Eid Digest: Nigerian University Dons and the “Small Boys” of the University

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By Abdelghaffar Amoka

When I picked up the interest in the academic profession in the year 2000 during my National Youth Service in Kano, my beautiful picture of academia was that it is a place where knowledge rules irrespective of your age and where you came from. The likes of Bala Usman were the names I hear and the only place I want to be was in academia. That made me enrolled for MSc Physics in 2001.

When I got in by 2005, the picture appeared different and I started wondering if I was really sure that academia is the place I still want to be. Things started to unfold and I travelled to Trieste, Italy for a 2-week workshop in 2007, thanks to the guidance of my academic supervisor, and I returned with a resolution to battle all the obstacles around me to make a difference.

One thing that got me worried as things were unfolding was the breakdown of mentorship and the no respect for younger academics. Most of the young academics were on their own. For example, I lost my PhD supervisor in 2008 and for several months, nobody cared to ask about the progress of my research.

I have heard some senior colleagues addressing younger colleagues as “small boys” across Nigerian universities. Such words like “imagine that small boy fa” always come up when you have a reason to disagree.

During a certain meeting in 2018 or so (I was already due to be Associate Professor), a senior colleague addressed me as ” Small Boy”. I objected to the disrespectful statement but unfortunately, other senior colleagues present did not see any reason to caution him. They possibly also believed in the “Small Boy” concept in the university.

I was thinking the small boy thing only existed within my immediate environment till I met a highly placed senior colleague in 2018 who addressed me and two other colleagues as “the under-13 in physics department” with all my grey hairs at 44. He possibly thought I was born with grey hair.

We were discussing one day and my friend (age mate) in another Federal University also narrated his “Small Boy” encounter with senior colleagues in his university.

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I have been wondering about the origin of the “small boys” concept in Nigerian universities and up till this moment, I have not been able to figure it out. It could not have being from the colonial masters because from my experience in the UK from 2009 to 2012, the younger academics/researchers in that country are treated with a high level of respect.

They are aware that they are the future and guiding them to create a better future for the university and the rest of the world. I had a similar experience during my postdoctoral research fellowship in Norway between 2013 and 2015.

Senior academics in these countries expect you to be better than them. They are glad to identify skills in you and they help you develop them and dare you to take steps to stardom. They carry you along in every step. They trust your views and don’t consider you too small to contribute.

They nurture you to be a team player and a great leader. They don’t see you as a threat or a competitor, but a partner in progress to develop a better system. I remember my supervisors for both PhD and postdoc telling me that I was not working under them but working with them.

They do not impose ideas on you but offer suggestions and expect you to argue with them. They take intellectual argument with their students as a positive development. They are willing to acknowledge and welcome your views and ideas if they find them more superior.

The culture is different among some senior colleagues in Nigerian universities. We have imbibed this culture in the ministries where you are expected to wait for your time or turn. You work under them and not with them. An attempt to differ in an opinion is considered insubordination. Loyalty to the system and not to an individual is considered a threat.

An independent mind is a threat. If you dare to be different and do things differently against all odds, you are considered trying to build an empire. They constituted themselves as kingmakers and you dare not contest for a position they considered their birth right. Zero mentorship and low academic/research output, while the bulk of the time is spent on secondary activities.

In the recent few years, some early-career academics in ABU decided to look up to themselves and created a group called the “ABU Young Academics” in order to interact with themselves. Although, I was considered not eligible to be in the group because I was already due for the rank of Reader and was considered not young.

Meanwhile, some senior colleagues still merged my class with them and address all of us as “small boys”. So where do I belong? Maybe we should create a group of “university small boys in their 40s”…LOL!

I was losing hope till recently when an amazing leader in the university gave me the opportunity to work with great minds and silent achievers from different departments. Late Prof Jonathan Andrew Nok was one academic/researcher that I look up to.

But within the last one year, I have discovered more excellent researchers within my university to look up to. Experimental researchers with quality research output. This group of academics in ABU have inspired me a lot and I pray I can be like them.

We need to sit back and reflect on our activities as Academics in Nigerian universities and our relationship with the younger academics, the future of academia. From the nature of our training, we are meant to ask why and how and find answers to it. We are trained to challenge the status quo. So, why don’t you bring closer your younger colleague with an independent mind and the potential to challenge the status quo, instead of tagging him as an enemy?

Dear Senior colleague, don’t give your younger colleagues a reason to make you their postdoctoral research question. By their age and recent training, they are more likely smarter than you. By the time they are done with their research on you, you may lose that platform you are using to suppress them, their ideology, and the interest they represent. Bring them closer as partners in progress and you will benefit from them. They are more beneficial to you than those “yes sir puppets” around you.

Create opportunities and interactions that will make them look up to you. We need to create a real mentorship program to help growth and development. That is all that we’ll leave behind whether we leave the university at young or old age.

If we do not change our ways, time is ticking and the supposed “small boys” will surely grow as strong academics if they refused to be frustrated out of the system. The story may end like that of the lion, the king of the animal kingdom. No matter how long it lives, the greatest lion will eventually die miserably. They may die young from injuries defending their pride and ego. They may die old enfeebled by age.

You will recall that lion at their peak rule and chase other animals. They catch devour and gulp them and leave their crumbs for Hyenas. The Lion definitely gets old and the old lion becomes very vulnerable, feeding becomes difficult and the strength to chase, intimidate and kill other animals is gone. If luck ran out of the old and very weak lion, it is cornered by Hyenas and eaten alive without any resistance.

We have seen that everyone who lives long enough will become very vulnerable and weak. So, if you are in a privileged position, always remember the story of the lion and that you will leave the stage one day. You have the wisdom and these supposed “Small Boys” are smart and have the ideas. Irrespective of the age difference, let’s work together in the interest of the system to create a system we can be proud of.

We are Academics and nation builders. Let that reflect on our actions and activities within and outside the University community.

Eid Mubarak!

Abdelghaffar Amoka Abdelmalik
Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

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