Nigeria at 50: Education is the Imperative for Nigeria's Future

By Teresa Clarke, Chairman and CEO, Africa.com

Nigeria is a major driver of the economic boom sweeping through Africa. At a conference at the New York Stock Exchange last week, Emmanuel Ikazaboh, the acting CEO of the Nigerian Stock Exchange, predicted that 1000 companies will be actively traded within the next five years. The investment bank, Goldman Sachs, has placed Nigeria in the "Next Eleven," a list of countries whose economies will lead the world in GDP growth by 2050.

The progress comes as Nigeria celebrates 50 years of independence. And part of that celebration included the September 23rd Gala and Symposium organized by the Nigeria Higher Education Foundation (NHEF). Organizers were thrilled that the event raised some $500,000 to support higher education's role in the next 50 years of independence.

Said Wale Adeosun, president of NHEF and chief investment officer, Institutional Investments at Chesapeake Asset Management in New York, "We organized an incredible opportunity for Nigeria's leaders to exchange ideas with U.S. leaders in academia as well as the private and public sectors about the important role of education in developing the next generation of leaders. To sustain a growing economy and to be globally competitive for the 21st century, it is very critical for Nigeria to have a highly educated and skilled workforce. The current increased focus on investment opportunities in Africa heightens that need."

No one understands the intersection of higher education, investment and Nigeria better than one of the event's honorees, Jide Zeitlin. Now a private investor with his own Keffi Group, Zeitlin shared his moving life story with the audience.

Born to a single mother in Nigeria, a domestic servant with little formal education, Zeitlin returned to the country of his birth for the first time this year since he was five years old. He left, with his mother's blessing, after a chance encounter with middle-class white American family who believed they could help one Nigerian child by giving him access to a decent education. They succeeded.

Formerly a partner at the investment bank, Goldman Sachs, Zeitlin now serves as chairman of the Board of Trustees at Amherst College and is on the Boards at Milton Academy, the Harvard Business School Board of Dean's Advisors, Teach for America, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Montefiore Medical Center, Playwrites Horizons and Common Ground Community. He also serves on the Boards of Directors of Affiliated Managers Group, Inc., and Coach, Inc.

After sharing his remarkable life story, Zeitlin wanted no one to mistake his point, "Let me be clear. There is nothing exceptional about me--other than being exceptionally lucky. The men and women who approached me at the airport in Nigeria this year, the young boys selling wares by the side of the road, the infant strapped to her mother's back. Their capacity, their potential is no different than mine."

To help other Nigerian children reach their potential, Zeitlin is an avid supporter of NHEF. "The NHEF brings together committed academic and policy leaders on the ground, with members of the Nigerian Diaspora, with world-class respected organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation," he said. "This diverse collaboration benefits the educational sector and creates a template for increased effectiveness and transparency that can be applied to other critical areas in Nigeria."

In the 1960s and 70s, Nigerian universities were among the best in the world and produced doctors, scientists and engineers who now run major departments in corporations, hospitals and universities - in the United States.

Dr. Olufunmilayo Falusi Olopade is one of them. "Charity should do more than feed starving children and fight HIV/AIDs in Africa. It must also build the institutions that will transform Nigeria and the entire continent." Associate Dean of the Global Health Institute at the University of Chicago and a MacArthur Genius Award recipient, Dr. Olopade is an advisor to the NHEF.

According to Dr. Ferdinand Ofodile, a world renowned plastic surgeon at Columbia University and co- chair of the NHEF Symposium, "This is a watershed event, designed to analyze the state of Nigeria's institutions of higher learning fifty years after independence, and explore their role in driving Nigeria's development and competitiveness on the global market. "

The Nigeria Higher Education Foundation was founded in 2004 by a group of United States-based Nigerian professionals. Their goals are simple and profound:

· To assist "partner" universities like Bayero University which is now focusing on engineering, medicine and agriculture as well as the University of Ibadan, Nigeria's oldest university which is internationally recognized for its College of Medicine and social science faculty;

· To assist in rebuilding these universities' faculties, administrations, fundraising capabilities and physical plants; and

· To create a climate of philanthropy among Nigerian alumni and indeed within the entire African diaspora to support higher education back home.

Attorney Beatrice Hamza-Bassey, partner at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, LLP, is the treasurer of the NHEF and served as co-chair of the Gala and Symposium. Said Hamza-Bassey: "Nigerian universities once were world renowned centers of excellence. NHEF is working with the partner universities to enhance that reputation and at the same time make these institutions financially self-sustaining. In Africa, there is a tradition of sending money home to one's family. We're trying to learn from the American tradition and encourage people to donate to their alma maters. Having Nigerians help lead the rebuilding effort encourages friends of Nigeria to join along."

Dr. Olopade has just returned from China where she marveled at the investment in technology and science and especially in the training of young people who have led and will continue to lead economic growth in the region. She wants the same for her continent.

"Africa is like a gun," she said. "And Nigeria will be the trigger of economic development. That is unless Nigeria fails to arm itself properly and that gun becomes a dud!"

To date, the NHEF has tried to arm its partner universities, fostering collaborations between them and the Earth Institute and global classroom project at Columbia University, the Global Health Institute at the University of Chicago,and New York Academy of Sciences.

For more information, visit NHEF's website at www.thenhef.org.

About the author: Chairman and CEO of Africa.com, Teresa Clarke has been a consultant to and supporter of higher educational programs in Nigeria for a decade.

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