Eighty-six-year-old Nigerian geographer and the first African President of the International Geographical Union, Prof. Akin Mabogunje, shares the story of his life.
What can you say about your early days?
I was born in Kano in 1931 and I lived the first 10 years of my life in Sabongari, Kano. I went to primary school there but because at the time, the North didn’t care much about Western education, there was no secondary school I could attend there. I was sent down to the South.
I attended Ibadan Grammar School because the principal was an in-law to my father. He became my guardian. However, I did not pass the first entrance examination to the school; so, being my guardian, he sent me to Mapo Central School in Ibadan. The school is around Oranyan, close to Christ Church, Mapo.
I passed the entrance examination the following year. We were divided into Latin and science classes in the secondary school. But the science laboratory in the school was poor; so, most of us opted for Latin. The late Bola Ige was my classmate.
We did Latin together and we were the first set of pupils that took the entrance examination to the University College, Ibadan. I chose Geography, English and History. Geography has been a subject of considerable interest to me since secondary school for reasons I keep telling people I do not understand. I was always winning the prize for Geography.
I also wanted to be a medical doctor. I did not do science but we appealed to our teacher to allow us do Biology. I studied it on my own and ended up getting ‘A’ in the examination. I also tried to do the same in Chemistry and Physics only to discover that it was not possible. I gave up my ambition of studying medicine. I later got the Egbe Omo Oduduwa scholarship to study at the university after which I studied till I obtained doctorate in Geography in Britain.
Where did you work upon returning to Nigeria?
When I came back to Nigeria in 1958, I was working as a lecturer at the University of Ibadan when I was invited by the government to be the chairman of the enumeration area demarcation for the 1962 census in the Western Region. They were happy with my work but the census was rejected by the government at the centre. It was the census that actually showed that the southern part of Nigeria was more populous that the northern part. The European gave a wrong impression of Nigeria population. The North revolted against that figure and another one was done in 1963 which gave more numbers to the North. It also became the basis for the creation of states.
At 86, what are the major changes in your life?
It is funny that the years come and go and suddenly, you wonder where the years have gone to because inside you, you still feel what you were as you were growing up. It’s actually the world that seems to be changing in terms of individual’s feeling.
You just sleep and wake the next day and sometimes, you are challenged and you realise you are no longer a child but a man and an elder statesman that must be conscious of what he says. Now, I can’t use my computer without using something to hold my neck which is why I am wearing a neck brace. I still use my computer and they (doctors) don’t think it is good for me to bend my neck. In terms of my physical situation, I will say that at 86, the only thing that changed, apart from the fact that the world has changed around me, is the decrepitude within me; my arthritis.
I envy the young chaps that can run up and down the staircase but I can no longer do that. But I can think and relate to issues more than I was doing before. That decrepitude limits my mobility and that is the greatest thing I feel bad about. But I see the world now from a different perspective, as somebody in the departure lounge. All you are waiting for is when you will be called onto the plane and you are gone.
What circumstances shaped and challenged your life?
I think for most people, secondary school has a greater impact on them than they tend to appreciate. I don’t think universities do so as such even though they claim that they graduate students based on character and learning. Character and much of you are formed before you go to the universities. It is how you go through the ages of 11 to 20 or 21 that determines who you become.
Whether you end up on the good side or not depends on the values that were being inculcated in those critical years. To me, those values are characters and integrity. The school is supported by the family or parents so you don’t have a dichotomy. You know that the school impacts actively on your child so you don’t try to counter it. I remember an occasion when my classmates were starting to use Indian books to learn English. It was like one shilling. I did not have that kind of money but my father was in town so I slipped out of the school at Ibadan Grammar School to take money from him.
When I was coming back, the principal caught me. I had to jump a wall to enter. He asked me why I had to go out because I was in boarding house. I told him I went to collect money from my dad. He asked me to go and call my dad. In his presence, the principal gave me six strokes of the cane. My dad did not stop the principal or object to the beating because he was helping the school to mould my character.
Many years later, there was a minister who had the effrontery to go to Queen’s College, Lagos, to punish a teacher in the presence of the daughter because the teacher punished his daughter. The minister destroyed the whole basis of sending that girl to school. He did not know what is meant by leadership. What kind of a minister is that and what type of society are we going to have when kids disobey? The minister degraded the status of the teacher in the society. They have no reason being our leaders because they have not absorbed values that were sustainable.
What has changed between your time as a youth and today?
When I was growing up, we were a colony and the major challenge was how to get out of it because it put a limit to what you can aspire to become. The highest paid civil servant then was a chief clerk. The permanent secretaries were Europeans. If you talk of globalisation today, all it asks you is to do things that will make you to be excellent, which was the same thing that the system required of us in those days. Those values were not time bound. We were told that honesty is the best policy. Circumstances throw up leaders and how they react to the circumstances.
The late Chief Obafemi Awolowo became Yoruba leader and we watched what he did. Some of the things he did were things you want to pattern yourself after. In those days, workers at the Public Works Department slowed down project in order not to be thrown out because they did not know when the next one would come.
