In 2017, when Best Somadina, living up to his name, emerged the Mass Communication Best Graduating Student from Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University (COOU), formerly known as Anambra State University, he knew he would get a stream of awards. But the items he got left him bemused: a tuber of yam, a fowl and a certificate.
"People expected me to get a gift related to books, but when I got yam and fowl they started laughing, wondering whether I'm a native doctor. If I had got a laptop, or N500,000 to help me for Master's degree, it would have made more sense," he said later in an interview with BBC.
Bamisaye Tosin has a similar story. He got N200 for being the best graduating student (BGS) at the Ekiti State University's (EKSU) Department of Civil Engineering.. Although, Mr Bamisaye told PREMIUM TIMES he was not discouraged, many class-top graduates like him are no longer impressed with the reward system for academic excellence in Nigeria.
Coming from a humble background, Oluwole Stephen knew the odds against him coming out tops against his mates from the prestigious colleges. But after the big improvement in his first year's second semester result, he did not look back.
So on his graduation day, amidst a tumultuous applause, out he walked proudly to the podium to collect his award for graduating top of Computer Department's class of 2017. But his joy was soon eclipsed.
"I felt excited, very excited. But reading through the letter, I couldn't relate well seeing it was just N1,000 because I actually expected something more."
In total, Oluwole received N2,000 -- N1,000 from the Dean of his Faculty and N1,000 from NASS (National Association of Science Students). Small as it was, he was not paid the money; so he let it slip.
Like Oluwole, Hikmat Ibrahim-Buruji is another best graduating student who let go of the N2,000 prize she was to get for topping University of Ibadan's Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the 2016 academic session.
"I'd be surprised if it was tangible. That's the thing in Nigeria. I didn't do it for the reward. But our institutions can do better by rewarding hard work."
Unlike her, however, Odewole Joseph, another BGS from Hikmat's school, has a Master's scholarship, from which he receives a N25,000 monthly stipend for being a first class graduate. That is the tradition of his university.
"However, if anyone who had a first class is not interested in coming back for MSc in the department, (that means there is) no reward," Olaolu noted. Hikmat did not finish with a first class, although her CGPA of 5.6 of 7 was equaled by only a lady.
At least the three above have "something" to cheer or humour them, that is not the case with many other brilliant students.
Optimism for "Something"
One of such students is Bernard Onyewuchi, University of Benin's (UNIBEN) 2018 best Mass Communication graduate. Since graduation, he has kept the hope of getting "something" during UNIBEN's convocation coming up this month.
Although, he was not "really" promised anything by the school, his optimism stems from the "PRIZEWINNER" written above his matriculation number on his school's noticeboard when his results were published.
"I don't know what is in the mind of the management. Though I have got nothing, I'm optimistic that something nice is on the way," he said.
And If it doesn't come? "I will still remain unfazed."
Bernard said the school has paid its debt, whether or not it rewards him.
"When one's effort is being appreciated, it doesn't only positively affect the awardee, it goes a long way in motivating others that success comes with reward. That is why you see people, especially the youth, saying 'school na scam'."
A 2012 research by the University of Chicago on the impacts rewards have on students' performance agrees with Bernard. With the right kind of rewards, the report stated, students' achievement improved by as much as six months beyond what would be expected.
Mohammed Abba, a Gombe-based educationist, said schools should be compelled to reward their bests through automatic jobs, scholarships and even monetarily. He said to achieve this, institutions must be innovative. For instance, by liaising with some of its notable alumni, an institution can have "Aliko Dangote Award for the Best Student."
For Obi Ijeoma, 2018 graduate of Estate Management from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Anambra State, while in school, her book was her "job". But not being rewarded for being the best in the Faculty of Environmental Sciences made her feel really bad, she said.
Ijeoma says she was not smiling "because no money was attached"
"I expected cash prize in line with other benefits; but sadly I didn't get any. I felt really bad. But we were told the school retains its best graduating students as graduate assistants. So we are hoping that promise comes to limelight."
Well, Ijeoma was only a faculty best. Adaobi Abisi was the school's overall best in the same session. The graduate of Banking and Finance told PREMIUM TIMES over the phone that she received nothing, too.
Ijeoma and Adaobi, in separate interviews, said the former vice chancellor, Joseph Ahaneku, promised automatic employment for the best students. However, they feared the new vice-chancellor would not implement this idea.
Kingsley Ubaoji, Special Assistant to the new Vice-Chancellor on Academic Matters, said there was no policy or document to that effect. But has the university any plan to reward excellence?
