Professor Oye Ibidapo-Obe, co-winner of the Zik Prize for Professional Leadership in 2019 is a scholar’s scholar any day. But he is also a converted town player and a vigorous proponent of the imperative of university dons rolling up their sleeves and going out there to ensure that they practically impact society. Business Hallmark sat with him, ahead of the conferment of the Zik Prize last month and the encounter was as expected, most educative.
Prof, you have had a wonderful career. Can you briefly walk us through what you consider to be its high points?
Thank you. Yes, I have had a wonderful career and I thank God for it. In fact, I will confess that when I look back sometimes and consider my life’s journey this far, I wonder to myself where the energy came from. But as we do in these parts, I attribute it to God.
My highpoints would basically include when I got admitted into the University of Lagos, when I graduated as the best student from the university, when I went on to get my PhD from the University of Waterloo, when I started my career as an academic staff at the University of Lagos, and when I became a Professor within 7 years of getting my PHD. This indeed was to give me a lot of push even in a lot of my other endeavours. And all this while, I was really just a ‘bookworm’ as they say; I was just going about, focused on my academics and almost not bothering about any other thing.
But then there came a time when I thought I should get some administrative experience. Before then, I had not been interested. I was at this time reminded that I had not even been a Dean of Faculty. So, I went on and became the Dean of my Faculty and later I became Vice Chancellor.
Of course, in doing my work as a Vice Chancellor, another highpoint of sorts arose when I was nominated as Chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors. During this time also, I was also excited when the University of Lagos was named as the best university in the country and of course I also went ahead to become the President of the Academy of Science.
Indeed, my academy assignment was a totally new exposure about how you can impact society with knowledge. And that for me was most important because for some of us who are ‘so educated’ in that sense, we could at a point have our head in the clouds even when our feet is not on ground!
So, we must then find a way where we can go ahead to bring this knowledge to the ground. I am talking of knowledge that succeeds. In America, in the UK, in Russia, in China, even in North Korea, you find Nigerians there who are there by virtue of not just what they are bringing to bear on the knowledge sphere, but more so because they work with knowledge that is brought to bear on society. So the idea is to see Nigerians who are knowledgeable bringing this down to impact the society. There is therefore the need to synergise. This is talking about the concept of ‘work-in-progress’ and I am excited about it because if the process of knowledge utilization improves in this country, the lopsided regard for money as an end category in itself would be tamed. Rather, there would now be a new focus on how to improve our lives overall, and that is even more important.
Staying with your work at the Academy of Science, the world is awash with a rash of knowledge-driven initiatives today. Blockchain, artificial intelligence, electric cars, etc, and Nigeria is apparently not playing strongly here at the moment. What do we need to do to be a more knowledge-based and competitive society?
It is really easy to reduce it to saying the government is not responding to these developments but I think that organized groups such as the Academy of Science and the Academy of Engineering must take it upon themselves to mobilize the nation in this regard. We must go out of our offices and out of our comfort zones; we have to be able to tell the market woman why we think our knowledge can benefit them. The application of knowledge is very important. I don’t think the government is going to do it for us. We have to get ourselves out there to do it.
What happened at the Academy of Science may be instructive. The Academy was losing some of its shine because people did not take it serious as a body that can impact society. People tended to see it as an honours society. You become a Fellow of the Academy of Science, you are recognized as one of the top scientists in the country and that’s it! You got a pin or a certificate and you were not obliged to think about how to impact society. So the thing is that a new day came when we were now being challenged to do something different. The US National Academy came and said to us: ‘we want to challenge you to do things that are impactful to society.’ And so we thought through a number of things; things we can do, things that will impact: like the unending fight against malaria, the fight against HIV AIDS which hopefully we have largely won, and the fight for the popularization of science.
