Our PhD Drivers and the Entrepreneurial Crisis – by Aliyu Bala Aliyu @AliyuBalaAliyu
It would interest anybody who listens beyond the words spoken, and the letters written, how words are born; how slangs are churned out and how acronyms are reformed in Nigeria. I nearly laughed out my intestines when I learnt of the colloquial meaning of PhD in the south-western academic axis. The real meaning of PhD is Dr of Philosophy as the white men who introduced western education to us decreed. However, the road to becoming a Dr of Philosophy is paved in unmeasured ways, and in unusual ways, with toil, tears and sweat (to borrow from Sir Winston Churchill) in Nigeria. And like everything else, we find ways to make everything hell for ourselves. It is in the reality of the endless; tortuous road to becoming a “Dr” that the PhD has taken all sorts or renaming to capture the reality of the times. The endless years of protracted academic rigour; the never ending servitude to Supervisor and Master of one’s fate – which include but not limited to running all sorts of personal errands for him/her – in the hope that s/he will be benevolent enough to allow the student graduate in record time; has seen the PhD get rechristened to mean: P for Politics, h for hard work, and D for Dobale (a Yoruba word for prostration). If you notice, the “h” for hard work is even in small letters! The remainder of Politics and Dobale, appear in capital letters and thus speak for themselves about the importance attached to each one.
Nothing is absolute about this colloquial rebirth; and the underlying construct of such beliefs which students hold of various institutions aren’t an exception. It may be therapeutic or cathartic in a way for students to carry these beliefs to heart and recite them from time to time to remind themselves of the uncertainty of their fates; or at whose mercy they are. But there is no denying the fact that a lot about this or others sentiments hold true in a dysfunctional country as ours.
It was on the online forum “Dandalin Siyasa” that I saw the caption which someone had posted: “6 PhD 704 Masters among applicants for Drivers jobs in Dangote!” The arguments went back and forth for days and on both sides of the divide great points were advanced. However, my opinion is that something is certainly wrong with a system that sees nothing wrong with PhD holders and Masters degree holders rushing to take jobs as truck drivers!
In a country where paper qualification defines a wo/man, the kind of economic opportunities that will be accessible to one; or better still the kind of paid job one gets, it is not surprising therefore that desperation defines the effort to secure a certificate – defendable or otherwise . So much has been written in the past on the issue, and it is not my intention to dwell much on the disconnect between the theories taught in our Universities and their practical relevance in a globalized 21st century; the lack of funding for the Universities; laziness, materialism and the get-rich-quick virus among youths; corruption on the part of lecturers, students and even parents who are determined to influence grades for their wards among others but the scary reality of PhD holders driving Dangote’s trailers betrays the disaster in Nigeria’s educational and entrepreneurial landscape. To be honest, there are PhD holders driving taxis or doing some really odd jobs in Nigeria and beyond. I read some months ago of a lady with a PhD driving a taxi in Abuja. As for the Diaspora variants that we are told wash plates, toilets and dead bodies in Europe and America; sweep the streets or dispense fuel abroad is as a result of the inability of those categories of people to secure papers to grant them working permits are some of the reasons that have been advanced by the army of “hustling” Nigerians across the Atlantic or in recent times the credit crunch.
Preparatory to my compulsory NYSC four years ago, that fear of the unknown had gripped me; understandably so as it was for many of the prospective corps members – the anxiety of securing a job in the graduate-filled labour market – to be able to find my feet and settle down on time and begin to do for younger ones, parents, extended family members, friends, and community the little I could to impact a life or two. My father was a diligent, hardworking and honest civil servant yet his retirement wasn’t the glorious end you want to see for such rare public servants. The best way the government would repay him was in unending frustrations of his entitlements. The somber prospects of not finding a job presented itself; and the question did linger. What if I didn’t find a job like many whom I had seen, known and heard of? Although I had in the past worked as a factory hand in a bakery after secondary school; worked at a construction site as a labourer, sold books in ABU to earn extra income, and was set to embrace entrepreneurship with my big; boundless dreams – in fact it seemed to be the path to freedom – the fear of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, the reality of the surrounding poverty, made life miserable and fearful. But in Nigeria, a country that is so unfriendly to entrepreneurship with the near impossibility of accessing sensible loans to start up small businesses, my business plans like those of several dreamers have remained in files gathering layers of dust.