"I am not [the] VC so I can't say. All I know is that our new VC is very optimistic and positive such that such proposals will receive adequate attention if it is brought to his notice and it's within the law establishing the universities," he replied.
When he was told that his role as an adviser to the VC covers doing this, he retorted: "So many things demanding for attention. So many new persons taken. So much work ongoing. Please, let them [the BGS to] write [the school] and it will get the attention it deserves."
'I got word of encouragement and lots of advice'
After a third shot at the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination (UTME), Fatima Tafoki, 21, finally made it to study her dream course, Computer Science, at the University of Abuja.
Being the youngest in her class, she was determined to be the best. This determination paid off in her first year as she got a merit award and N100,000 from Etisalat as one of the best students in her department.
She maintained this élan all the way to her final year, where she fulfilled her dream of graduating as departmental best. She celebrated herself but the only reward she got from her school were "words of encouragement and lots of advice. Actually, I wasn't expecting anything so I didn't feel bad."
Recently too, in an open letter addressed to ex-governor Akinwunmi Ambode, students of Lagos State Polytechnic (LASPOTECH) bemoaned why a "handshake" was all Esther Fatogun got for graduating best student in 2018.
Recording an "unprecedented 57 first-class graduands", 2019 was a memorable year for Lagos State University (LASU). One student stood out at the convocation in May. Ridwan Ola-Gbadamosi of the Faculty of Engineering.
He narrated how his convocation speech opened some doors of opportunity for him. "As for the university prize, it was 100K as faculty best and 100K as overall best. The rest like scholarship, job depended on philanthropy, meritocracy and individual networking."
Another exception is Nuhu Ibrahim.
Not only was he the best in the 2018 session but the first in Ahmadu Bello University's 57 years history to achieve 4.94 CGPA. This feat has opened doors for Nuhu Ibrahim, 23, now a software developer and a freelancer with two software development companies in Abuja and Kaduna.
"Graduating best made me meet the Kaduna State Governor, [Nasir El-Rufai], who has promised to sponsor my postgraduate studies. During our convocation, I got the Dean's award for the best student from my faculty, a laptop; an award from Royal Choice Hotel worth N50,000; an award from Chief Felix, also worth N50,000".
Private Institutions Taking the Lead?
In 2018, John Chijioke clinched the overall best student award from Nile University of Nigeria. He said this feat made admission for a Masters degree easier for him.
"Asides the 100 per cent tuition scholarship for Masters programme of choice in Nile University, [which] also went to everyone with a first class, I believe it also contributed to my gaining admission at Imperial College London, one of the world's leading universities in engineering. Materially, I got an Ipad."
Similarly, Samuel Oludipe, Babcock University's best student in Mass Communication in 2015, said he got a plaque. Also, although not from his school, "I got money from a senator -- N200,000 -- via my department."
Gregory Tanyi, Cameroonian, was American University of Nigeria (AUN), Valedictorian for 2016. For reaching this landmark, he said he received a number of interesting job offers from both the technology and finance sectors. "A very direct reward for doing well at AUN was the Melbourne School of Engineering scholarship which I was awarded upon starting my Masters. This helped ease the financial burden of grad school quite significantly."
Aside these, he got a number of plaques and more than N550,000.
Nigeria Against The World
Going a notch higher by graduating best Master's student from the Department of Engineering in Telecommunications at the University of Melbourne, Australia, Gregory said: "I got the Marconi Award from Melbourne University and 1,000 AUD."
As Gregory's story echoed from Australasia; so did Oluwamayowa Tijani's European experience. With a distinction, he finished as one of the best graduating Masters students from the University of Sussex. For this exploit of his, he got monetary gifts, job offers from the school, and PhD scholarships.
The narrative in Asia is also in sharp contrast with Nigeria's. Little was known about Emelife Stella six years ago when she emerged overall best at Usmanu DanFodiyo University, Sokoto (UDUS). However, earlier this year, she stepped into limelight by graduating top in University of Mysore, India.
"The amount I received [in India] is way higher than what you have in Nigeria. I got 20 gold medals and 5 different cash prizes. In India, academic excellence is rewarded with gold medals that has an award certificate to accompany them.
"Financial reward is not the only way to reward excellence. The recognition and exposure matters a lot. [In India], one is highly recognised and given massive media exposure which brings up interests from various bodies who may want to pick you up for better opportunities. This, of course, is apart from the awards that will be given to one during the graduation ceremony. The reward system in Nigeria has a long way to go," Stella told PREMIUM TIMES.