But Awolowo assured them that more jobs would come if they finished the Western House early. Because he was able to motivate them to work, it was built within a short time. The circumstances might have changed but what a person needs is character. You might rise up in this circumstance without a character; you will rise and collapse sooner or later.
Can we say the factors that led to the collapse of the First Republic are still with us with the various agitations in the country and how can Nigeria address them?
The factor that led to the collapse of the First Republic was because the politicians were young in understanding of power. We had only three regions and each party attempted to control the other party. The Northern Peoples Congress was trying to make a satellite in the western region and the leadership of the party in the Western Region was resisting it. In that struggle, in which people were supporting their own government against the Federal Government dominated by the NPC, we had a collapse.
Today, we have 36 states and people are calling for devolution of power. Many states are asking for it but it cannot lead us to a war. Having been there before, going to war is not something we can contemplate easily. Sooner or later, the power will be devolved. One of the things that happened in the First Republic was that each region was able to do what was the best for its people.
But that is no longer there because the present constitution moved power from the units to the central, causing over-centralisation that is happening. It is the basis of so much deterioration in the country. But some of the things we are not getting right cannot cause a collapse.
People have been confusing power devolution or restructuring to mean that the country will break up but that is stupid. Restructuring is meant to strengthen the unity of the country.
In the West, we were prepared to put our money in education in those days but the North-East refused and became most educationally backward in Nigeria. See what we are facing from that region today. The whole purpose of restructuring is to let each state manage its resources and move at any direction it likes. It does not mean secession.
Can we say that restructuring has become controversial issue because agitators have not really defined it?
Actually, they have defined it. Everything we are saying now has been said in the process of the campaign for restructuring. Not every proposal within restructuring is possible. It will be difficult to go back to the regional system for example. But it does not mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Giving more power to the state is part of restructuring. Re-examining the basis of local government is part of it.
Too much power has been given to the central but it is not performing. Let us take the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway as an example. For almost eight years, we are still going up and down over it. It is the most important road in the country because no matter where you are coming from, you will connect the road in Sagamu.
We have a Senate which we do not need. Recently, Senegal scrapped the Senate. We certainly don’t need it but the only reason why it was created was because we have too much money to throw around.
People have called for diversification from oil. With agriculture being promoted by some state governments, do you think we are yielding to the advice?
We have only yielded to mouthing it. When you ask what we are doing, the truth is that we cannot do much. A former Ekiti State governor Kayode Fayemi is now the Minister of Solid Minerals. What has he achieved since assuming the office?
Ogun State was touting itself as a huge contributor to mineral resources income in the country. Do you know which mineral the state referred to? It is limestone which is used for cement. The colonial department of geology in those days said there was no limestone in the western region. It was the western region government in its quest to diversify its economy that found out through a geologist in Benin Republic that there was a belt of limestone deposit which was getting deeper and wider as it moved eastward. The western region government at the time struck it in Ewekoro and later in Sagamu. Dangote Group has struck it again in Ibese.
The military was afraid that if Rivers State was allowed to control 50 per cent of royalty from its oil, it could be richer that the Federal Government.
You were a member of the committee that recommended huge pay rise called Udoji money in the 70s. Don’t you think that the recommendation contributed to the economic problem facing Nigeria today?
I was in the Udoji Commission. The mandate when it started was to reform the civil service because professionals were feeling unhappy with the administrators.
That was what we were asked to do before the military government said that we must also do salary review. We said that we did not know how to do it so the government hired a private group from Canada to show us how to do it. The interesting point was that the salary review of that time destroyed the country.
Did you meet your wife before you travelled abroad to study?
We met in Nigeria. When she was a pupil at the Queen’s College, Lagos, I was an undergraduate at the University College. That was when we met. It was a chance meeting. She came to Ibadan in August 1952 with some girls and they were looking for someone to coach them ahead of an examination. I was approached by my brother but I told him that I don’t deal with girls. So they went to Bola Ige who agreed. We became friends since then.
Her parents later sent two of her brothers to Britain to study medicine. They later sent her there to join them. I got the western regional scholarship and moved to Britain also and five years after courting, we got married.
Did you influence any of your children to study geography?
The problem was as I matured in academics, I became more involved in international work. What my children knew was daddy not being at home all the time. Some of them did not want to be like that. I told them to do what they liked.
My daughter studied medicine at the Obafemi Awolowo University and ended up being the provost of College of Medicine, University of Lagos. She is the deputy vice chancellor. I have a son who is a security engineer. His brother is the head of a research station at Stanford University. I have three sons and two daughters. What is most important is that I taught them to walk in the way of God and to be honest.
What exercise do you do?
Everybody cannot be like (ex-President) Olusegun Obasanjo that is still playing squash as an old man. I am a bit lazy when it comes to exercise. He must have been doing that since he was a young man. I used to play tennis but I fell on my back while playing with my son. Now, I take it easy at home. – Punch.