It is now axiomatic that Nigeria embodies fundamental contradictions that define the extent of her predicament. This predicament is a multidimensional one that revolves around the inability of Nigeria to make developmental headway of her existence since 1960. For 61 years of statehood, Nigeria has yet to make headway with her development in spite of her immense natural resources. The Nigerian state is demographically youthful in a continent that is itself in its demographic stage of youthfulness. And yet, Nigeria’s youth unemployment rate is one of the highest on the continent. And finally, Nigerians constitute one of the highest-achieving ethnic groups around the world, and the most educationally distinguished, for instance, in the United States. And yet, this does not translate into any significant human capital dynamic for the Nigerian state.
Recently, after the conclusion of the #BigBrotherNaija reality show, the winner of the show, Lekan Agbelese—otherwise called Laycon—went home with a whooping N30m in cash, as well as other assorted goodies. And the media went into a frenzy of reportage over the winner and his celebration by Ogun State as her youth ambassador. Nothing is absolutely wrong with that really, at least going by the huge budget and promotional that the sponsors put into the programme. The issue is that if Laycon enjoyed so much social awareness, especially on social media and even in the traditional media, then the likes of Dr. Matthew Aneke, a former postdoctoral award- winning researcher in carbon capture and biomass gasification, Andrew Akala, the African awardee for research excellence in space science, or Yusuf Olalere who graduated first class and the best graduating student of the Nigerian Law School in 2020 or even Ogwubie Chkemzi Praise, who got the 2020 WAEC result, should also be celebrated in some measure. None of these got the media coverage even in the shadow of what Laycon got. And none of them certainly went home with anything that reflects societal measure of appreciation of the value of their contributions. With this gross disparity in human capital discrepancy, as well as the media reportage of human capital achievements, we arrive at another critical dimension of the Nigerian predicament. Though we must give kudos to the media on the growing trend to profile first-class graduates, even if more within concerns to sell the papers than as grand narratives.
The art of celebrating achievers is however not a new one. Indeed, over the centuries, it has become a distinct mark of civilizational renewal; an act of encouraging courageous invention, unorthodox creativity and foresighted innovation. From artists to entrepreneurs, and from scientists to writers, the society recognises the intrinsic worth of unique achievements that break frontiers and move the boundaries of society forward. Indeed, productive innovation, ingenious research findings, scientific breakthroughs, thought-provoking bestsellers, outstanding achievements, etc. are valued by society as the sources of the novelties and knowledge required by society itself to keep renewing its boundaries. No wonder Maya Angelou was very ecstatic about it: “How important it is for us to recognise and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!”
However, celebrating achievements cannot be for its own sake. Neither does it exist solely by itself in a vacuum. On the contrary, celebrating achievers is factored into a society’s and nation’s understanding of itself and its objectives. And this is even all the more so in the case of educational and academic excellence and its relationship with a nation’s understanding of the role of human capital in national development. Indeed, recognising excellence becomes meaningful if it is part of grand national human capital development and knowledge capital formation value chain. In other words, any state with a purposeful and strategic development plan immediately recognises the definitive role that human and knowledge capitals play in initiating a performance and productivity curve. And this implies not only factoring education into national development but also factoring educational and academic excellence into such human and knowledge capital development. This implies fundamentally that reality show winners will not get more celebrated than academic A-graders.
One significant aspect of the Singaporean transformation story, as narrated by Lee KwanYew, involves creating a strategic socialisation ecosystem within which A-graders can cultivate long-lasting relationships that is aimed at regenerating the excellence that Singapore believes plays a huge role in her national transformation hinged on an incentivised human capital made aware of the significance of the knowledge economy and the urgency of placing Singapore right within its dynamics.
Whether we like it or not, this is one of the exigencies of the 21st century that farsighted states must factor into their national reflections. This has been my reform thinking for many years—the strategic place and role of an innovative education reform in national and institutional transformation, and the need to rethink and rejuvenate human capital development through a deep reflection on Nigeria’s higher education dynamics. Anyone old enough will understand the historical narrative behind the sociology of encouragement and incentives that attended brilliant students, and specifically the role that parents and society placed on functional education. When I was growing up, being a whiz kid came with certain expectations of societal recognition and assistance in all forms. However, a whole lot has happened to our sociology in ways that have occasioned the negative reevaluation of values. Crass materialism, nepotism, and a rentier mentality led to the emergence and establishment of a culture of “something for nothing” that undermines the spirit of deferred gratification. Nowadays, competitions for positions have become too politicised to be founded on merits. Not even the hallowed ivory towers have been immune from the rat race. Thus, we have now found ourselves at a significant point where we have those with no demonstrated academic orientation making claims to have a doctorate, and when someone is introduced as a professor, one needs to do a forensic investigation of the person’s intellectual quotient.
For example, at a recent Edo State performance review conference, I highlighted in my keynote presentation the need for Governor Godwin Obaseki to do an overall total strategic anticipatory view of the revolution his education reform is creating in Edo State.
The media’s capacity to shape national discourse places on it the responsibility to project significant questions about Nigeria’s developmental status and the critical elements that are missing. Such an ongoing discourse will then put into proper national, and even ethical, perspective the relationship between the media and national development. Indeed, a serious discourse on human capital development will place a proper mold on issues, and situate each element in the human capital framework in their place without neglecting one for the other. The proper reportage of educational and academic excellence becomes the first condition for kicking off national reflection on Nigeria’s seriousness with becoming a developmental state, with a focus on reengineering her human capital dynamics. The media’s contribution derived from profiling excellent performers rather than pandering to sensationalism that sells news items. The profiling and reportage then serve as the critical opportunity to raise critical issues about a system that produces A-graders without the supporting institutional dynamics to transform them into a critical mass of human capital required to rejuvenate Nigeria’s economic and infrastructural development visions. We need a national discourse not only on a pragmatic education philosophy that puts competency at the foundation of education, but also on what supportive structures of national qualification framework can serve as the crucial foundation for skills pricing, national talent management and knowledge management strategy, etc. These issues are critical for any attempt to structurally and institutionally reengineer and rebrand Nigeria’s national development profile and value reorientation in its desire for global competitiveness.
The point is to get our priorities right, and the media owe Nigeria the national duty of signaling the critical issues that ought to remain in the limelight. Getting Nigeria’s human capital development right commences from giving proper attention to those achievers whose small achievements constitute the first steps in their journey towards becoming the human capital Nigeria requires.
Prof Olaopa is a retired federal permanent secretary
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