But then the question is why go to the University to study Microbiology, Law, Engineering, Architecture, Accounting, Physics, etc only to end up driving a truck? Why undergo the rigours of a Masters degree to end up as an Okada rider or a barber? Why pursue a PhD and end up a tailor or a labourer at a construction site carrying cement or laying bricks? Why train to be a civil servant, an IT specialist, an Economist, a computer programmer, a computer scientist, or a geophysicist, only to end up working in a call centre picking calls and doing absolutely nothing related to the course of study? Why train to become an Urban and Regional planner, an industrial chemist, a pathologist only to end up in the banking hall working as a customer service officer or as a teller? I must say that no vocation is more important than the other. NONE! The day your toilet or kitchen sink begins to leak you’ll realize so but a system that encourages this kind of confused mix up of skills cannot make meaningful progress. Some of these things we call jobs – the unskilled and semi-skilled – are things that secondary school leavers can be trained to do under two weeks or a month. Leavers of vocational and technical colleges can handle many things our graduates are being made to do. And what kind of country allows people to invest time and money pursuing all sorts of degrees that end up in the “dustbin” in the end? Why is this country like this?
I do not belong to the school of thought that sees a University degree as a meal ticket; as an end in itself, or guaranteeing a job when you factor in the unemployability of some degree holders. A University degree, beyond the theories and researches, is evidence of having passed through a melting pot of ideas, rubbed mind with people (as iron is expected to sharpen iron), and place- the University itself, which would have sparked a thing or two within an individual to seek to bring about change to self first and foremost and then society – by observation, which leads to intelligent inquiry which thus leads to research which in turn gives birth to discoveries. History is replete with ground breaking scientific and other discoveries with credit to such institutions as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, MIT etc. Collaborations between companies and research institutes, Universities and Polytechnics have been unbroken over decades in advanced countries and which other testimony is there for their level of advancement? But critically speaking, every University is only capable of being a great institution to the realizable extent to which it defines itself. To the University, the question is: “Do I want to be a degree-bazaar institution or one that is worth its salt?” And for the individual student the question is: “Do I just want to carry a degree about, like a badge, in the face of an absence of even common sense let alone the applicability of higher learning to every aspect of my life?”
One would think that an individual whom after secondary school pursued a vocation, say tailoring/ fashion design as some prefer to call it, for four or five years, would have been a master at it. Like the Igbo people’s methods of apprenticeship, they do not “waste time” going to pursue degrees only to come back to sell spare parts, building materials, or driving luxury buses. They go straight for the jugular beginning with the end in mind. Universal basic education should have naturally given such people the basic competence of reading and writing.
What’s the point if after four or five years, plus NYSC (assuming there are no ASUU strikes, and names aren’t omitted on NYSC call-up list) in extracting plant DNA, spending fortunes buying chemicals, peering into microscopes and centrifuges only to end up a Personal Assistant to some MD somewhere at its deceptive best or as a sales boy/girl, messenger, fuel attendant, security man or a loader at wharf off-loading frozen fish from containers? Why study the principles of electrolysis, environmental toxicology, fractional distillation and fluid mechanics, only to end up selling wrist watches, cashew nuts, canned drinks and Gala in traffic? In which kind of country do people study taxonomy of plant and animal species, behaviour of animals, morphology of plants, clinical and industrial psychology, civil engineering, local government administration, International Relations, Economics, Law etc only to end up as taxi drivers, or butchers? Why not commit to butchery from early in life? Why not begin to raise birds from early in life and in a decade smile at a bigger and stable poultry business? What is the link between our Polytechnics, Colleges of Education, Vocational schools and Universities in terms of manpower planning and development? Why the lip service to mechanized farming and its value chain; and the massive employment opportunities that lies therein?
