Prof. Oyewusi Ibidapo-Obe, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos, bares his mind on the state of the nation’s education and other national issues.
You were once the Chairman of Committee of Vice Chancellors in Nigeria. How did you achieve stability in the system then?
I think it was leadership and the ability to organise. You noticed that when I was the vice chancellor at the University of Lagos, there was no strike. That was when we came out with the concept of ‘Think global and act local’. I did some statistics and discovered that between 22 and 23 per cent of students in the university at that time were children or wards of ASUU (Academic Staff Union of Universities) and I said to them ‘when you start embarking on strikes, you are actually shooting yourself in the foot’. I also was able to convince them that it was not sufficiently intellectual to be pugilistic. It is like a war; it is only when reasons fail that you resort to boxing each other. That was the way I saw it and is the way I still see it now. I felt that really, academics, being the pinnacle of intellectualism in this country or anywhere else, should have other ways to solve such problems.
When I was a young academic, we had some experience but young academics now do not have such experience. I remember Prof Ojetunji Aboyade, Prof Mabogunje and I remember Chief (Olu) Falae; he was in the cabinet office then. We used to finish university examinations by the end of June and in July, they would pick some of us, I mean some young academics, that was in 1982 or 1983 and I was probably a senior lecturer then. They would select young academics in all universities and would lodge us just to think about Nigeria’s budget. We would discuss it and I was in the Engineering group then. We recommended that our railway system should be refurbished and there was a report on that but where that report ended, I don’t know. The government was optimising the use of academics then.
Those people that I mentioned understood the importance of education and they knew how much money that would be needed. This was not limited to engineering alone; the same was done in Economics and other areas. They got academics involved in the maintenance of quarters and how much they would cost. The academics were fully involved. Those in government would have also done their studies but they got academics involved; and it brought out the best. But now, the academics are no longer involved in national development. It was not like that before. Things were going on well and academia was on top.
What will you say made the government to stop involving academics in national development?
A number of things caused this. We did not systematically manage the boom and when the military took over, they lowered the standard and did not care much about due process. I think we started losing it from that time. There was disillusionment and what Chief Bola Ige called sidon look led to disconnect. People thought there was nothing in the system for them. Instead of thinking about what to give, it now became what I could grab as an individual. Honestly, we need to reinvent Nigeria.
How should we do this?
It could be in terms of what we were doing before. Let us have healthy competitions again. In those days, we had healthy competitions among the top schools. We had St Paul, Zaria; Government College, Umuahia; Government College, Ibadan; there was also a Government College in Keffi (Nasarawa) and Ahmadiyya College, Agege (Lagos). It was not about religion but they were the top schools then. Whenever they went for Cambridge examinations, all the students had Grade 1 and the same excellent performance in sports.
There are things that bind us together and I believe we need good governance to get us back to those good days. So, let us have healthy competitions again in every area. We need to get leaders who are not after what they can grab. If you are in a university community and you are the vice chancellor, what else do you want? We should see the position as a gift of God and use it to improve the society or the nation.
What do you think will be a lasting solution to the incessant disagreement between ASUU and Federal Government?
It is (good) leadership. The ASUU members, many of them are intellectually superior to the Minister of Education or whoever is there. Of course, those in government will say they have consultants helping them. It would have been better to get a group of people who also speak the same language as these ASUU people and you talk to them.
The limitation to what government can do will be discussed and they can even say ‘let us start afresh and let us find how we can get along without crisis again’. But the government must talk to ASUU in the language they understand. Why are they so pained? If we want to be honest, ASUU believes government has so much money which they are spending elsewhere except on education. This is not fair. Let the government explain to them where the money is coming from and which of the money can be used for education and what will go to other sectors.
Do you think education is not getting enough funding?
Of course, it is not getting enough. I thought we would be getting 10 to 12 per cent of the total budget by now. If we have progressed the way it was during Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime, we probably will be getting 15 per cent now, but we are getting six per cent and they said the reason why it is tough is because they have set up many universities. Why did you do so? We can expand the capacities of the existing universities instead of establishing new ones. We can increase the capacities of colleges of education and polytechnics to award degrees and make them big.
Don’t make a mistake; I was the vice chancellor of one of the new universities and I thought it was good because it would expose those villagers but it is not compulsory. It is there now, it is a great thing but it is not compulsory. But the money spent to establish new federal university could be used to support state universities and bring their standard to that of Lagos or Ibadan.
So much is expected from the academics but when they take up government appointments, most of them usually disappoint. What do you think is responsible for this?
It is selfishness. You are right; when academics are sent out based on their profile, they go there to become ministers or commissioners; they go there and forget that they are academics. We’ve heard stories of some of them that are ridiculous; going out with their personal assistants or secretaries and things like that. Our leadership should be firm; there should be a proper code of conduct.
