I got several telephone calls following reports of the N500 cash prize awarded to the best graduating students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka a few days back. According to the news report, the three best graduating students of the federal government-owned institution were asked to share a sum of N1, 500 among themselves.  The award was tagged Sir Odumegwu Memorial Prize for the best graduating student. Although, the prize sum is N1500, three students had the same 4.63 CGPA, thus making all of them best graduating students, so the university emphasised that the prize money would be shared among them.    

Likewise, two students in the Department of Accountancy were awarded the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation Prize of N1000 for being the best. Both had the same CGPA, and were also asked to share the Prize money. 

Most of the callers wanted to know if the N500 prize reported was a typographical error or real as they couldn’t imagine such ridiculous prizes being awarded for academic excellence. After confirming the authenticity of the news report, some still chose not to believe. I read some WhatsApp comments claiming the story was fake and the handiwork of mischievous editors out to embarrass the Federal Government and tarnish the image of the UNN.  I don’t blame them. Some things are hard to believe. Unfortunately, this story is not only true; it is not strange as well in our public institutions.  In one of my previous columns, I highlighted some bizarre prizes awarded for academic excellence in some prestigious Nigerian universities with some best graduating students getting as low as N200. Below are some of the examples. 

Olabisi Deji-Folutile

In my article published on October 8, 2020, Somadina got a tuber of yam and a fowl for   emerging the Best Graduating Student of Mass Communication from Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University (COOU), formerly known as Anambra State University.  

Bamisaye Tosin got N200 for being the best graduating student of the Ekiti State University’s (EKSU) Department of Civil Engineering during his set. Remember, Ekiti State prides itself as Nigeria’s Fountain of Knowledge. 

Oluwole Hikmat Ibrahim-Buruji got N2000 prize for topping the University of Ibadan’s Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies in the 2016 academic session while Esther Fatogun, the 2018 best graduating student of Lagos State Polytechnic only got a handshake. People are free to fact-check these pieces of information. 

 Nevertheless, Lagos State  government did something spectacular for the best graduating student of its State University in 2019 as Ridwan Ola-Gbadamosi of the Faculty of Engineering  got a whopping N200, 000 for emerging the institution’s overall best.   He got N100, 000 as faculty best and N100, 000 as university best. The university’s 2020 best graduating student was the luckiest so far. Oladimeji Shotunde was not only awarded a post-graduate scholarship to any university in the world by the state government, he got a N5 million cash prize. This is probably why many people think the N500 prize was a  typographical error. But, the truth is, the Lagos case is a rarity in any Nigerian university be it private or public. 

 Nuhu Ibrahim, the 2018 best graduating student from Ahmadu Bello University, was also among the lucky lots.  The Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, offered to sponsor his post graduate studies. He also got the Dean’s award for the best student from his faculty, a laptop; an award from Royal Choice Hotel worth N50, 000; and another one from Chief Felix, also worth N50, 000. In all, he got about N100000 for his academic feat. 

 From the records above, it is clear that awarding N500 prize for academic feat is not a big deal in a Nigerian public institution. Some go as far as giving their best graduates mugs. This is just a reflection of the value we place on intellectualism and academic excellence. It also shows the level of decay in the system because things were not this bad in the past.  Before now, students with outstanding academic performances were lured into the academics; they got automatic employment as graduate assistants and enjoyed scholarships to pursue higher degrees to enable the universities to have intellectually robust and rich faculty.  Little wonder Nigeria has continued to retrogress. 

I remember that the Federal Government during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan also introduced a Presidential Scholarship Scheme for First Class Nigerian Graduates as part of efforts to achieve the  Transformation Agenda.  All first class graduates from any approved university were qualified to sit an exam where about 100 beneficiaries were selected based on merit. There was nothing like federal character or quota system in selecting winners. These beneficiaries were then sponsored for postgraduate studies in top 28 universities in the world. They were expected to return to Nigeria and help build the country. 

However, everything changed when President Muhammadu Buhari came to power. The current President reportedly complained that there was no single Northerner on the list of the 101 successful candidates shortlisted for the scholarship programme in 2015. Since then, nothing much has been heard of the scheme. How can a nation that allows ethnicity and quota system to reign above academic excellence develop, sacrificing merit on the altar of quota system?  If we continue to subject everything to quota system, how do we create room for healthy competition and hard work? 

Take for example,  cut-off marks for entrance into unity schools. While cut-off mark for students from Abia State was pegged at 130, the cut-off mark for students from Sokoto, Taraba, Yobe and Zamfara states were 9, 3, 2 and 4 respectively.  These are the same students that will gain admission to universities with lower marks all in the name of quota system. Tell me, how can these kinds of students bag a first class?  Stopping a laudable programme because people from some parts of the country do not qualify for a scholarship programme is unfair to hardworking students from other parts of the country. Some people have said the north cannot survive without the quota system, I agree. No region or nation can develop when you don’t value hard work and merit.  

Anyway, it is good that people are angry and disappointed that a Nigerian first-generation university could still award a prize of N1500 to its best brains. Many have also observed the huge disparity between the paltry university prize money and the millions of naira that people get when they win in reality shows like the Big Brother Naija. I agree. The difference is truly clear!

But as earlier stated in my previous column, I don’t have anything against anyone taking part in a reality show; I also don’t  feel it’s wrong for a  company  to give  any  prize it deems fit  to  winners of  its shows. After all, it’s all business. A smart company should be able to identify a good business opportunity and maximise its benefits.  If these companies were convinced that Nigerians valued education, they would also have tailored their shows towards that direction. 

Let’s be truthful to ourselves, how many Nigerians would for example have voted if BBN had been an education show? How many people would have been glued to their TV sets as they did last year if the competition had been about finding the best brains among Nigerian youths who could proffer solution to Nigeria’s teething problems? You see, every society gets what it deserves.  

Some have also argued that many Nigerians are angry, frustrated and just need an escape routes and  that programmes like BBN help them to shift attention away from their objects of frustrations. I quite understand. Nigeria is truly a hell of a country to a lot of people.  The only snare however is that nothing will change until a change is demanded.  After all said and done, Nigerians would still be the ones to decide the kind of society they want. If they continue to opt for reality shows instead of pushing for a paradigm shift to re-channel our governments and companies’ attention to valuing excellence and academic feats, the country will keep retrogressing. That’s the awful truth! 

The earlier Nigerians realised that we are the architects of our own destiny; the better it would be for us all.  We all need to re-examine the value we place on education, brilliance and academic feats. Instead of expressing shock and complaining about ridiculous prize awards for academic feats, Nigerians should aim at doing something differently. A lot can be achieved when individuals, indigenous companies, etc, start to prioritise education.  Nothing stops Nigerian companies, alumni associations and well-to-do people from also encouraging academic excellence by instituting mouth-watering prize awards in our institutions. Honestly, we all need to re-arrange our priorities. Otherwise, nothing will change. The choice is ours really! 

Lest I forget, we still need schemes like the Presidential Scholarship Programme for First Class Nigerian graduates. Such a laudable scheme shouldn’t die because of quota system. 

Olabisi Deji-Folutile (PhD) is the editor-in-chief, franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: bisideji@yahoo.co.uk

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