A number of people have advanced the argument that the global financial meltdown is having its toll on all nations and seeing to it that unusual things are happening like people taking pay cuts instead of losing their jobs, taking up menial jobs in order to pay bills where they have lost their jobs among others but the truth is that it has never been the tradition in such societies. The undercurrent of the aberration in the Nigerian context is that it has been the tradition and has been accepted as the standard zigzag of a “career pathway” and this “norm” has been here for eons with no end in sight.
There is no doubt that Dangote has created thousands of jobs directly and indirectly; he has assisted individuals and institutions by way of philanthropy but to accept that PhD holders grabbing his trucks’ steering wheels is such a great thing for our country is the exact antithesis of development. On the contrary, we should be sober about this ugly trend of churning out massive graduates of not just first degree holders, but of second and third degrees with no hope of getting jobs; or creating jobs; and a failed and unimaginative government to give a slice of government earnings in compassionate welfare buffers. Is it not criminal in every way that our government supervises the looting of our collective patrimony and yet cannot provide jobs or seed capital to start small businesses?
Then there arises the argument about entrepreneurship. What is it about Nigerians and Entrepreneurship? The fact is that Entrepreneurship is not for the faint hearted. It is built on risk. It is built on the ability to see fast the things that others are yet to see and taking the initiative to fill the void. It is the conversion of an idea into a value. Earlier on in the year, the BBC’s William Smale did a feature on Smashburger (a new burger franchise in America) and asked the great question “What Drives US Entrepreneurship?” Your guess of course is as good as mine.
Entrepreneurship, first and foremost is built on passion – the passion to see a dream become reality; and with the access to capital, good management, innovation and an undying fire os success burning in the belly, an entrepreneur is one who would build a small business from a dream into a global brand. But Nigeria kills dreams; that’s the reality. So how and why do we have this eleventh hour crusade to turn school leavers and graduates and everybody into entrepreneurs because of the failure of government? It doesn’t work that way. Where are the mentors to mentor the “by fire by force” entrepreneurs we are trying to create compulsorily? Where is the seed capital going to come from? And this is bearing in mind that the World Bank report has said Nigeria ranks 131 in terms of ease of doing business among 185 countries. Need I say that entrepreneurship is built on passion? Where passion is missing, success cannot be guaranteed; and where success is guaranteed, sustainability cannot be guaranteed. Most importantly, not everybody is cut out for entrepreneurship so we should learn not to force it.
Personally, I had wanted to be a Soldier but it didn’t happen, so I gradually lost interest. I got a job as a call centre agent after NYSC and spent 3 years there. I thought going back to school for a Masters would improve not just my chances of getting a better job but prepare me for my later life ambition of teaching but it didn’t happen. Here I am rounding up my Masters programme, and like thousands of Masters Degree holders to be like me, facing an increasingly bleak prospect where people with PhDs are driving trucks!
In the absence of the job – not the dream job – which begins to give way to any kind of job anyway, I am preparing to pursue another Masters degree in the hope that things might get better and my love for learning. I love teaching and it is my dream that someday I will inspire a couple of students; to do critical thinking. Naturally, I thought that was one of the strong reasons people would go on to seek a PhD was because they would want to teach. But to secure a PhD and end up driving a truck is a scary pursuit. I don’t just want to stand in front of a class and pass down theories, I don’t just want to talk to students, I want to inspire them and it is for that reason I hope to mature real well before taking up the chalk. I also love to cook so if I end up cooking in a corner of Lagos or setting up a restaurant and growing it into a franchise, let it be because of the passion I have for cooking and not because it is such a normal thing to spend ages climbing the ladder of scholarship and getting to the top only to realize that the ladder was propped against the wrong wall. Who knows, if I had been selling dollars at the airport since ten years, I believe I would have been comfortable enough by now to go back to school and get my first degree and second.
