The Senate wants to reap without sowing

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Two weeks ago, a Nigerian newspaper reported the fantastic news that a Nigerian professor, Maduike Ezeibe, of the Michael Okpara University of Agriculture, Umudike, in Abia State, had discovered a drug for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. I almost fell off my chair as I read the Vice Chancellor of the University, Prof. Francis Otunta, “confirming” the discovery and claiming the breakthrough was a culmination of years of “scientific research” by the university. The VC also said Prof. Ezeibe had presented the drug to the University Senate and Council, and explained his research process to them. I was both embarrassed for the university when I read this anomaly. The National Agency for Control of AIDS has of course dismissed Ezeibe and his university’s claims but that should still not stop us from questioning how we got to the level where a university is not uncomfortable they did not meet the basic standards of scientific research verification. The educational system in Nigeria must have deteriorated so badly for them to run naked into the street shouting “Eureka!” when they have discovered nothing!

Prof. Otunta should have known better – scientific breakthroughs are not presented before the University Senate and Council; they are “blind” peer-reviewed. Such an important discovery would not have ended in an unknown online journal where Ezeibe reportedly published it; it would have been happily snagged by the respected science journals. Prof. Otunta was not the only one at fault, the newspaper that reported the “breakthrough” did not even try to be critical. The commenters on the online reports were equally credulous; they backslapped themselves over the good that had just come out of Nazareth.

Some of the commenters in fact frontloaded an alibi for the reality to come – that Ezeibe’s discovery would be dismissed because of racism and global capitalism; that the big pharmaceutical companies that would lose out on the sale of anti-retroviral drugs would not permit his research to survive. The span of gullibility – from the academia to the media, and to the rest of the society – should make us pity ourselves. We are so desirous of heroes that we are not even willing to ask basic questions. While racism indeed exists in the world, and a major discovery such as a drug for treatment of HIV/AIDS by a black man would elicit initial scepticism, the truth is that if Ezeibe’s discovery were a genuine breakthrough, the world would beat the path of the bush to his door to celebrate him. People should stop offering excuses of victimisation for our failures.

This instance is of course, not the first time Nigerian academics will make unverified claims of similar breakthroughs. In 2013, a professor of University of Benin, Isaiah Ibeh, called a press conference to announce that he might have found the drug that could possibly cure HIV/AIDS. His claims were of course debunked and Ibeh apologised saying he did not realise that there was a procedure to making such claims. In 2014, a Professor of Ophthalmology, claimed that Jews Mallow (ewedu) could cure/prevent Ebola. While both Professors Ibeh and Ezeibe claimed that they worked their way to their “discoveries” through science, Prof. Ositelu attributed hers to divine revelation. In 2015, Opeyemi Enoch, a lecturer of Mathematics at the Federal University, Oye Ekiti, claimed to have solved a 156-year-old mathematical problem, the Riemann Zeta Hypothesis, and was due for the $1 million prize. He too, like others before him, has been exposed as simply untrue. What ties all of these academics and their debunked claims together is that they represent the rot in Nigerian universities. Without prejudice to the many more hardworking professors who are doing their best under impossible conditions, these claims symptomise the failure of our entire education system.

This is where the story gets interesting: Days after NACA had dismissed Prof. Ezeibe’s claim, the Senate Committee on Primary Health care, Communicable and Non-Communicable Diseases is asking health agencies to verify its authenticity. They assume that there might be something to Ezeibe claim and which should be not be buried even if he disregarded procedure. The chairman of the Senate Committee, Sen. Mao Ohuabunwa, was quoted as saying, “It will be a thing of pride that today, a professor, a citizen of Nigeria, is developing a cure. Nothing is impossible even if he is a veterinary doctor.” For a moment, let us forget that any researcher in any field who does not know how to submit his/her claims to his/her peers for review before going public cannot be a consummate researcher. If Ezeibe were the kind of researcher Senator Ohuabunwa thinks he is, he would probably have had previous discoveries; his name would have come up in established scientific journals or Internet searches that would prove he is no rookie scientist.

The shame in the quest for further verification however belongs to the Senate that wants to reap national pride and honour when they have not sown commensurate efforts in education. Countries where people make huge scientific discoveries do not arrive there by chance, or by their leaders saying “nothing is impossible.” They work hard to achieve academic excellence. They draw a blueprint for their educational system, and their subsequent decisions and investment in education – from primary school up to the tertiary level – is determined by their long-term plans and projections. They are continually inventive; they find ways to improve their educational system by providing facilities and constantly improving conditions of learning.

Nigerian education system, on the other hand, is broken to the point that even our own leaders (including lawmakers, yes) no longer patronise public education. Their children are either in expensive private schools or they are safely ensconced abroad where they learn from the best of the best. Some months ago, we saw President Muhammadu Buhari’s children graduate from elite schools in England. To save their faces from the embarrassment of how Buhari, a man reportedly too poor to buy his own party nomination form, managed the expense of foreign education, his aides claimed he sold his houses to be able to pick the tab. Considering that what subsists as education in Nigeria should be rightly classified as child abuse, no parent that can afford it will want their children to go through that appalling process.

For 2017, the entire budget for education at all levels –primary, secondary, and tertiary – is less than $1bn. The sum is barely enough to pay salaries, let alone procure resources necessary to carry out research that leads to important discoveries. Did the senators who imagined it would be a thing of pride for Nigeria to produce an eminent researcher ask themselves what Nigeria has invested in education to expect returns? Where are the laboratories where the researches are being carried out? Where are the libraries? Do Nigerian universities even have Internet facilities for students whose work would be greatly boosted if they have unlimited connection to the cyberspace? What is Nigeria’s blueprint for the education sector and how is it guiding government policies?

Year in year out, Nigeria turns out millions of children through a system of education with outdated pedagogical structures. I paid a visit to a private primary school a while ago and I was hugely disappointed that the teaching was similar to the way I was taught decades ago. Neither the teachers nor their mode of teaching has evolved even though the world around them has changed drastically from what it used to be. Are we positioning our children for the future or we are just winging it while hoping that a genius would somehow emerge? The secondary schools are no better, children are graduating ill-literate or at best, functionally literate. Yet, with all the depressing realities, the university is expected to produce scientific researchers who will make important huge discoveries because, “nothing is impossible”?

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