During our own time, I had colleagues, who were not interested in becoming vice chancellors. Their interest was to publish papers in international journals and be known internationally. So, the system would support them to get their papers published in journals. There are still some academics, who will still do that even now rather than hankering for positions.
How should universities and other higher institutions stop sexual harassment?
I think openness. Openness will solve a lot of problem. I’m saying this because I’m part of the old school. Sexual harassment is immoral. Human beings do immoral things if they have the opportunity to hide. But they will be checked if the system is open and there is nowhere to hide. As soon as students came in those days, I talked to them and told them they were adults and should be able to voice out. If we embolden our students, that they can speak out, it will help. There should be issue of counselling by fully structured student affairs department before getting to the vice chancellor. We need to let the students know all these and let them know that when they see something and they say it, nothing will happen to them; it will help.
How will nothing happen to them? Nothing will happen to them if the rules of examination are properly adhered to. Now, because of lack of sufficient manpower, the same teachers that taught students mark the scripts. So, they are like gods. In those days, it was not like that; lecturers marked parts of the papers and send the other parts to other lecturers to mark. But that one you have marked, somebody else should mark it, the person doesn’t have to be lecturers in the same university. This will ensure that there are checks and balances. Let us say the girls lure the lecturers to do what is not right, they will be discouraged because doing that will not guarantee that they would pass. So, why will they do it if they are not guaranteed of passing the subjects. But above all, discipline is very key. Discipline on the part of the teachers is very important. You must not be lascivious. When we came into the university, we were told about discipline; we were told about the dos and don’ts. We were given the Yellow Book, which was more or less like our bible. The sanctions were spelt out there should you go against them. The university was very firm and it helped in instilling discipline in many.
Why are most research works in the country not focused on solving the problems confronting the nation?
Not most, there are lots of research works that are trying to solve Nigerian and African problems; although there are some esoteric researches. In those days, there were some teachers who said there was no need to bother about computer and that it should be done by hand. But you know now that in terms of big data, it can’t be done by hand any longer. So, we need to encourage out scientists to be doing such researches. What we did during our own time was we dedicated some funds to basic research and applied research so that we could have a balance. It was ratio 40:60.
Grants were given to universities then and it was in the budget but now, I don’t think anybody is doing any budget anymore. It is via TETFUND (Tertiary Education Trust Fund) now and if you look at all public universities and you ask where the buildings are, you will find out that there are more TETFUND buildings than what they have even here at the University of Lagos. We need to reinvent a lot of things. If we can go back to the time when vice chancellors were given total responsibility and they are given the wherewithal to carry out these responsibilities and the vice chancellors are disciplined, firm and if they mess up, they are gone, we will begin to see positive changes.
Are you suggesting this as the way to curb corruption within the universities?
Yes, it will curb corruption because you know the moment you mess up as a vice chancellor, you are gone.
But do you think awarding government contracts to universities will help the system?
What I will suggest is that universities should be encouraged to carry out the designs of projects which government intends to do. They should design and supervise the projects but the execution of such projects should be done by contractors. We should allow contractors to do the execution but it must be monitored by universities so that the contractors would not cut corners. Right now, universities are not involved and things fail because there is no quality assurance. In those days, those contractors would rush down to our Faculty of Engineering to test the bricks, the steel and other materials. But that is no longer happening because government does not care about the universities any longer. That is what is paining ASUU. It is not so much about salaries but because when you go to those laboratories, you discover that they don’t meet the expectations of modern laboratories.
Is it justifiable to say that degrees awarded in some universities, especially in disciplines such as Chemistry and others, are substandard?
No. They are trying really hard and working under pains; and we should not continue to work under serious pains. We should relax the situation and make the environment conducive and this will be beneficial to the nation.
What is your view about restructuring of Nigeria?
If you look at the form I filled when I was coming into this university (University of Lagos), there was nothing like state of origin there or region where you come from. They only asked for your postal address and permanent home address. Nobody was interested to know whether you were Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Edo or from any ethnic group. It was a unified Nigeria and we respected one another. If it had not been like that, how would Nigeria have produced Jubril Aminu from Adamawa State. He was the minister of petroleum. We need to go back to that situation whereby every Nigerian will understand that they are Nigerian.
I have said it many times that this quota system is injurious because it does not allow the people to grow. If it is merit, everybody looks towards merit and hopes to get there. Those communities that are not empowered will invest their money in where they are lagging behind and they will close the gap gradually. They can use the money they get to develop their education and that was what was happening before when the people from the North were given automatic scholarships and when they were going to higher institutions, they were given salaries. That was to encourage them and that is okay.
But do you think Nigeria needs to be restructured?
Yes, I do. We should restructure.
What advantage will the country derive from restructuring?