Yes, we also began to look at education once again from the point of view of the need for us as a nation to pay more attention to science education. You may remember the way we had it, whereby from day one, we were engaged in things like nature study and the knowledge and care of the environment. We knew different types of plants, we knew different types of insects, we composed poems on insects, and we also had to deal with issues like having clean and trimmed nails and how you have to barb your hair, and so on. But now things are askew and somewhat distorted, and when you go to those primary schools now you don’t find the same rhythm. I mean, I am talking about the same place where I was taught about moons and half-moons and the sun and the galaxies, I mean, we learnt about these in our primary school, with the further development coming during the secondary school stage. So, some of the things that these academies would have to do is ensure that primary schools get it right in the area of early science education.
Now it’s great that we now feed people in primary school, its great but our children must go to school for something much more important than food. So, while the federal government is trying to ensure that these children have access to one free meal per day, they must also ensure that they are well taught. So, teacher preparation must be taken seriously. What are we doing about teacher education? How many teacher training colleges do we have now that can provide that?
But they will not ordinarily do that. So, I think that the academy has a responsibility to ensure that government is guided to do it.
Is there enough interest or critical awareness within the academia that this is the way to go, that we really need to stimulate very robust town-gown engagement?
I think the academy is fairly aware as to what their responsibilities must be. We know what to do, we know how to do it, but we do not have the political power and the contacts to achieve same at the moment as there is no deep engagement between those academies and government. Government does not see these academies as a part of the way forward; rather it spends time talking to the electorate even as that is the nature of our politics.
Now, our politicians are there for a short term, but the academy is there forever, the people are there forever and the nation ad infinitum. We must find a way to combine their short-term interest with the long-term perspective. You know there was a time here when we used to talk of development and rolling plans and now, we are talking of annual budgets which we spend five months to pass! So, what is the purpose of such annual budgets?
So why don’t we just do a five-year budget or a three-year budget and have provisions for intervention? For example, we can say the budget we are doing for 2019 could take us straight to 2022, but with yearly interventions so we can then focus on implementation. Would that not be better? But they would rather go and do the yearly things. ‘I might not be here in 2020, so let me just do this for one year.’ But then we discover that at the end of the day, we have not exactly passed an annual budget. We are actually passing six months budgets which we want to consume in one year! So there is trouble.
You have also been involved with business in a sense, Chams Plc, Zinox Technologies; you have gone to the market, the stock market, you’ve been involved with several other institutions within and outside and there is also the Technical University in Oyo State. You have this breadth of exposure, experience which we think we don’t see every day in the academia. Would more of such engagements be useful overall? Is this the way to go?
That would be very useful. You know my interest is in getting the town and gown to more mutually interact in a mutually beneficial way. If you look at the institutions that I’m involved with, including Zenith Bank and the Jim Ovia Foundation, you would see that they have something in common. They are trying to impact on society through technology application. You know several years ago, I discovered that technology is going to turn things round. When I say technology, don’t think I’m talking of just Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Biology alone. I’m even thinking of the humanities. If you see the wonderful works that people in the arts, even as mass communicators do to influence the minds of the public, you would see a scientific streak in all these. So when I say technology for example, I mean more than bare science as we know it.
When we go to the field of ICT, when we started, we were just concerned with IT. But now we talk about what amount of communication should it encompass; just like when you started this interview, you set out to gauge my voice level. That is fundamental. You were trying to ensure that what I say is what the audience would hear. And that is the foundation of the production process for all telecommunications equipment today. So we have gone beyond basic IT. So if you can do IT, the question would be ‘IT for what?’ That is why everybody now talks of ICT. In fact, in some big centres, their ICT complexes are not managed by a computer scientist or a physicist but by probably a history graduate because he understands how we impart knowledge. Historians would tell you about history and historical trends and we would casually say ‘they are lying’ because we cannot put it together but know from study that this history they’ve told you now is likely going to repeat itself. As a matter of fact, some of them would be ‘mad’ enough to develop cycles. They would say an event had happened in 1900 and that it also happened in 1940 and that following the same pattern of cycles, it would happen again in 1980 and 2020.