How about other parts of Africa? Victor Kalalanda, 22, a penultimate and best student for two years running in Media and Communication at the University of Zambia (UNZA), said Zambia's distinction students have the privilege of joining their faculties easily through a Staff Development Fellowship or Free Masters Programme.
"A distinction also allows one to pursue postgraduate studies via prestigious scholarships like the Bit Trust and Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. Those are preserved for the best distinction graduates," he explained.
A Recurring Argument
Netizens of both Twitter and Facebook have queried why educational excellence does not get as much reward as popular reality shows in the country. Specifically, they singled out BBNaija whose 2019 winner got N60 million. The winner of Miss Nigeria pageant also gets in the range of N1 million and a car among a legion of prizes.
Critics say there is next to none of such rewards accorded to students that excel in their academics. This criticism has popularised sayings like "school na (is) scam" and "school is not worth it". Mr Abba, the educationist, said these shows get as much rewards because they have more sponsors.
On her part, Victoria Ibiwoye, Director, OneAfricanChild Foundation for Creative Learning, said the absence of quality and relevance of the sector is a key factor brewing such belief.
More than the reward system, she noted, there is a need "to match what students are learning from school with the demands of the labour force. Education system should reflect the reality out there. It should not just be about the degree; it should connect with the reality out there.
"It should be one that addresses the problems that the society is facing and empowers those who go through it to be well prepared for the challenges they are likely to face. So that when they get out there they are not facing a cultural shock."
Mr Abba said grooming best students will check brain-drain. Because the challenge of brain-drain is rife across sectors in the country, he suggested offering mentorship to students who excel in their studies as an important step in nation-building.
"Our best brains are spread all over Europe and America, helping those countries to develop. Our best brains are constantly tapped right from secondary school and some after university," he said.
According to the World Education News Review, Nigeria sends more students overseas than any other African nation. Data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) shows that between 2012-2017, Nigerians studying abroad increased by 55 per cent -- from 57,298 to 89,094. In 2018, Nigerians made up 9.7 per cent of foreign students in the U.S.
Top five destinations of these students as of 2015 are: the United Kingdom with 17,973; Ghana with 13,919; the US with 10,674, a figure that reportedly contributed an estimated USD $324 million to the US economy; Malaysia with 4,943; and Saudi Arabia with 1,915.
The National Universities Commission (NUC) ensures quality of programmes and channels external aids to Nigerian universities. Ibrahim Yakasai, the Commission's spokesperson, did not respond to requests on how the commission is supporting institutions to nurture their best brains.
A host of Nigerian political leaders have their wards scattered across schools abroad. This is happening while institutions in the country have challenges ranging from incessant strike to infrastructural decay to grapple with.
Only two Nigerian universities -- Covenant University (private) and the University of Ibadan -- made the cut of the top 1000 ranked universities in the 2019 Higher Education World University Ranking. Specifically, they rank between 601-800th. Aside them, only four others rank among the top 1001+ universities in the world.
Experts say, 'youth bulge' (over 60 per cent of Nigerians are under-24) has caused unmet demand among college-age Nigerians, thereby contributing to the massive outflux of Nigerian students to foreign lands.
To checkmate this, Mr Muhammad said Nigeria's best brains can be integrated into the economy by offering them jobs, scholarships and other capacity- building programmes as national development thrives on a knowledge-based economy, just like Singapore, Taiwan, etc, have shown.
Without adequate funding, achieving this is a far cry, he said. In recent years, allocation to education has ranged from five to seven per cent of total budget. The 2019 figure stands at 7.05 per cent.
"Institutions can work out a way out with some bodies through grants and others to attract adequate funding," Mr Muhammad said. "It requires innovation. Universities are primarily research-based institutions meant to solve problems. Developed universities use research grants to offer scholarships to the best students who help them in their research.
"So a student can work with a professor as a research assistant, helping him to carry out the research while, at the same time, the student is groomed and mentored to grow. It is also part of another reward system."
Ms Ibiwoye also said governments are duty bearers as far as funding education is concerned. She said the government needs to create a friendly environment for partnerships with stakeholders like CSOs and local and international NGOs working in the education space. She demanded creative alternative pathway to drive the education system forward.
"We need to look at creative means. If we can invest so much in entertainment and what have you, why don't we invest in educational programmes? We need to invest heavily in creativity and innovation in our education system. By creativity, it means using technology as a tool to pass across information.
"We need to look at approaches that work, that are relevant to our local context, coming up with indigenous solutions. We don't have to go there to import foreign education system.
"Our education system should be about building identity. We pride English above our native language. We should acknowledge who we are as a people and start off with things that are really relevant."