Several application letters written with cover letters and chains of CVs have not just being futile for many of us, they have been hope-depleting. Not minding the close shave with fraudsters taking advantage of our job hunt. And as a lot of us have come to realize, if you know nobody up there, you hardly stand a chance. So this cliché makes a lot of sense in our circles– the circles of SANs (Senior Applicants of Nigeria): He who studies and passes is the serious person; the one who gets the job is the one who has been to school, or if you like the fortunate/ the connected one! And that’s it– the reality of our Nigerianness! The frustration is simply endless; so I can understand when an offer to drive a truck comes along and you have a catch to own it after covering hitting 300,000km on the mileage/ 140 trips between Lagos and Kano and such jaw-dropping salary in the offing. Who wouldn’t wash public toilets for that; dispose refuse, sweep Lagos and Kano roads and even more? It is certainly not a crime but it sure is an aberration and not one worth celebrating at all. Sure it will put food on the table quite alright and pay the bills but certainly not one to move this nation on the path of industrialization, growth and planned development. But on second thought what does industrialization matter to a hungry man with mouths to feed, medical bills to pay, shelter over one’s head and kids to send to school?
There is so much confusion in the air. A lot of people do not even know what they want in Nigeria and you can’t really blame them! Do people have ambitions any longer or they just want to work and get salaries on pay day? Are there counselors aiding, guiding, and moulding the interests of young students in primary and secondary schools; and in Universities? Are parents interested in, and supportive of their children’s ambitions or they just want to bask in the vicarious “glory” of those big names (Engr, Esq, Dr, Pharm, Arch…) for their own ego fulfillment? Are there still career fairs in our secondary schools and tertiary institutions? The system is so dysfunctional that we are busy struggling to accept anything slapped on us simply because there is a salary. Each time I watch National Geographic Channel, the question I keep asking myself is: “how is it that a human being dedicate his / her life time to studying butterflies, ants, birds, lions etc if not passion?” Let s/he who has a passion to bake cakes go on to become a brand; let s/he who loves flowers go on to become a brand florist; let s/he who loves to bake bread go on to become a household baker; let s/he who wants to be a great restaurateur go on to cook great meals; let s/he who sees a niche in mobile toilets go on to fill the void, let s/he who wants to be a great photographer go on to capture the memories etc. That will be Entrepreneurship and it won’t matter if you have chains of degrees or not. Passion would be the catalyst but certainly not running to grab a steering out of frustration from not getting relevant jobs.
I must also not fail to mention that there exist a handful of people who just love learning. The sight of books; their company, the magical feel of the pen and its ethereal dance on paper, the power of words and their getting lost in its mastery and usage cannot be dampened by monetary inducements. Money to them is only a means to an end and that end is the acquisition of more learning. The more they earn, the more they learn – having crossed the threshold of basic survival. Big money means more books, more research and more enquiries. It is never the final bus-stop. For them knowledge is an obsession. Their hearts skip beats at the sight of books and they develop goose bumps when they step into the book store. The smell of printed books is ecstatic; caressing its cover magical; flipping through its pages inspirational. And it is these kinds of people that should be in our schools, faculties, departments and institutes inspiring young men and women into becoming the next Einstein, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Mack Zuckerberg, Mo Ibrahim and of course the next Dangote.
While our institutions of higher learning have lost 6 PhD holders to the steering wheel of Dangote’s trucks; and countless others long lost into obscurity, the rest of us thinking of pursuing PhDs might just fill forms next time the Magnate puts up an advert to be on the reserve list for his next batch of Drivers because PhD just got a new meaning- Professional honourable Driver; and MSc- Master of Steering and clutch. I wish the PhDs and others the best in their new found jobs but no doubt Nigeria needs redemption.
Aliyu Bala Aliyu
Masters Student, Public and International Affairs,
University of Lagos