Now they are predicting events. As a scientist, we have rules for predicting events based on the data we have. We can say this is the trend. So we can see that historians are mathematicians and statisticians. They are communicating because knowledge is pure. That is why we don’t award a person PhD Mass Communication. The certificate just says that you are a Doctor of Philosophy, and may add that it is in a particular area. However my PhD in engineering is equivalent to your PhD in Yoruba Language or Igbo Language because fundamentally it is this concept of philosophy that underlines all of it.
So I agree with you that we need to get the academia to move around a little bit and interact with the community and let the community interact with them in order to bring about the needed change. And personally, I choose to encourage people who are going into advancing the frontiers of technology. There could be another person whose interest is just to ensure that the public understands what the people are saying.
One of my ambitions when I was Vice-Chancellor at the University of Lagos was to help ensure that the budget process was squarely straightforward. By January 2nd or 3rd, the President would announce the budget every year. And by January 15, the Minister and the Director of Budget would come and explain the budget to the press and people would come and ask questions about this and that. Then that was the end and they would go ahead to expend the budget.
At that time, my ambition was for this ceremony to be holding at the University of Lagos. When people talk about the fact that there is a problem between ASUU and the Federal Government, my view is that it is not unusual. Of course there would be problems because the foundation of the budget has not involved the academia. In our time, it is the academia that they would reach out to come and help put the budget together. This is not happening anymore. I remember as a young academic, there were several times they would invite us, camp us in a place and then we would come out with inputs on what the nation should do in various areas. It could be in irrigation, roads, bridges and railways. And then they would put all of these ideas together, and the economists would come and take it from there. The fact that initiatives like these are no longer happening partly explain why you are seeing all of the ping-pong today: ‘you have money;’ ‘no, we don’t have money!’ Using the broad consultation model of the past, everybody would know what we have and everything would be open to all. In fact, they would have included in the budget that they would do this and that .But then the beautiful thing we have in Nigeria is that our people are very resilient. If you as a mass communicator, you live in North Korea, you have never been to Nigeria before, and you look at the Nigerian education system, you will conclude: ‘Oh, these guys are always on strike; how would they learn, what time do they have to learn?’ You would just write us off totally. And that has already happened in a way. But thank God our people are continuing to show the mettle of which they are made.
One of your points of town engagement has had to do with serving on the board of Jim Ovia’s James Hope College. Is there something that we can take from schools like James Hope into the public school system to make the task of boosting the overall quality of intakes that come into the universities?
Yes, we can do a lot of things. What goes on for successful enterprise even in the private sector is firstly, planning. You need to plan. You need to forecast. You need to set out your targets. James Hope for example set out its target: ‘we want to produce some of the best students that compare with those produced from anywhere in the world.’ Now that is the target. The second step is ‘how do we get this done?’ This then implies that within the Nigerian environment you have to attract the best students from a wide range of schools. From all over the world too, you have to attract the best teachers. When we went to school in those days (primary and secondary schools), that was the vision. When we set up schools we would say: ‘I want to set up a school that would be like King’s College; that would be like Government College, Umuahia.’ That is ambition. Then you would look for the best headmaster or principal you can get. And that person must have a passion to excel because the more he achieves the more incentives he gets. And we can do that. Even in private institutions, there are criteria you have to meet to ensure that you are admitted into that class. We are not going to do and achieve much in a distorted arena. Even with private institutions that are running against better-fitted alternatives, there are no sentiments. Parents would take all the children and put them in another school and you are closed.
But in the public school arena in Nigeria today it’s a mixed field. I don’t know whether it is politics that has caused this distortion. Sometimes, I wonder whether we have never done politics in this country before. And I have had the opportunity of living in Lagos and also working in the South east or Eastern Nigeria. And that opportunity, if we are to ask an historian, he would say it seems cyclical because my father also had such an opportunity as he was involved in the livestock industry there. But that is the nature of the country that we are that ordinarily allows such interactions, these movements without any bias.
