaders of only visiting universities during convocations when their friends and cronies are going to be honoured.
"But hardly do you find a leader who pays surprise visits to see what is happening in the system. When the late Yar'adua visited Saudi Arabia he visited one of their universities and was really impressed by what he saw. We would want to see more of that happening to our own universities," Faggae said.
Diop had a strong message for Africa's leadership when he visited the African University of Science and Technology on Monday: Focus on education do not depend on oil.
According to data from the World Bank, West Africa has 83 scientists and engineers per one million compared to 223 per one million in North Africa, 540 in other developed countries and 783 in Asia.
He said the African continent needs a technological revolution and the universities need to fill the skill gap.
Former vice-chancellor of Kaduna State University (KASU), Professor Ezzeldin Abdulrahman, who commends the World Bank chief for visiting a university, said " It is a message that we need to invest more in education."
Abdulrahman said it is an example Nigerian leaders should take a cue from. "Everyone in his locality should develop a good relationship with institutions in their communities. Education should be the role of every stakeholder."
But Professor Juan Manuel Elegido who is the Vice-Chancellor of the Pan- African University, takes a different approach to the whole matter. "I am from Spain and talking of Europe generally, the equivalent of the governor in Europe to visit universities is less often than is the case in Nigeria."
Elegido said universities and political leaders lack mutual contact because the universities are doing things that have very little impact on the government of the country and the politicians or people in the private sector are not impressed.
He, however, stresses that this attitude must change. "Political leaders in different countries have very wrong ideas about the interests, values and aspirations of youths and the more they visit universities the better for them. University is not only a teaching place it is a laboratory of ideas, the more political leaders are in contact with them, the better."
He noted, thought, that if universities do not live up to their expectations, they should not complain if politicians do not come visiting.