Openness, integrity and fairness! Everybody will know what is available and things will not be shrouded in secrecy. I think the power being wielded by the Federal Government is too much and does not allow the people to grow. That is why you see people trooping to Abuja in droves on a daily basis. They think that when you go to Abuja, you just pick money on the streets. Of course, things are changing but we need to change that concept. If it is a country where you have very serious people, with all the stories about senators and members of the House of Representatives getting very huge salaries and other allowances, the lawmakers themselves would have had remorse to review it and say this is what we are going to earn from now.
They would have done a study to know the average attendance in a year and from then, they can decide that based on the attendance, this is what each lawmaker will get in a year. You don’t have to go there all the time, it is like board meetings. You don’t attend board meetings every day; and when you go, that is when you are given sitting allowance. In the private sector, nobody pays you allowance when you don’t attend a board meeting.
Are you suggesting that the nation should be run the way private businesses are run?
Yes. We should run our affairs professionally and the way we can bring out our books to the open for scrutiny. When I was in primary school, we were told about what was going on at the Tafawa Balewa Square. We were told what they were doing there and we knew those who were talking, and that was when the concept of bench warmers came up. That was what made us to respect hard work, intellectualism; and that is why those there now are not efficient. They are there to look for what they can grab for their constituencies. And when they get projects for their constituencies, most of them locate the projects at the back of their houses in their villages. So, there is no transparency and you can see what the people there are doing.
If I ask now what is the impact of the National Assembly on our economy, can you say this is what they did that made us to have roads from Point A to Point B or their work made water to flow in our villages? They were supposed to achieve the Millennium Development goals but nobody is looking at that; everybody is concerned about their pockets. Look at how much we are spending on elections; these would have solved the problems highlighted in the MDGs.
Will you say this present administration is doing enough to fight corruption or is the anti-corruption war one-sided as being alleged by some?
I really don’t want to be partisan in the sense that the previous and the current governments have not done well. Of course, the pain some people are expressing now is because they expected the current government would do much better and they have not done better than the previous government. If I were to do any analysis, I will look at their manifesto and I will mark them against their manifesto. But beyond their manifesto, all other things are sentiments. It is clear that they have not met all what they promised. If there is anything, things have gone worse but that is not to say that if a new guy comes in, there is going to be a change. That is what we are saying about integrity. Corruption is a wide-reaching problem and Nigeria needs to work very hard to curb corruption because the President himself said ‘if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us’.
But corruption is not only about manipulating money according to (former President Goodluck) Jonathan. Nepotism is corruption; tribalism is corruption; and there are different shades of corruption. And if you look at all these things, I just tell myself that Nigeria is in trouble. We are really in big trouble because everything is in grey; they are neither white nor black. Why Nigeria should be like this, honestly, I don’t know. I just conclude that people are going to vote, depending on how they feel. If they are in a good mood, they will vote the current government but if they are in a bad mood, they will vote for another person. I think God just wants to show us that we must develop another way to move forward. But corruption is still very rife.
But will you blame corruption for the inability of the military to defeat the Boko Haram?
I will not say so. I think we probably underestimated the intrigues and intricacies of the Boko Haram. You know, Borno State has always been an ‘interesting area’. You remember the case of Shugaba; I think they are fairly different from the Fulani and they have never been defeated even in history. They are a kind of unique people. There are some areas of Borno State that are 70 or 80 per cent Christians; and so, we may have to use something outside military intervention to ensure a lasting peace there. I think it is going to be difficult to use military intervention to solve that problem.
We need to understand the people in Borno State and find a way to move them out of that protest. You know it is a protest; it started as a protest. I don’t think it is corruption. Again, it comes down to leadership, they must be willing to accept that what they are doing is not going to work and they must invite people who will think out of the box based on the history of Borno State. That is why it has not been easy to solve the problem.
Dry season is setting in now and herdsmen from outside the country have started migrating in large number towards the southern part of Nigeria. What should government do to prevent the destruction of lives and farmlands that this influx usually brings?
This is another big issue which I don’t think we are solving scientifically. If you read a book written by Cyprian Ekwensi, ‘The Drummer Boy’, and it tells you about this yearly migration due to climatic change. The routes the herdsmen use, the people that stay there and the herdsmen have had a long relationship. This did not start five years ago and traditional law enforcements were also there to ensure that there was no destruction but some of these things got out of hands when politics was introduced to it. I am not advocating that they should be coming and messing up the crops; but in those days, they used to migrate and there were no destructions.
Let us go back and find out why the movement was not destructive them. If it is getting a place for them to stay like trucks – you know trucks park at Sagamu, rest there, eat there before they go to wherever they are going. So, just like trucks, we can also have a place for them before they move. There must be coexistence; they are visitors and the truth must be told that they must obey the law and must not destroy farms. Ranching is okay but they will have to move from somewhere to the ranches. – Culled from Punch.