I was here at Unilag in 1971 when a group of people declared they were indigenes. In fact, the popularization of the word indigenes may have started then and they went to see the Vice Head of State and they said they were being prevented from writing their examinations because they could not pay their fees. So the man now thought through the challenge and said ‘I would give you scholarships so that you would do your exams but be prepared to serve anywhere in Nigeria.’ So they all signed the prepared forms and those are the set of people then that went all over the country: the north, the south, the east. So you had this form of interaction. Maybe at that time they were already thinking of a national youth service scheme which was to take off later. Anyway, those are the things we experienced.
So, when we start talking unduly about state of origin today, it is a different matter. Then, everybody was simply there. You play with your colleagues and classmates. There was interaction. This is also when this idea of ‘where you come from’ was introduced and which is now very sadly threatening to destroy Nigeria as we know it. If we don’t quickly reverse it, that could be the end of Nigeria. In fact, now we are celebrating Zik who was more of a Yoruba man than an Igbo man. He grew up in Yorubaland with institutions like West African Pilot and all of that. And we can say about the same for Ojukwu even as there is a Yoruba Street in Kano. This country has the human resources to drive its growth. Let’s find out how much on the average our people overseas are earning and find out how much we are earning from oil. We have a lot of opportunity in this country. And in this, the academia would have to lead from the front because politicians’ knowledge is limited just like their tenure. They don’t look beyond their tenure.
There has been this discussion about the Education Trust Fund’s exclusive support for public tertiary institutions. Private universities are asking why can’t they be accommodate given that education is regarded first as a social service. Is it possible to work out a mechanism for private universities to be accommodated in the programme?
I believe so. Some private universities, even though very little, are performing some of their obligations to government. They are producing Nigerian-trained students. But there should be some criteria. I believe the criteria should be the same as that applied in those days of secondary schools’ emergence in the then Western Region for example. Grants can be given on an outcome-based incentive structure for private universities. If you do well and you win this award and competition, and you are able show you’ve been able to spend a lot of time, money and energy, as a university in training manpower for the nation, then you can be compensated through the building of a hall or hostel for you. The thing is that even for federal universities they do not allow or support the casual transfer of funds. So I am not generally opposed to private universities benefitting from the fund. And again, they are also paying taxes.
Let us talk about the overall state of education. We have the question of out-of-school children. We have the Millennium Development Goals that we did not meet and now the Social Development Goals that have been set for 2030? But we seem to be a bit fixated on building infrastructure like roads and rails. Without discountenancing the importance of that, is it not necessary to work a better balance between human capital and physical capital?
Yes, I agree with you. Only recently, I was coming back from Ibadan and that road may now qualify as being one of the worst roads in the world! But I also noticed two things: an IDP camp and new railway lines crossing. What comes to my mind is how do we maintain them? I learnt that the contractors are Chinese. In those days, the National Manpower Board would have done their survey. Their result would form the basis of the type of curriculum to be designed and the thrust of the admissions process. There must be a synergy between all of these infrastructures. We can have beautiful infrastructure but if you don’t have the maintenance and management it becomes a failure. If we have decided that railways are going to support and supplement our growth process, we need to ensure that polytechnics start training people in railway technology. We need to develop human capability to be able to support it. That is what happens when we do manufacturing.
These are the kinds of trends going on but we can influence our politicians to do the right thing.
I am seeing something about politics getting in the way of simple common things that we should be doing. For example, there’s an emphasis on agriculture. Are there things that science can bring in to help in terms of value addition, capacity and earnings per yield and hectare?
We must make agriculture attractive. Agriculture is hard work. Many young people would rather not do agriculture if they have their way. If we can look at the terrain and put in incentives along the way, it would help. Even in the United States, a lot of the agriculture there is subsidized. We need to find a careful way to introduce those subsidies. There is hardly any university in Nigeria that does not have a faculty of agriculture. Let us find an efficient way of doing it. We need to be more organized and dedicated.
There is a recent EFCC report about the high rates of internet or ‘Yahoo Yahoo’ fraud among students in the Ladoke Akintola University which very sadly had closed down for many months every year across the past three or four years. Is there something we need to do to make sure the schools keep running?
Our current strategy is not sustainable. We must do everything to make sure that our schools never close down. Some of them are closed due to plain carelessness. There is no continuity. Even the appointment of incoming VCs is not well structured. In fact, it is a real wonder how people that have the opportunity to transfer knowledge really do so in our present system.
Some people think that we are not getting enough quality in terms of our university output. Would this conclusion be justified?
The community is right to say that the quality that they are getting is poor. In the past, there was what we would call a functional tutorial system. Every subject in the sciences must have a laboratory session running into about six hours every week. You have in the team a laboratory attendant, a laboratory technologist and/or assistant lecturers trying to teach you and get you to participate in the tutorial as a student. This is no longer completely given. There is a crying need now for strong intervention in the fortunes of the education sector. There is a need for proprietors, including government, to sit down and resuscitate the sector. In those days, tutorial classes did not have more than ten participants. Some state universities are still doing tutorials today but as for federal universities, a ‘civil service attitude’ of sorts has now permeated the system.
A university that was set up for five thousand students now has thirty thousand students. Would the demographic upsurge be part of the problem?
Yes, that would be part of the problem. It is the responsibility of those agencies that are meant to monitor universities for strict compliance to address this. When we set up a university or accreditation is done at a university, there is a number you should have. Then why have more?
What about the issue of carrying capacity? Who is checking?
The NUC is supposed to check. They must find and put in place a system of continuous, and not just periodic checking. It has to be done properly. Some of these things can be done. When I’m accrediting you I may need to take your BVN data. Again, you cannot be in two places at the same time. Information Technology has made life easy for us. We can solve all our problems with honesty.
You were a Western Region scholar and Nigeria has been good to you. Now, you meet a brilliant hardworking young man, say in the third or final year and he says ‘I wants to keep working hard, but I can’t see the rewards that Nigeria has for me.’ What would you say to encourage such a person?
Unfortunately, I cannot. Ten years ago, I would show the person where the opportunities are – opportunities for self-employment, opportunities about support places, opportunities of where to find work, or even to introduce you for jobs. But now, I am sorry I cannot in all good conscience say that it is as it used to be. I would simply encourage him to do his best and point out to him that there are opportunities ALL OVER THE WORLD. How would you do otherwise when you see that you have a lot of first-class graduates that have no jobs! How would tell your son to his face that in spite of all of the challenges that are so evident that he should continue to suffer in Nigeria? That is wicked. Ten years ago, I would even have said that our very bright students would not even need to look for jobs as people and organizations would beg such bright graduates to come and work for them. But I can’t say that now.
The point about brain drain; we are having this large number of Nigerians going abroad even from the academia. Does the country not appreciate that it needs to fight to redress this situation?
I was the chairman of a committee on this subject and we did very extensive work on it. And we made extensive recommendations then and some of them were taken and implemented. The simple truth is that the economy needs to improve. Look at how much energy that we recently spent on getting the minimum wage to be increased to thirty thousand. We need to work very hard on revamping this economy. We are not going to generate growth and jobs through quota system. I listen to news everyday and those sport analysts never use where people come from as a basis for gauging their ability to win.
As a country, we need to get the best brains that we have and put them to work to ensure that things turnaround. It does not help us if we do otherwise. It does not even help the people you think you are helping rather it discourages them too because they are not doing what they really can. Rather, they are carrying on with a distorted notion that they are representing their own ‘constituency’ and as such everything must be brought back to that ‘constituency.’ That is the implication of all what we are doing. Thank God Nigeria has a robust natural economy in the main. If it had been an ordinary or less endowed country, the nation could have collapsed. What we are hearing about in places like Sudan would have just been child’s play.